Construction to begin on new library in spring

On Monday, President Falk announced that construction of the new Sawyer Library, which has been delayed since October 2008, will commence this spring. The project is priced at $80 million, half of which is to be funded by pledged philanthropic support, and is slated for completion in 2014.

“The library project is something that has been discussed for more than a decade,” Falk said. “At the time I arrived here in April, the project was completely designed with final construction documents. In [Vice President for Operations] Steve Klass’ words, it was as ‘shovel-ready’ a project as you could ever see. We were just waiting for the economic environment to be appropriate.”
Construction on the library, which is part of the larger Stetson-Sawyer project that includes Hollander and Schapiro Halls, was originally set to begin in the fall of 2008. In the wake of the economic downturn, the Board of Trustees decided to suspend the project – a decision that was reaffirmed in January 2010.

Falk said he has spent time working to develop philanthropic commitments since last April. Between new gifts from donors and the already-pledged funds for the library, total philanthropic support for the library now amounts to more than half of the project’s slated cost. Falk added that the vast majority of the pledges have developed since April.

The other half of the project, Falk said, will be funded by debt on the part of the College. “The College carries a portfolio of debt,” Falk said. “The debt for half of the library construction is an amount the College feels it can take on with more confidence than the debt that would be required to fund the entire project.”

According to Provost Bill Lenhart, the College is in a better financial position now than when the project was put on hold two years ago. “The economic climate and the College’s financial position have improved [since the project was postponed],” Lenhart said, citing the stabilization of markets and the regaining of some of the endowment’s lost value. He added that the College has reduced its spending in recent years to more sustainable levels.

“Taken together, we believe these changes put us in a position of sufficient financial strength to resume this important project,” Lenhart said.

Despite the large-scale nature of the project, both Falk and members of the committee overseeing the design and construction of the new library believe that it will in fact be completed in 2014.

“If the first phase of the Stetson-Sawyer project (construction of Hollander and Schapiro Halls) is any indication, the library will be built on time and on budget,” said Michael Brown, professor of anthropology, who co-chairs the project. “I have great confidence that the project will stay on schedule.”

In the years of the delay, the committee overseeing the library project, headed by Brown and College Librarian Dave Pilachowski, has examined the project both for sustainability and for flexibility of space. They have planned a building that will likely receive LEED certification for sustainability, as both Hollander and Schapiro Halls have. The plans for the library also incorporate raised floors and movable partitions, allowing for changes that may be desired years in the future.

“Sawyer is not a flexible building, and it would require major upgrades soon,” Falk said. “It can’t accommodate the way students work now. They work in groups, in interdisciplinary ways, but Sawyer has 400 individual carrels. In the new library, there will be more group study spaces. This is an extraordinarily exciting project – it’s a library for the 21st century.”

According to Falk, the detailed nature of the designs will help keep the project on time and on budget.

“We will be rigorous about building the library that has been designed,” Falk said. “It’s a complicated project, but we have a realistic schedule and understand the project very well. We’re going into this project will as deep an understanding of the details as I can imagine. There are very few unknowns.”

For both Falk and Brown, the completion of the Stetson-Sawyer project will change the campus for the better – not only visually, with the opening of the area between Hollander and Schapiro, but also by providing a more efficient and modern intellectual space.

“The new library brings together and integrates key elements of a great liberal arts learning center,” Brown said, mentioning library resources and staff, world-class IT assets, the College’s archival holdings, and the Chapin Library’s book collection. “All this will be located only a few steps from the offices of about half of the Williams faculty,” he added. According to Brown, some faculty members will have offices within the library itself in the restored upper floors of Stetson.

“When completed, the new library will be as important to the intellectual life of the north side of campus as the unified Science Center has been to the south,” Brown said.