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Opening a New Library in Tough Times

Here's Why and How We Did It

David Tyckoson, California State University | Apr 01, 2009

On February 20, 2009, the new Henry Madden Library at our university opened to the public. At 360,000 square feet and US $105 million, this was the largest academic project ever at Fresno State, resulting in the largest library at any of the California State University system campuses.

At a time when the world economy is in the worst recession (maybe even depression) in our lifetime, at a time when universities and libraries of all types are slashing budgets, why did this happen? Why did we build a library and make it the largest academic building on campus in an era when "everything is on the Internet"? And did we experience, along the way, any bumps due to the turbulence of these economic times?

Following is our story, which I hope may help other administrators facing completing or needing to launch construction of new libraries despite the challenging economic climate.

Meet an established need

Although our new library opened in 2009, the process to create it took a long time. From his arrival on campus in 1989, former dean Michael Gorman worked with the university administration to promote the need for a new library building. The previous building (opened in 1956, and added onto in 1981) had long since reached capacity. Shelves occupied space needed for seating, and the building was completed before today's standard information technology was even a dream. Retrofitting or adding to the building became prohibitive. Over the years, a new library building rose to the top of the list of campus building needs.

Secure stable funding

Nothing destroys a capital project faster than losing its funding. If a project's budget is reduced while the project is in process, an envisioned large building that truly meets the needs of a campus can become a bare-bones building that isn't much of an improvement over an existing structure.

At Fresno, the new library project didn't begin until a stable funding base was identified. For this project, a 2003 statewide bond issue provided that funding. With the tireless work of the library dean and university president, the new library at Fresno State was designated for $90 million fromProposition 55.When that bond issue passed, the library project took off.

Design for the ages, not for today

Once you have secure funding, the hard work begins. What does a 21st-century library look like?What services, technologies and features affect the architecture of a new library? Do we build the best library of today—or a building that will function today, tomorrow and long into the future? This is a balancing act with no clear answer.

At Fresno, we wanted a building that would grow and evolve over time. As a result, we incorporated several design features that we believe will adapt to future needs. These features include emphasizing flexible open spaces and making technology ubiquitous.

Plan a realistic timeline and expect challenges

After the passage of the bond act in March 2003, an architect, A.C. Martin from Los Angeles, was hired and basic designs developed. Since we were replacing an existing building, we moved out in 2005 and tore it down in 2006. The 1981 addition served as our home until May 2008, when we moved out completely to allow for renovation of that area. The entire project was to be completed by the end of December 2008.

From May through December 2008, we were forced to provide library services with minimal physical facilities. All of the books were in a warehouse 12 miles from campus and were paged on request. Reference and circulation services were conducted out of a temporary location, and staff were scattered around campus, with the majority sent to modular units (i.e., trailers). No classrooms were available for instruction. Despite these sometimes frustrating circumstances, we continued to provide all library services.

Know that even stable funding isn't always secure

In December 2008, the California governor announced a halt to all state construction projects in response to the state budget crisis. As we were using bond funds from 2003 and our project was 99% complete at the time, we assumed this halt wouldn't affect us. We were wrong. In very difficult economic times, even secure funds are at risk.

Since the project was so close to finish, the campus negotiated with the construction company, Swinerton, to complete work on the building. Unfortunately, we had not yet paid for most of our new furniture and the earmarked funds were now frozen. In addition to the furniture, those funds were to pay for other finishing details, such as signs, window coverings and book trucks.

When times are tough, people need libraries more than ever.

It looked like we would have a new building with no signage, no place to sit and no trucks to use in shelving materials. After considerable deliberation, we decided to go ahead and open our new building using as much old and borrowed furniture as possible.We repossessed our old book trucks and paid for our own signs. To pay for new signs, we used library operations funds instead of building project funds. We felt new signage was important enough to forgo using those operations funds for other needs. The determining factor guiding the reopening was that our users — students and faculty — deserved a full-service library again.


Fortunately, our users looked beyond the old and borrowed furniture and saw the new library for what it really is: the academic centerpiece of campus. From the first day, they've flocked to the building. Using books and computers and journals, they sit in every type of space. They meet with friends, drink their coffee and experience the new library. Before we opened, we were a great new building. Now that our faculty and students are using it, we are a great new library.

When times are tough, people need libraries more than ever. Although it may be more difficult to get funding for a new library in today's economic environment, that money is never better spent. A library is the centerpiece of its community, whether for a college, a city or a country. In Fresno, we see the new Madden Library as serving —and adapting to — the needs of our campus for decades to come.