Built to Last

How the Horrmann Library came to be, and how it keeps thriving in the information technology age. The history and future of Wagner's library, which turned 50 in fall 2011.

By Norman E. Berg and Laura Barlament

“Nowhere more sharply than through a library does the whole world confront a man. Nowhere, perhaps, can a man better develop his capacity to confront the world.” — Richard Heindel, president of Wagner College (1958–1961), Horrmann Library dedication address, September 30, 1961

When Wagner College decamped from Rochester to Staten Island in 1918, it brought along 16 students, one professor, and 2,000 books. Along with the students, the books were installed in North Hall (now Reynolds House), which mainly served as the college dormitory. After the construction of South Hall (now Parker Hall) in 1922–23, the library briefly acquired a larger room there, before finding a more permanent location on the top floor of the brand-new Administration Building (now Main Hall) in 1930.

The early 1930s also marked the point in Wagner College history when the institution transitioned from its roots as a combined high school and seminary prep school into a true liberal arts college. Between 1932 and 1933, Wagner's first year as an accredited college and as a co-ed institution, the enrollment nearly doubled, from 117 to 203. By 1942, the student body exceeded 500. Nevertheless, the library in Main Hall's attic remained adequate.

Then came the end of World War II and the GI Bill-fueled student boom, beginning in 1946.

By 1950, enrollment had reached around 2,000, and the College had added graduate programs to its curriculum. The Wagner College Bulletin of April 1948 bragged of the Main Hall library, “The spacious reading rooms and the volumes on the shelves foster thoughtfulness and study”; but accompanying photographs showing jam-packed tables belie those words. After all, the library had seating for only 100 students at a time, and a collection of only about 40,000 volumes. To most observers, it was plain to see that Wagner needed a more functional, spacious, and up-to-date library.

Pressure for a new library came from all directions — beginning with the students. A headline in the December 2, 1953, issue of the Wagnerian reads, “Financial Drive for New Library Opened; Campaign Planned by Student Committee.” The College administration voiced its support for the students' ambitious goal to raise $5,000 to pay start-up planning costs for a new library. The next year, more official pressure came to bear on the issue. The New York Education Department, in its 1954 “Evaluation of Wagner Lutheran College,” stated: “There is no use belaboring the point that Wagner College needs a library building. It does, and the matter is urgent. The collection cannot now be expanded; the student body cannot logically be increased; and the library program cannot be given those refinements which contribute to its maximum effectiveness.” The Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, Wagner's accrediting agency, put the College on notice during its review in 1957 as well: “The complete inadequacy of these facilities restricts all aspects of the library program.”

According to the December 1957 Wagner College Bulletin, “Criticism of the situation by the Middle States Association was tempered by the fact that the College has already taken steps to provide a library building.” Indeed, about 85 benefactors had contributed more than $58,000 toward the effort, and architectural plans had been drawn up for a 200,000-volume library building in the Greek Revival style.

As the winter of 1957 melted into the spring of 1958, so came the turning point in Wagner College's quest for a new library: a gift of $100,000 from the Horrmann Foundation. The gift announcement was timed to coordinate with the College's 75th anniversary campaign kick-off meeting. Accepting the gift from Horrmann Foundation President Walter E. Badenhausen, the Rev. Dr. Frederic Sutter of Wagner College's Board of Trustees announced that the new library would be named the Horrmann Library. This naming honored not only the 1958 gift, but 40 years of philanthropy and support shown by the Horrmann family toward Wagner College.

Throughout 1959, screaming headlines in the Wagner College Bulletin pleaded for additional support for the Horrmann Library's construction. New architectural sketches revealed a building plan that closely resembles the one we know today — not a Greek Revival temple, as pictured a couple years earlier, but a modern-looking facility with large, plate-glass windows. Finally, groundbreaking took place on May 7, 1960, during the annual “Alumni-Parents Day Weekend.”

One thousand guests cheered the Horrmann Library's dedication on September 30, 1961. In the end, the project cost about $1 million and provided space for 90,000 volumes and seating for more than 400 students. Recently inaugurated Wagner College President Arthur O. Davidson, plus four former Wagner presidents, attended the ceremony, which also featured the awarding of honorary degrees to the heads of three major publishing houses.

“It is uniquely appropriate that this Lutheran institution should dramatize … the role of the Library and of the Publisher as part of the higher learning of mankind,” said Victor Weybright of the New American Library of World Literature. “You are creating a college that adorns not only our great metropolis, but our country and the world beyond.”

Fast Forward

This year, the Horrmann Library celebrates its 50th anniversary. And what a different world it is! Seismic shifts in what we now call “information technology” have affected libraries as sharply as any other human institution.

Fortunately, the library's original planners built in the possibility of change, even if they could not have foreseen the particular changes that would occur. “From an architectural point of view, the building is designed to have complete flexibility for interchange of bookstacks, furniture, and partitions,” the Wagner College Alumni News pointed out in October 1961.

Indeed, the library's leaders have taken advantage of this flexibility over the years — especially within the last decade, as a library's utility has come to be measured less in terms of volumes, and more in terms of electronic resources. Computers, databases, and e-books have proliferated, displacing stacks, bound periodicals, and desks. Librarians are accessible not only at the reference desk, but via social media tools, from the Horrmann Library blog, to real-time online chat, to Twitter feeds (@HorrmannLibrary), to Facebook, to the newly redesigned website.

Library Dean Dorothy Davison says that these changes have been driven not only by technology, but also by Wagner College's educational goals. “Information literacy is one of the pedagogical pillars of the Wagner Plan,” she says. “Wagner students need to be educated in the effective use of technology and information to meet the challenges of the future.

“The ideal enhanced learning environment brings together a comprehensive, integrated set of academic resources for today's student to explore digital resources and technology,” she continues. This vision led to a major renovation of Horrmann Library's main floor, unveiled this spring: the Class of 1959 Learning Commons.

“The concept of the Learning Commons is rooted in both the traditional service model offered at Horrmann Library and the new paradigm of active learning,” says Davison. Its major feature is a set of new multimedia study rooms on the main floor. These glass-enclosed, soundproofed spaces allow students to collaborate on group assignments and practice their presentation techniques with computerized whiteboards and other technology. Since opening, these rooms have been in constant use.

The Learning Commons also includes new offices for the reference librarians, where they may meet with students and faculty for research assistance. The library also doubled the number of fixed computer workstations on the main floor; provided a bank of laptop computers for use anywhere in the library; and carved out more types of spaces for study and meetings. The central reading room remains open space for quiet study. But one corner was enclosed for individuals who want to escape the busy hum of the main room.

The Learning Commons was made possible by generous funding from alumni, the Friends of the Library, and a special gift from the class of 1959. The class of 2011 also dedicated their senior class gift to the library for technology enhancements.

The way in which students use the library to get information has changed significantly over the past 50 years, and will continue to do so well into the future. As the academic heart of Wagner College, the Horrmann Library has adapted well to these changing needs and will remain a vital part of the College for many years to come.

About the Authors: Norman E. Berg is a member of the Friends of the Library and husband of Diane Borst-Manning,'59, chair of the Friends of the Library. His two books, Regret to Inform You and My Carrier War, are available in the Horrmann Library. Laura Barlament is editor of Wagner Magazine. Thanks to Dorothy Davison, dean of the Horrmann Library, and Archivist Lisa Holland for their assistance.

READ MORE: The Horrmann family, reminiscences by alumni, and slices of Horrmann Library life from the Wagnerian.