It was a warm spring day when an estimated crowd of 500 gathered at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 28, 1950, for the new library’s groundbreaking ceremony. This was one of the first events occurring with alumni reunions, baccalaureate services and commencement exercises planned for Sunday and Monday.
Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College President Henry G. Bennett served as the master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking. Dignitaries used gold-painted spades to shovel out small divots of soil. Colonel Robert T. Stuart represented the board of regents. Library Director Edmon Low made a brief statement. Distinguished guests were in the crowd including the Oklahoma attorney general, legislators, higher education board members, and visitors from across the state and nation.
Those manning the shovels included a member of the first graduation class, Alfred E. Jarrell, who had traveled from Bakersfield, California. Jarrell, his parents, and siblings were living in Stillwater when the territorial governor signed the legislation establishing the college on December 25, 1890. Jarrell’s parents made available 40 acres from their homestead to establish the college campus in Stillwater, and the new library would be located on the property formerly owned by his family.
The groundbreaking ceremony ended decades of frustration, financial challenges, and local business conflicts that had delayed construction of the college library. Two decades had passed since Bennett and architect Philip A. Wilber proposed the OAMC campus master plan in 1930. Bennett began serving as president of the college during the summer of 1928. During his first two years in office, he began to formulate a vision that would eventually alter and transform the small land grant college into a major university. Working with architects Wilber and D.A. Hamilton, Bennett proposed expanding the campus footprint, designing a number of new facilities that would become the homes for his academic hopes and dreams.
Heart of the campus
The centerpiece for the campus was to be an academic library that would dramatically exceed in style and structure anything the college community previously envisioned. It would be surrounded by a system of roads and sidewalks that would converge at the new heart of the college campus. For years, library holdings of books and research materials were spread across campus in up to 23 locations. This arrangement had frustrated library staff attempting to provide needed services and was an inefficient utilization of limited resources with duplicate materials often housed at different locations. Finally, all of these services and resources would be located in one facility. When completed, the new library would be one of the five largest open stack academic libraries in the nation.
Attempts to fund construction at the end of the Great Depression in 1938 failed when the state was unable to match a federal Public Works Administration grant that Bennett and his staff had secured. Campus priorities changed during World War II, and most permanent construction projects were put on hold. After the war ended, discussions began again regarding construction of the new library. Funds were secured from a state appropriation, state bond funds, and the sale of library revenue bonds.
Edmon Low joined Bennett and Wilber in the efforts to securing a new library with his appointment as the college librarian on September 1, 1940. Low was 38 years old and had been born in Kiowa, Indian Territory, graduated from Tishomingo High School, attended college at East Central State, and worked in the library there until 1929 when he left to attain a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois. He received his master’s degree in library science from the University of Michigan in 1938, then became head librarian at Bowling Green State University in Ohio before returning to Oklahoma.
Low and Bennett would spend the next decade planning and designing the academic library of the future with Wilber’s assistance. Bennett proved to be a valuable mentor for Low, encouraging him to build professional relationships and become more comfortable when making public presentations. At the end of the war, Low began touring other libraries and visiting with librarians across the nation. He worked very closely with the president’s office and the campus architects to share these experiences and insights, hoping to integrate the best features from libraries nationwide. Low ultimately supported a modular construction form using interior support columns surrounded by an outside shell. This would allow for the greatest flexibility of interior spaces and a structure sound enough to support the extra floor-load levels necessary for shelving thousands of books. Conceptions, planning, designs and redesigns had taken place for more than two decades.
A large team assisted Wilber and Hamilton, who had become the head of architecture at the college. R.E. Means focused on creating adequate footings, which would be extremely important for the massive structure and higher floor load capacity needs. Rex Cunningham developed the designs for the front of the building, Raymond Lovelady coordinated the interior color selections, and Chaplin Bills and Jim Thorne were in charge of construction inspections.
In October 1948, the first contracts were approved, but the project stumbled immediately. In the original plans, the building was located in the middle of State Highway 1, also known as the Albert Pike Highway, and locally as Washington Street. But dramatically increasing enrollments led to questioning this idea, and eventually the college worked to close this section of the highway and reroute it away from the center of campus. Business interests south of the college sought an injunction to keep Washington Street open through campus, halting construction for another 18 months before being resolved through legislation and the state courts.
Ultimately, three contracts were approved from 1948 to 1951 with the Manhattan Construction Company of Muskogee, Oklahoma, to build the new library. These contracts totaled more than $3.1 million. Bennett had suggested starting construction before funds were available. The college president stated that he was considering moving the project along without authorized state support. When asked how that could be possible, Bennett replied he would start excavation at the site, saying, “Nobody is going to leave that big hole in the ground. I’ll parade them (state legislators) by that big hole full of water, and they’ll appropriate the money for it.”
With the final resolution of all outstanding complications, work began at the site in June 1950. The excavation subcontractor, E. H. Holtzen Company from Enid, removed 419,000 cubic feet of soil and subsoil, piling much of it on the lawns and gardens south of the construction site. The library would have six floors and was designed in the modified Georgian style that was the template for all construction in the 25-year plan. Concrete, steel and marble began rising up from the basement level. The exterior surfaces were soon added to complete the shell of the facility. The interior would have almost four acres of floor space.
In addition to the brick and stone exterior, the building would also feature Italian marble and Minnesota Kasota limestone. Kasota was known for being resistant to wear and weathering. Five types of marble came from Italy and one from Belgium. There were four additional sources of marble that were not recorded. Botticini caps were placed on top of the two marble lobby columns that extended from the first to the fourth floor. Each cap weighed 1 ton. The library reached 182 feet in height and was topped with a Williamsburg-style tower. Three massive bronze doors provided the main entrance on the south face of the building. This entrance was described as magnificent, elegant and grand. There were also doors on the east and west sides, but no entrance from the north. A fountain bowl of black granite with water features was placed on the south terrace. It weighed 3 tons.
The console room under the library tower housed the keyboard for the carillon bells, which would ring throughout the day and during special occasions. Additional music scores and music rolls for automated playing similar to those used in a player piano were also kept there.
Three elevators and three sets of stairs provided access to all floors. The third set of stairs at the center of the building was initially used exclusively by library staff, but was eventually opened to the public. A service elevator on the west side of the building moved larger loads between the basement, first and second floors.
The new library was only the second building on campus with air conditioning that both cooled the air and adjusted the relative humidity levels. This provided more comfort for library patrons and delivered a better environment for the books and collections housed in the building.
New furniture and furnishings cost $425,000. Utilities, and other mechanical equipment, brought the total expenditures to almost $4.5 million. Some mechanical equipment costs were reduced when the college purchased a used 1,000-ton capacity air conditioning unit. This war surplus item had been at a shipbuilding facility in Louisiana. Located in the library, the air conditioning unit also provided cooled air to the new Classroom Building southeast of the library.
The interior was designed to hold more than 1 million books, manuscripts, documents and other items, including a music library and map room. At its opening, the library only had 400,000 volumes, and it was anticipated that it would take decades to fill. In addition to generous study areas, there were special enclosed study carrels for faculty and graduate students. The common seating areas could seat 2,500 students.
It was determined that suitable study areas required excellent lighting for reading. One-third of the entire ceiling surface area throughout was filled with recessed lighting fixtures that required six miles of fluorescent light bulbs. General Electric designed and developed this system specifically for this type of use, and the installation here was the first application of this type for a library in the world.
The library staff began transferring books and other resources into the new building on January 12, 1953. A wooden slide transferred items from the second floor of the old library to a truck parked at street level. A cart could transfer up to two shelves of books down the ramp with each pass. Books had been tied directly to their old shelves or bound together to be loaded on the transfer cart. This was done for convenience and to keep them in call number order. After arrival at the new library, all items were unbound and cleaned using a vacuum before being reshelved.
The books in the library were arranged on open stacks that could be accessed directly by library users. The OAMC Library was one of the first academic libraries to utilize this progressive adaptation for personal access, allowing patrons to browse the shelves. While Princeton, Harvard and Rice University libraries had open stacks, most libraries at this time still required a library staff member to locate the books in closed stacks and retrieve them for the patron.
Materials in the OAMC Library were organized into seven subject areas: Biological Sciences with Agriculture, and Physical Sciences with Engineering, were on the first floor. Home Economics was on the third floor. Humanities, Education, Documents, and Social Sciences were on the fourth floor. There were still some limited controls to access. Each subject area had its own entrance and exit turnstiles. Staff members controlled the exits electronically, preventing anyone from leaving the subject area before properly checking out the materials they were taking.
All books were listed on cards arranged by title, author and subject in the central card catalog on the second floor. The library also utilized the Dewey Decimal system to assist in determining the subject locations for the books. To find a particular book, the patron would locate the appropriate card in the file drawers, refer to the directory nearby for the subject location determined by the Dewey number, go to that location in the library, retrieve it from the shelves, and check it out from that subject desk. Books were checked out in each subject area and expected to be returned to the area where they had been checked out. Each subject area also had its own study spaces.
The second floor was designated for general reference services, formal reading areas and library operations. The basement and fifth floors provided space for the advanced studies of faculty and graduate students. The fourth floor also provided group study rooms, typing rooms, and one location designated for the use of microfilm. Four microfilm/microcard readers provided access to this new form of information access and exchange. The library map collection, under the guidance of Dr. Angie Debo, was also provided a new home on the third floor. A rare book room, containing historical items of interest for the college, Stillwater and Oklahoma was designated.
The new OAMC Library was accessible to the public for the first time on January 28, 1953. The building was open from 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and from 2-10 p.m. Sunday. However, not everyone was happy that library resources were under one roof. Many academic departments had enjoyed the convenience of library books and periodicals in resource rooms near their offices and classrooms. Complaints were made to Edmon Low, the college library committee, and the president’s office. All three resisted the efforts of these academic departments to retain their library resources, but they did compromise by utilizing the subject arrangement approach within the new library.
Six months after the library groundbreaking ceremony, Henry Bennett was named by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to serve as the first director for the Point Four Program designed to coordinate the nation’s international development efforts. Bennett was given a leave of absence from the college; for the next year, he would travel to 33 countries and visit over 100 projects supported by the U.S. government. Bennett, his wife Vera, and 19 others died in a plane crash near Teheran, Iran, on December 22, 1951. While he would never see the library completed, it was his vision and influence that brought about its existence. Bennett had once described the library as “the intellectual nerve center of A and M” and had placed it at the heart of the campus he had envisioned 23 years earlier.
The library dedication was held at 2 p.m. Friday, May 8, 1953, in conjunction with the college’s presidential inauguration of Oliver S. Willham. The ceremonies were held in the College Auditorium with Edmon Low presiding. Guy Redvers Lyle, the director of libraries at Louisiana State University, spoke on “The Launching.” The dedication was given by Dr. Robert Bingham Downs, president of the American Library Association. He closed with this statement:
“It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction now to declare this library dedicated to the service of present and future generations of young men and women, who will obtain their first insights and inspiration here; to the many scholars and research workers, whose contributions to knowledge will be immensely facilitated by its resources; and to all the citizens of a great state, whose lives will be enriched, directly and indirectly, by its presence here.”
At the close of the dedication, the audience was invited to tour the library. As the crowd strolled across campus from the auditorium to the library, the carillon bells were played in the library tower. The musical selections were a recital of Dr. and Mrs. Bennett’s favorite hymns performed by Carl Amt. Bell master Arthur Lynds Bigelow at Princeton University and Louvain, Belgium, played a 45-minute concert on the carillon. Amt, a member of the college music faculty, had attended Princeton the previous year for training on the carillon under the direction of Bigelow. The inaugural banquet for Willham took place that evening at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom.
It had taken three years to complete construction of the fifth-largest academic library in the nation. The enormous structure far exceeded the expectations of almost everyone. But Dr. Bennett had noticed something three years earlier at the groundbreaking that caused him some concern regarding the future of the facility. The evening after the groundbreaking ceremony, he phoned assistant dean of engineering M. R. “Pete” Lohmann to discuss the location of the new library based on where the stakes had been placed to begin construction. Bennett felt that the building needed to be moved south 40 to 50 feet. Originally the south façade was in line with the Engineering and Biology Buildings to its east and west. Bennett reasoned, however, that if an addition to the library was ever considered it would be to the north side of the facility. There would be no space for this future construction to the north unless the original building was moved southward. No one else had ever considered the possible necessity of an addition. Lohmann and industrial engineering professor H. G. Thuesen returned to the construction site and reset the corners 50 feet further south. An addition to the library was added less than 15 years after the main building was completed.
On April 11, 1977, the Oklahoma State University Library was renamed to honor Edmon Low, the man who had shared Henry Bennett’s dream of a progressive academic library located at the heart of Oklahoma’s first land-grant university and had helped make it a reality. This facility was completed 63 years after the founding of the institution and now has served the university for 63 years, proving its adaptability to an ever-changing academic environment.
A D R E A M R E A L I Z E D
I deem it a rare privilege, friends, to represent the board of regents for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges in receiving this magnificent new library building from the college’s own brilliant architect who designed it — Mr. Philip Wilber. • But we who are gathered here at this eventful time in the history of Oklahoma A and M College are dedicating not just a structure of strength and beauty than which there is none finer, but also its unexcelled facilities and its several hundred thousand carefully and expertly selected books, which here provide in permanent form much of the world’s knowledge and wisdom. • We of the board of regents are honored to accept this splendid edifice in which we meet with its multiplied thousands of books. These have been assembled with much thought and study by men and women who have devoted many hours of effort to this project. All of this has been done for us — and for many generations to come. • The cost of this building is great — in money, in thought, and in human endeavor. But its potential value as an institution of service is unlimited. Its worth cannot be evaluated in monetary terms — it must be measured in the hearts and minds of our people. This truly great library is a fulfilled longtime dream of the late Dr. Henry G. Bennett. It is our hope and our prayer that it will serve the teachers and the students of Oklahoma A and M College in such ways, and only in such ways, as will make of them more loyal citizens of their country, more complete individuals throughout the whole of their lives, better informed men and women for the work that they will do. • May hundreds of thousands of American youth and their teachers leave this building in decades to come, wiser and better for having read and studied here!
— Colonel Robert T. Stuart, OAMC Board of Regents, Address at 1953 Library Dedication.
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Uploaded on May 1, 2016