Barret: The Inside Story

By Helen Watkins Norman
Photography by Robert Benson


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Somewhere, deep inside the honey-hued walls of Rhodes’ new Paul Barret, Jr. Library, a time capsule lies hidden. Three men who helped build Barret placed it there: Larry Pillow and Danny Grinder, who supervised the building’s construction, and the masonry foreman Bill Carmack. Each wrote a letter and folded it inside a King James Bible. They secured the Bible in a waterproof bag and concealed it behind stone and mortar for future generations to discover.

A secret time capsule is just one of the surprises embedded in Barret, a 136,000-square-foot gem of Gothic splendor and 21st-century efficiency. Through the grand entrance, up an imposing staircase, down handsome corridors, behind etched glass doors — no matter which path one follows, a surprise awaits at the end.

From the star-spangled dome atop the curved, second-floor reading room to the cloistered exterior walkways where laptop users can access the network wirelessly, Barret is a repository of unexpected treats and treasures. This is not your grandparents’ — or your parents’ — library.

“We dream of a library that is the new heart of the campus, serving as its architectural, intellectual and emotional center,” said Dr. William E. Troutt, president of the college, when ground was broken for the new facility. Here’s how Barret lives up to that dream, and then some.

Cool Quarters and Collaborative Work Space

Library planners were led by Troutt, architect Jane Wright, vice presidents Bob Johnson, Robert Llewellyn and Allen Boone and included the chair of the faculty committee on information and technology Steve Ceccoli, library director Lynne Blair and director of information technology services Charles Lemond ’69. The group had tall orders for the new facility that would carry the Paul Barret, Jr. name. Not only did they envision greatly enlarged space for the library’s collections and innovative technology, they imagined a structure that would “transform students, transform the campus and transform the work we do,” as one planning document noted. The facility was to knit together academic, extracurricular and residential elements of campus.

How do you build a library that does all that? By building a library that is more than a library — a combination library/technology information hub, student hangout and collaborative work arena.

Barret addresses many of the learning space needs on campus. A drawing card for the building is the abundance of collaborative work space, areas where groups of students or students and faculty can gather to work on a project or topic, academic or extracurricular. This is especially important given Rhodes’ growing emphasis on learning through service and student-learning projects oriented to helping others.

“Faculty are finding the efficiency of having students work in pairs or in threes or fours,” noted Bill Short ’71, the library’s coordinator of public services. “If you and I work together, your ideas spark my ideas and we each get a new version of our idea back.”

There are 20 group study rooms of various size and configuration in the building, separated from public space by glass partitions. Except for several of the larger ones, which are scheduled for seminar-sized classes, all are available to students and faculty either on a first-come, first-served basis or via advanced scheduling.

“The library is not just a building anymore. It’s a building that offers all this space for interaction,” said Short. “We expect some faculty to use the library as their ‘office hours’ meeting space. Some have already started doing this.”

Having the library’s vast resources within reach can enhance the faculty’s time with students and provide solid direction for student research.

And to make Barret even more inviting to users, officials rolled out the Rhodes carpet for students and faculty — literally. A crimson and gold Axminster wool carpet, patterned with the Rhodes seal and milled in Scotland, was made especially for the library. Rhodes purchased 1,710 square yards of the seal carpet for use in primary locations in the building.

Injecting Barret with an aura of permanence and tradition are the furnishings and materials used inside the building. A highly moldable, glass fiber reinforced gypsum creates columns, balconies and arches that look like they are made of stone but are much less heavy and expensive than the real thing. Color-coordinated couches, tables and chairs with an English Gothic style contribute to the warm feel of the new library. Many of the pieces were custom designed for Rhodes, including exceptionally comfortable black leather chairs modeled after an English men’s club chair. Most of the seating was comfort-tested by students during the building planning process.

The Tech/Research Pas de Deux

Barret is striking for its old-world grandeur, but perhaps even more impressive is the way this four-level building serves the modern student. For the first time in Rhodes’ history, the new facility marries library research and information technology.

“This is ‘one stop shopping’ for our students,” said Dr. Charlie Lemond ’69, director of Information Technology Services. “We now have all this equipment available in one place. Before, you had to run all over campus.” Prior to Barret, campus computers and various media technology were located in Buckman and Hassell Halls as well as Burrow Library.

Barret contains more than 200 computers, the majority of them new, environmentally-friendly Dells. Among this number are wireless laptops that students can check out at the checkout/reserve desk. In addition, there are three new state-of-the-art computer labs (one of them specifically designed for instruction on how to use the library and its multitude of databases). The labs are located in a section that can be closed off from the rest of the library. During portions of the semester when the academic workload climbs, the college allows students to access the labs after hours when the library is closed.

The main floor also has an assistive technology room with equipment and software designed to aid those who are sight- or hearing-impaired.

Barret’s lower level (below ground) houses the college’s entire Information Technology staff as well as the library cataloging staff. It also is home to a new media center, which contains the college’s complete collection of nonbook media: videos, CDs from the old Adams Music Library in Hassell Hall, DVDs, slides.

There are Gothic-styled wooden carrels with 12 listening/viewing stations. Above several of the carrels, a jazzy neon light reminds visitors that traditional doesn’t have to be boring. Down the hall a 32-seat viewing theatre with stadium seating serves film and other media-intensive classes. There are also three smaller viewing rooms with plasma televisions. Across from the viewing rooms, behind glass partitions etched with the Rhodes seal, are two of Barret’s three computer labs.

No matter where you are in the building, Barret is wireless. Students can surf the Internet sitting outside under the repeating arches of the cloistered walkway — thanks to yards of conduit that run overhead in the ceiling — or studying in one of the custom-designed oak carrels (each with a window view) that hug the exterior walls of each floor.

Furthermore, Barret’s reference and information desk in the main lobby or “nave” as it is called — features a single point of contact where students can get help with both library research/reference questions and computer issues. Looking for resources for that paper on the Reformation? A library specialist is at the ready. Need help when your computer fails to load images from the ArtStor database? That’s when someone from the computer help desk becomes your new best friend. The computer help desk is staffed during prime weekday hours.

The reference area of Barret looks vastly different from its predecessor in Burrow Library (Burrow served Rhodes for more than 50 years).

“The concept of a great room has fallen by the wayside because technology leads us to use spaces in different ways,” said librarian Bill Short.

A line of flat-screen monitors takes the place of the card catalogue, and the rows of reading tables are gone, replaced by waist-high reference shelves where students can do a quick check of a source. Nearby carrels allow more in-depth study.

For students who need more intense or advanced help on a project, Barret offers an “information commons” staffed by library specialists who can work at length with a student. It is located on the main floor just past the reference area and periodicals. Nearby are digital microfilm and microfiche readers that allow students to scan images and incorporate them directly onto their computer as a primary source.

“An exciting new space on the second floor is the Teaching and Learning Center,” according to Rhodes chief information officer Bob Johnson. “This is the most experimental space in the building. Here faculty can try out new teaching styles, new research strategies and new technology, and students can produce computer and media presentations for their classes.”

Although the library is holding back a considerable part of its Teaching and Learning Center budget for future technologies, the area opened this fall with a number of new computers as well as sophisticated multimedia production equipment for audio and video editing and scanning.

“Nobody owns this space,” explained Bill Short.

It will have multiple users, like the Greek and Roman Studies Department that uses the space for “virtual” global classes. Imagine participating in an online archaeological conference with faculty and students from around the country discussing the results of a recent dig. Connecting with the world in new ways is a primary focus of the Teaching and Learning Center.

Stacks Appeal

Bibliophiles can rejoice. Barret is still also about the books. Whereas some collegiate libraries of late have packed up their books for off-site storage, Barret celebrates books and gives them room to grow on two spacious floors of stacks. In contrast to the dimly-lit Burrow stacks with their low ceilings and cramped shelving, the Barret stacks feature lighting that is four times brighter, wider aisles and plenty of seating from comfortable couches to cushioned chairs to get-down-to-business carrels.

It’s so well lit, we can actually see what we have,” quipped Lynne Blair, the director of the library and one of the key planners of the new facility.

The first floor “new books” reading room is double its previous size. Moreover, there is plenty of room for books previously dispersed around campus. Books from the chemistry, physics, music and math/computer science libraries have been blended into Barret’s collection.

This fall the Paul Barret, Jr. Library opened with 285,000 volumes, 45,000 electronic books, 1,200 print periodicals and 90,500 microfilms. Additionally, the library has licensed access to more than 10,000 online journals. Staffers note that the Rhodes library collection has been carefully built over the years by both teaching faculty and library staff. Materials chosen represent good resources for undergraduate instruction in a liberal arts college.

The Barret library currently has the capacity to hold 500,000 volumes, more if it moves into unfinished expansion space on the lower level of the building. Thanks in part to a recent gift from longtime benefactor Clarence Day, the volume total will edge upward. Day made the gift in honor of President Troutt and stipulated that the monies be used in whatever area Dr. Troutt designated. The president chose the library.

“This gift will help improve the material resources in Barret,” said director Lynne Blair, “and will be a wonderful step toward achieving our goal of bringing the collection up to the same level of excellence as our fantastic new building.”

New Flair for the Rare

No longer relegated to the basement or back rooms of Burrow Library, the college’s special collections get top billing in Barret. The elegantly appointed Special Collections Reading Room, located on the main floor, is home to the college’s Halliburton Collection, the Rhodes Archives and the Walter Armstrong, Jr. Rare Book Collection.

The room’s furniture reflects Rhodes’ storied past and includes the rolltop desk that Dr. Charles Diehl used to plan the college’s move to Memphis in 1925. Another desk, used by Presidents Diehl, Peyton Rhodes and James Daughdrill, Jr., is in the center of the room, its unique linenfold wooden carving reprised in the handsome red oak paneling that circles the room.

Built into the paneling are seven glass cases where the college can display the best of its large collection of letters, books and mementos of famous adventurer Richard Halliburton. A 1920s-’30s vintage Indiana Jones, Halliburton captivated the world with books about his daring travels and experiences. The crowning glory is a collection of 10 custom-made scrapbooks — 900 pages of news clips and photos of the larger-than-life author. Halliburton Tower on campus was built in his memory by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Halliburton of Memphis.

In Barret, Rhodes’ rare book collection and archives are now housed in expanded space, a vault that is climate-controlled (a perfect 68 degrees and 50 percent humidity). It is located just behind the Special Collections Reading Room’s paneled wall.

Among Rhodes’ 10,000 rare book holdings—many of them from the late Memphis attorney Walter Armstrong, Jr. — are signed first editions of 18th- and 19th-century British and American writers. Tom Davis, a former Rhodes trustee, also donated to the collection an early set of Robert Burns’ works as well as works by other British authors.

The college also has a wonderful collection of early Bibles dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, according to archivist Elizabeth Gates. The collection includes a circa 1617 King James as well as a 1582 Geneva or “Breeches” Bible, so named because it refers to Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves for themselves and creating “breeches.” Faculty and students in the Religious Studies Department frequently use the Bibles for class.

For tripping down Rhodes’ memory lane, the new vault provides plenty of space for reuniting all of the college archives in one central place and storing the artifacts for easy retrieval. Volumes of the student newspaper The Sou’wester dating back to 1919 share shelf space with boxes of the college’s presidential papers and scrapbooks, like the one that chronicles the college’s long-remembered 1938 football win over Vanderbilt. There are also books by Rhodes alumni and faculty as well as books about the college. Trivia buffs will be happy to note that former college President Charles Diehl’s distinctive green felt hat has a home there, too, alongside an egg with Halliburton Tower painted on its face as well as various other college mementos.

The newest additions to the college’s special collections that reside in Barret are neither Rhodes memorabilia nor limited edition books. They are 36 rare and valuable original photographs by Edward S. Curtis, given to the college by Robert and Anne Riley Bourne of Camden, TN, both of the class of 1954. Curtis was considered one of America’s leading photographers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He photographed and documented more than 80 Native American tribes living in the western United States.

A history class led by Dee Garceau-Hagen, associate professor of history, will write interpretive text for an exhibition of these photographs January-March, 2006 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art across from the college in Overton Park. Subsequently, the photographs will reside permanently in Barret, where plans call for a rotating display of some of the prints.

Blooms for Barret

Concluding the tour of Barret is a trip outdoors where a Southern Literary Garden fills a rectangular patch of green on the east side of the building. There, one can observe a pear tree like the one Eudora Welty mentions in “A Curtain of Green,” the wisteria about which Carson McCullers writes in “The Haunted Boy” or the ivy that warranted its own poem by Robert Penn Warren (“Time is nothing to the ivy.”). Plantings include a metasequoia, laurel, verbena, roses, lilac, holly, peach tree, pussy willow, daylilies and daffodils.

Carol R. Johnson, a nationally-known landscape architect from Boston, designed the literary garden with help from Professors Michael Leslie and Leslie Petty of the Rhodes English Department.

Quarts of Caffeine

As you step through the massive tower doors of Barrett you have a choice: Head north and enter the library proper, or head south and cross into an espresso bar to grab a cup of coffee first. Starbucks products are sold in the café/study lounge — The Middle Ground — which is managed by the college food service, Aramark. The Middle Ground — named by students — is a hip and high-tech coffee house complete with granite counter tops, comfortable chairs and tables for study or conversation, six computers for checking e-mail and four more for general use — all in a wireless environment — and a plasma television for watching sports and news. The “Bean’s List,” a menu board that hints at its academic setting, lists every coffee and tea drink known to young adults as well as sushi, specialty salads and gourmet sandwiches.

Outside of the residence halls, the Middle Ground is the ONLY space on campus open to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a major attraction for today’s nocturnal collegians.

Coffee, they feel, helps too.