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Mabel Smith Douglass Library celebrates its 50th anniversary

Douglass Libraries in the 60's

Today's Mabel Smith Douglass Library traces its lineage to about a dozen books gifted by Rutgers University to the newly created New Jersey College for Women in 1918. Housed upon the desk of the school's Registrar in College Hall, these dozen volumes constituted the entirety of the college's original library collection.

As the collection grew, the school was challenged to identify a space able to accommodate it and its patrons. Having outgrown the Registrar's desk, the collection was moved to a College Hall closet. When one closet became insufficient, it was expanded into a second, and then into three rooms within the building that is now the Douglass Writing Center, at 135 George Street. When that arrangement also grew inadequate, the collection was again relocated, this time to the basement and first floor of today's Ruth Adams Building, then known as the Recitation Building. The collection would remain there, under confined conditions, for several decades.

The dream of a dedicated library building for what would become the Douglass Campus of Rutgers University was as old as the campus itself. In the early 1920s, Mabel Smith Douglass, the first Dean of the New Jersey College for Women, called for a library in the colonial style containing "rooms for general reference, seminar rooms, a bindery, a printing office and recitation rooms for courses for librarians." But as the roaring twenties gave way to the depression thirties, and later the lean years of the Second World War, a proper library building for the New Jersey College for Women would remain an elusive, if ever present, dream.

Though there was little hope of securing construction funding in the near term, plans for a colonial style library building reminiscent of Dean Douglass's vision were nevertheless commissioned 1936. By then, the original plan had been altered to include typewriting rooms, a smoking room, a photograph room, a room for radio listening, and a room for "microphotography," or microfilm. These plans would prove premature.

It was not until 1958 that the New Jersey State Legislature appropriated $1,000,000 for the construction of a library for Douglass College. To this sum was added $75,000 that had been donated to the school for the purpose over the years. The new library would not be colonial in its design as Dean Douglass had hoped, but would instead be modern, sleek, and functional.

Douglass Library opened its doors in the spring of 1961. A library collection numbering 133,592 volumes, representing a fraction of the new building's capacity, was carted over from the Recitation Building. Following four decades of effort, Douglass College had a proper library.

In 1963, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) honored the new building's design with an Award of Merit in the library category.

Following some key internal renovations and adaptations in recent years, the Douglass Library remains a fixture in the lives of students on campus and in the social and cultural life of the university. The library now offers a modern information commons, situating banks of computers by easily accessible reference services; a multi-media laboratory with cutting edge software; the Libraries newly expanded Media Center; and group study rooms equipped with WiFi and jacks for laptop use. The library also boasts two small art galleries that regularly display the works of prominent women artists.

An exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Douglass Library will be on display at the library from June 4 through July 31, 2011. Visitors are welcome to view the exhibition and then walk through the library, to gain an appreciation of both the rich history of the facility and the transformations it has undergone in recent years.

Posted June 3, 2011