By Stephanie Haeg
With Alcuin Library reopened, and with the exciting new redecoration and expansion, I thought it might be time to examine the history of this important building on campus. It’s home to a great many things: great concrete pillars, the St. John’s Bible Gallery (which will be opening next Thursday), various new classrooms, the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, the new coffee shop and of course the SJU Archives, where the history of the university can be uncovered.
Alcuin Library, named after St. Alcuin of York and dedicated in 1966, was part of a design that the SJU alumni magazine in 1964 described as “a comprehensive 100-year building plan.” This plan also led to the building of the Abbey Church and its famous bell banner, Tommy Hall, the Liturgical Press and the Prep School. The Alcuin Library was part of the second phase.
Marcel Breuer was the architect behind the Alcuin Library, and it can show if you’re looking; the Trees of Knowledge, as they are colloquially called, are reminiscent of the concrete grandeur that’s characteristic of the Abbey Church. Breuer designed Alcuin to be flexible and open with very few set rooms. This was meant to be an acknowledgement of the already changing technology, and the intention with Alcuin, like the rest of Breuer’s buildings, was to last for centuries to come.
The library was not free of controversy, however. Students picketed the dedication ceremony because of United States Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s attendance (they were protesting the war in Vietnam), and some students wrote letters to the editor in The Record declaring “Marcel Breuer must be starving to death. Everything he touches turns to concrete,” and dubbed him a “Twentieth Century Midas.”
But others were delighted by Alcuin’s various amenities, which the previous library at SJU lacked. These features might seem like common sense now, but they were points of awe for the students of 1966. They included things like air-conditioning, full carpet and state of the art equipment in the “listening room.”
It’s strange to think about SJU without the Alcuin Library these days, but it was a
huge change for the students during the 1960s. But I, for one, am just glad we’ve got air-conditioning in the building now.