A decade in the making, Firestone Library renovations are now complete

A tapestry in a reading room at Firestone Library.

The once dark, narrow corridors of Firestone Library at Princeton University have been replaced with spacious isles, comfortable study spaces, and rooms full of bright, natural light.

Located at the corner of Washington Road and Nassau Street, Firestone opened in 1948 and was the first large American university library that was built after World War II. Two additions were added to the library in 1978 and 1988, and the building is now about 430,000 square feet.

Firestone is one of the largest open-stack libraries in the world. It houses most of Princeton’s humanities and social sciences collections and specialized research support services. The building also houses rare books and special collections, the Cotsen Children’s Library, the Scheide Library, and public exhibition galleries, as well as the new center for digital humanities.

Over the last 10 years, the library has been transformed into a modern facility with sustainable design features that include a green roof. An effort was made to retain many of the iconic elements of the original library design, reusing and repurposing them in the renovated building. Original chandeliers, curtains, tapestries, stonework, flooring, and a few metal study carrels still remain, and even the drawer faces of the old card catalogs have become wall art that decorates a hallway on the first floor of the building.

Jeff Rowlands, the library’s director of finance and administration, said one of the top goals of the project was to create a sense of flow on every floor of the library. Before the renovation project, navigating the isles and corridors was sometimes like walking through a labyrinth. Visitors to the library now can see the entire length of the building on almost every floor. The columns on each floor also are a different color to give visitors a sense of where they are in such a large building. Faculty offices and other rooms were removed to create more space to house books. Those changes also created more natural light pouring in from the windows to shared spaces.

“The goal was to keep the same collections here after the renovations, which was a challenge because the stacks were closer together before,” Rowlands said. “To create the extra space, we had to move certain functions out of the building to an off-site facility.”

Rowlands said it was important to keep the books on site in the open stacks near related books for discovery purposes. A student might look for a book, find it, and discover other books around it that the student might not have known about, he said.

Another important part of the project was to create spaces students would want to use. A variety of study spaces from long tables to lounge chairs and sofas are spread throughout the building. Rowlands said one measure of the success of the renovation project has been the increased usage of the library. Over the last five years, Firestone has experienced almost a 63-percent increase in the number of people using the library.

One last project remains that was not included in the original renovation plans. Students like having a cafe in their libraries. This summer, the “Tiger Tea Room” will be added to Firestone. The cafe will offer beverages and snacks for purchase to fuel all those study sessions at the library.