The Mui Ho Fine Arts Library: Resource and Refuge

View from fine arts library
View from the top of Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, by Carla DeMello, Library Communications

I was an architectural librarian for most of my career before being appointed Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University in August 2017. Working successively at the Royal Institute of British Architects (London), the Canadian Centre for Architecture (Montreal), and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library (New York City), I observed firsthand and on many occasions the special relationship between architecture and libraries. In my opinion, this can be traced to the legacy of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman architect who wrote the first and arguably the most influential surviving treatise on architecture in the first century BCE. But whether architects work within the Western tradition or not, it seems to me that no other profession has quite such a close relationship with libraries and their physical contents—the books, periodicals, prints, drawings, and archives that collectively give meaning to the art of building.

Wolfgang Tschapeller’s design for the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, that opened August 5, 2019, brings that relationship into focus. It makes over 100,000 volumes on architecture, the arts, and urban studies accessible and within easy reach of every AAP faculty member and student as well as every other member of the Cornell community. The books and their shelving form a sculptural whole, a breathtaking tribute to the potential of the printed word and image to inspire learning, research, creativity, and innovation. Yet, new technologies will offer an equally important gateway to knowledge. Here, surely, the building’s designer has given us an intentional and playful contrast between two floating worlds: the physical world of books and journals and the weightless world of the internet. In this unique space, each derives added meaning from the other.

Libraries are at their best when they serve as both resource and refuge. Yes, the expertise of library staff at the Mui Ho Fine Arts Library is sure to be one of the main reasons students and faculty visit the space.  Combined with its outstanding collections, this expertise guarantees that students and faculty alike will find themselves rewarded with answers every time they visit the library, even if those answers lead to further questions. But I predict it will also serve as a haven, a home for those who seek a place for quiet reflection. Its unique architectural form guarantees, I think, that it will be a true landmark, a place where quiet contemplation can bring new energy to Cornell University’s academic enterprise.

Gerald Beasley, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian

Gerald R. Beasley

Carl A. Kroch University Librarian

Cornell University

This piece will also appear in the Fall 2019 issue of AAP’s newsletter.

Views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not represent endorsement by Cornell University.