Transforming a Princeton Icon: The Firestone Library Renovation Project

Posted on July 31, 2018

by Jared Flesher and the Library Communications staff

The once dimly lit, labyrinth-like corridors of Firestone Library—known for sending new visitors on Odyssean wanderings—have been transformed into open, easy-to-navigate spaces with natural light and smart, sustainable design features.

two students in a library study space surrounded by books Interior section of Graham Reading Room - through the book window. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Library, Photographer: Shelley Szwast

The Firestone Library Renovation Project, which began in 2010, is now nearly complete. For the past eight years, extensive work has created a modern facility that gracefully incorporates the iconic characteristics of the original 1948 building. The project goals aim to improve reader and study spaces; upgrade Rare Books & Special Collections areas; introduce sustainable building features; update HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and life-safety systems; and renovate graduate study rooms, exhibit spaces, and shelving areas in the library, according to the project website.

“The project is now approximately 85% complete,” said Library Facilities Manager, Margaret Kehrer. “We should be done by the end of the year and ready to celebrate its completion.”

students in library reading room Scribner Reading Room. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Library, Photographer: Shelley Szwast

Firestone’s recent renovations, which improve the navigability and comfort of the library, are completed with a sustainable future in mind. Among the most notable design elements of the project is an emphasis on allowing more natural light to flow into the building. Offices that previously ringed the perimeter of the building were moved inward, allowing for unobstructed views through energy-efficient windows. In what the architect calls “light harvesting,” skylights have been strategically added to the first floor spaces.

To make the library easier to navigate, the brightly lit main corridor on each floor has been oriented on a north/south axis with a designated color unique to each floor. For patrons lost among the stacks, this will serve as a compass point. The end panels of the bookshelves facing north are painted a darker shade, while the south end panels are lighter shades.

Additionally, a new “chilled beam” cooling system routes chilled water throughout the building and quietly cools the return air using a convection system, providing energy-efficient climate control by cooling the surrounding air. This system is also paired with new energy-efficient air handlers.

Further increases to efficiencies and space optimization include the library’s bathrooms, equipped with low-flow plumbing fixtures and relocated near the center of the building as part of a “stacked core” design. (Tip: If you’re looking for a bathroom, head toward the middle.)

exterior glass wall with card catalog wall art Firestone Library - 1st floor, southeast corridor, exterior glass wall of the Ellen and Leonard L. Milberg Gallery and wall of card catalog art. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Library, Photographer: Shelley Szwast

One of the most prominent changes is the library’s “intelligent” lighting. As patrons walk down a long row of bookshelves, the lights (a combination of energy-efficient LED and CFL lighting) brighten to illuminate just the portion of the row they’re browsing, and then dim down once there is no activity present.

card catalog wall Card catalog wall closeup by Jared Flescher

The redesign does, however, according to design architect Fred Fisher, preserve and enhance the “architectural fabric” of Firestone Library, which first opened in 1948. Many of the iconic elements of the original library design have been reused and repurposed, including chandeliers, curtains, tapestries, stonework, flooring, as well as preserving a few of the cherished heavyweight metal study carrels. The drawer faces of the analog card catalog, now retired, have become wall art that greets visitors off the main lobby as they enter the newly opened southeast areas of the library’s first floor.

When Firestone opened in 1948, it was the first large American university library constructed after World War II. Today, it is one of the world’s foremost research libraries, serving thousands of students, faculty, and scholars from around the world. The renovation project is scheduled to be complete by late 2018.

Topics: energy, buildings