March 21, 2018

New Landmark Libraries 2012 #1: Goucher Athenaeum, Goucher College

Crafted for a New Worldview

Goucher Athenaeum | Goucher College | Baltimore
Architect: RMJM/Hillier


Opened 2009
New construction
Main library
SIZE 103,000 square feet
COST $40 million
LEED-NC Gold certification
Student Pop

Our number one NLL facility, Goucher Athenaeum, crosses service boundaries, mixes library metaphors, and harmonizes a campus already known for its modernist aesthetic. Wholly new to this 1940s campus, the Athenaeum exemplifies the library as the intellectual, cultural, and social crossroads of campus. Library as “crossroads” or “forum” is a transformative notion unequivocally realized through this building’s design, functionality, and siting.

Not only is the Athenaeum Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified, its design leadership is also reflected in the stakeholder input process, integration with the site, prominence of the book collection, and the inclusion of campus functions previously outside the library’s scope.

A great glass ship

Smack dab in the center of the library is the “Forum,” a theater-like wide-open space for speakers, transmission of world events, performers, and lectures. Wrapped around this central organizing element is the library, replete with the familiar and the new. In fact, Nancy Magnuson, college librarian, describes the building’s purpose as a student forum “anchored by a state-of-the-art library.” Her description is representative of a project that stands as an exemplar to help others expand their thinking about strategic campus partnerships and the library’s contributions to creating and sustaining the campus experience.

A dramatic building, the Athenaeum is like a “great glass ship floating on a rolling sea of meadow greenery,” according to Magnuson. It anchors the library to the campus and offers a “wow” view of the contents inside. The stacks, bounded by colorful ends, appear like brightly hued cornrows in a distant field—a signature view that will surely be symbolic of this project.

The design process started with input gathered via a plethora of channels like surveys, focus groups, and the obligatory task forces. A task force composed of all campus areas reviewed all input and made final recommendations to the president and architect. With a short list of principles underlying their efforts, the group pointed to the library being the key element of the project and all other components working to “complement or expand the reach of the library.”

Durable material choices of glass, stone, wood, and copper on the exterior along with terrazzo, white oak, redwood, carpet, and glass on the interior respect the college’s long view on educating future generations, a decidedly modern and sustainable concept. Recyclable carpet, durable furniture choices like solid oak carrels and tables, cleanable finishes, and fabrics like synthetic leather on soft seating are examples of that long-term thinking.

Its aggressive sustainability in design includes solar-heated water and an HVAC system that uses radiant heat, energy-recovery wheels, and displacement ventilation to maximize system efficiency. Occupancy sensors not only control lighting but also reduce heating and cooling when a space is un­occupied. A rain garden, along with two roof gardens, reduces storm water ­runoff.

Holistic thinking

It’s the incorporation of nonlinear thinking about the student that makes the Athenaeum a standout. The student is seen holistically with service delivery 24-7 that is geared to providing a place for study, collaboration, teaching, performing, reading, sleeping, exercising, and dining. Flexible spaces that can serve a range of needs from meeting place to parties to town hall are everywhere.

Rethinking how the library operates is what makes the building so successful. Many processes, once deemed effective and efficient, were replaced with new ways, like interfiling reference materials and bound periodicals into the main collection. Because those materials are weeded frequently, major collection moves are avoided.

Another punch for the Athenaeum is its connection to the broader community. It offers a curriculum resource center that serves not only students but also public and private educational institutions. For example, local school librarians, teachers, and administrators are invited to lectures. A community service center provides a tutoring program for children on Saturday mornings, mentoring services, and additional programming space to engage the community beyond the campus. Finally, the college’s first art gallery, located next to a performance space, showcases the college’s collection, as well as students’ and known artists’ works.

The list of nontraditional services offered is staggering. An information commons, jointly operated by the IT department, provides service from a dedicated IT help desk and separate, but nearby, librarian service desk. There are special rooms for research librarians to consult with students.

For the 24-hour student, an espresso station would not do. Instead, Alice’s Restaurant, centrally located next to the Forum, serves sandwiches, salads, and other light fare. A radio station, called the Sound of the Gopher, can be seen by passersby and is wired into the Athenaeum’s AV system, allowing for programs to be heard throughout the facility.

Exercise equipment is sprinkled throughout, and some spaces have no predetermined purpose whatsoever.

Plenty of classrooms, including one for the digital arts, join many small and large group study rooms and a “readers’ loft” to provide formal and informal learning experiences.

What’s most compelling is that the Athenaeum responds to deeply held Goucher College values, yet openly departs from the 20th-century view of what a library should be. More than at any time in its history, it respects the needs of students and creates a far richer experience. With the 47 percent increase in use of the library since its opening, the Athenaeum is a vibrant centerfold for student life and campus sustainability.

Louise Schaper About Louise Schaper

Louise Schaper (, retired Executive Director of Fayetteville Public Library, AR, is a Library Consultant and LJ's New Landmark Libraries project lead.

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  1. Bianca Bellino says:

    You can not have intellectual and social crossroads in one building. It doesn’t work and it has not. This article makes the athenaeum sound like a gods castle when in fact most students I talk to like the old library, the REAL library. I had to fight for two quiet floors in the atheneum because before my complaints the library was a social hub with students running around screaming, laughing and hanging out. It still is if you do not isolate yourself in the dark and lonely quiet floors. There are also no librarians to be found enforcing any of the quiet rules of the library. This article does not accurately portray the Ath. or many students sentiments about it.

    • Well naturally the quiet floors will be lonely; that’s the point. They exist for that exact purpose. Everyone can’t do everything everywhere.

    • M. Wolff says:

      To say you can’t have intellectual and social crossroads in one building is a pretty limiting comment. While, it ignores a couple thousand years of human history, from Greek and Roman forums to Catholic monasteries to the Met, the Louvre or almost any museum, for that matter, the comment also assumes anything intellectual should be silent, and isolated.

      That article doesn’t make the Athenaeum a “god’s castle”. Far from it, it praises the Ath’s commitment to sustainability and adaptability. The article is right, the ath is focused on providing a sort of every-space for the student.

  2. GoucherAlum says:

    Well said, Bianca. I graduated the year before this open and I know most of my class hated it because a) it does NOT match the aesthetic of the rest of the campus, no matter what this says b) it’s in the residential area (the classroom in the T was bad enough… though it did make getting to class on time easier) and c) WE PAID FOR THE THING AND DIDN’T GET TO USE IT! But that’s a personal vendetta. All in all, I like the IDEA of the Athenaeum, but as far a library goes, Julia Rogers cannot be replaced. Also, as my mom pointed out the first time she saw it completed, “How are you supposed to fool around in the stacks with those glass windows?”

  3. Peter…you clearly did not understand the point Bianca was making. What was your purpose? She obviously knows that. Have you ever been to U penn or Johns Hopkins. Almost every space in that library is quiet. In my highschool no one was able to talk in my library. They dont do their job in that library was the point.

  4. Christie Kliewer says:

    While the Athenaeum is often a confusing place and an odd mixture of social activity and academic work, I think it’s rather unfair to claim that the librarians do not enforce the quiet rules. I have work in Goucher’s (both) libraries for four years– and we always enforce the rules. Over the years of the use in the Ath, the staff has been working to adapt to the needs of the library– the front doors are closed when loud events happen in the Forum, stricter quiet hours are enforced during exam periods, etc.

    Sure, the Athenaeum might be an odd combination of social arena and academic library, but I find it far more effective in offering techonology and librarianship to the students that Julia Rogers ever did. There are FAR more students using the Athenaeum. Even if it is to check facebook or their emails in between classes, this allows for the opportunity to use the resources far more readily than if students only use their dorm rooms or common rooms to complete their homework. More books are being checked out, more academic journals are being used, and far more technology is offered than in Julia Rogers.

    It would be very useful if you took your concerns of the library and actually offered suggestions to make the building a better institution. The College Librarian Nancy Magnuson and the librarians behind the front desk are literally waiting for you to speak about the library instead of complaining about it conveniently, and not offering real constructive help. Goucher’s not a college where the staff members ignore students.

  5. Alum2012 says:

    Christie are you serious? Only during quiet hours for finals week student desk workers go on the loud speaker and told people they had to quiet down. The only person that I can say would inform any type of library rules in Alex C. Nancy Magnuson would walk around giving huge group tours of the library during finals week and crucial test weeks without a library voice. My mother was a librarian and I grew up in a college library….the Athenaeum is not a library. yes they now close the library doors when something is going on in the forum but does that mean to noise goes away. No. The athenaeum was poorly constructed so that students dont get the quiet space they need to do work. I for one came to school to just do my homework and do well in school so when kids are running around screaming up and down the stacks and I go up to one of the front desk people and they are too lazy to get their butts out the chair and say something is very concerning to me. Its their job.

    I know Bianca B. She would not be complaining on this if she had not done something prior. She is not all about complaining at all but she goes straight to the source in everything she does. I know for a fact that she has gone to Nancy and talked to Sandy about many issue in the library and has suggested many ideas for them to do in order to make the library a better work environment. That is why the two quiet floors exist today. Your comment sounds like an ad for the library when in fact everyone knows that the library is far from being perfect.

    The one thing I do agree with you however is on the technological support that the library offers through the CTLT. However the CTLT is just an office in the library. It does not have much to do with the library and its functions.

  6. Bianca Bellino says:

    Here are other comments in response to this article that have been posted in other social forums:

    “hahahahahaha. also it was never completed to its original design, which is why the acoustics in the Forum are horrendous. this is some serious propaganda right here.”

    “I hated going to the “forum” when there’s a performance b/c so many people walk in and out and make loud noises with the door – so effing distracting! And yes, that place was just a social hub for many people, esp. the underclassmen who like to monopolize spaces. Wtf? Use it and gtho!”

    “Goucher is so full of it….”

    I do not stand alone on this. Its not just me that feels this way.

    • Taylor M. says:

      That last one about Goucher being “so full of it” is pretty funny, especially considering that Goucher didn’t write this article. And also considering Library Journal really isn’t a Goucher Publication. Oh and plus because this was awarded to Goucher not some self-righteous ostentatious pat-on-the-back. So while I’m glad you don’t stand alone in your scathing comments of the Athenaeum, 3 (we’ll call it two and quarter) comments from Facebook and “other” social forums doesn’t help prove much.

      Some students really like the Athenaeum. It’s a pretty rad building with a lot of rad stuff in it. I’ve never encountered any problems, and I’ve spent plenty of weekend marathons there.

  7. Kate D. says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Christie. I will always love Julia Rogers( as I spent all of my student years studying and working there), but that doesn’t mean the change to the Athenaeum can’t be embraced. It seems like all colleges (that can afford to) build shiny new buildings – but they DON’T all build shiny new buildings to support and promote the importance of their library. I’m glad that Goucher felt the library was important enough to be prominently included in this flagship building.

    Libraries are ever-evolving. Gone are the days of strict silence, no food, and disciplinarian librarians. The Library is now a place for so much more than just studying – it’s a place to interact, socialize, discover, relax, research, and collaborate. The job of a librarian is not to act like a professionally dressed childcare worker who wanders around shushing and redirecting the behaviors of patrons. Librarians are there to help patrons access and evaluate information. The staff at Goucher’s library works very hard to meet the needs of the community – students, staff, and faculty. They are always looking new, better, more effective ways of helping the community access information resources – THAT is their job and they do it well.

    Listen to Christie’s advice – if you have constructive feedback, talk to the library staff. If all you want to do is complain, keep it to your facebook feed.

    I’m an alumna of the Goucher class of 2009 and I’m glad we’re #1!

  8. Dani Faulkner says:

    Could library employees (former or current) not attack a student’s opinion… that would be nice! It’s a fact that not everyone agrees with the “feel” of the library and the write-up of this article. If this award is based on the impact of the library to a college community, the students, we have the right voice our opinion. If people are going to use our library as an example as to what to strive for, they should know what they are getting into, positive and negative. Guess what, it is VERY hard to discuss the Ath to people who work on the library staff. The building was marketed as a palace, that it would be better and beyond JRL. I’m sure it hurts to find out that all that planning and talk didn’t add up. Don’t belittle those brave enough to say it.

    • Christie Kliewer says:

      Nothing I said attacked any of the opinions of my peers. My basic point was that these opinions don’t fall on deaf ears of the library staff and that it is very useful to offer these comments to the staff so that changes can be done. There is an opinion box at the front desk of the library, the staff members are public with their emails and contact information, and most of them have open office time to speak with students about any issue. It’s great that students have opinions about the Athenaeum– it’s what changes things and adapts the environment into what we need over the years. We might not get the immediate benefits of these changes during the 4 years we spend at Goucher, but it’s important for future students as well.

      I think you may have misread both Kate and my comments if you took them as “attacks” or “belittling”. If anything the comments from other students have been reactive and rude to staff members.

  9. ALUMNUS says:

    I have to chime in here. I’d like to agree with “GoucherAlum” in that the Athenaeum is a fantastic idea in concept, but poorly executed in overall design (specifically from an acoustical perspective). While I agree that the concept of a library strictly as a “keep your head down, shut up and study” environment is extinct. The blending in of a dining option, work labs and even a radio station are all great.

    The problem is, Goucher’s library staff has, in my estimation, done a really poor job of maintaining quiet in the stacks and many work areas of the Athenaeum. With that said, it was not much better-enforced when the Julia Rogers library was in use. But yes, as one of the other posters said, go into a library at most other schools and you won’t even hear a pin drop. I’m sorry to say, but that is how a library should be. If you need to talk, or be social, or scream, or cry, or laugh in a hysterically obnoxious way, then “gtfo” and go into a separate area to do so. To be “ok” with anything otherwise is to be “ok” with promoting inconsiderate behavior.

  10. Katie D. says:

    Christie’s comment that “the librarians behind the front desk are literally waiting for you to speak about the library…Goucher’s not a college where the staff members ignore students,” couldn’t be more true, and is, I think, one of the most important pieces of a productive conversation about the Athenaeum. If students are dissatisfied with anything about the library, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from filling out a comment card, sending an email, or simply approaching one of the librarians to discuss an issue. To openly bash the librarians and library staff is disrespectful, because these people devote themselves on a daily basis to figuring out how to better serve Goucher students; I, for one, am incredibly grateful for that.

    Of course, nothing is perfect, and everyone is entitled to have an opinion about the way a library should be. The Ath. isn’t traditional; it’s innovative, and I disagree with the idea voiced in several comments above that it is impossible to house academic and social aspects of college life in one building. The Athenaeum makes me a feel like a multi-dimensional person, rather than a studious machine forced to retreat into isolation in order to learn. The very structure and organization of the Ath. encourages creative study by highlighting the importance of collaborative learning and by de-compartmentalizing academic life.

    Students sometimes spend 12-hour stretches of time (or more!) in the Ath., and I can’t imagine how terrible that time would be if we couldn’t so conveniently take a break, grab a coffee, and blow off some steam with friends in an area of the Ath. that isn’t a designated quiet floor. Personally, I’ve had some of the most interesting and helpful conversations of my academic career sitting at Alice’s at midnight, taking a breather from paper-writing without having to fully break focus and leave the building.

    We can, of course, work constructively together to improve the things about the Ath. that need improving, but I think it’s important first to recognize the uniqueness of the building we have the privilege of using. I wouldn’t call it a “palace” — palaces are governed by kings and queens. This building is ours, the students’, and as such it is necessary that we respect it and its staff enough to be both grateful for its values and pragmatic about potential ways we can improve it.

  11. M. Wolff says:

    The Athenaeum really does stand out.

    The building is a focal point on Goucher’s campus that combines intellectual and social corssroad. A library that’s open 24/7 open to the public with community outreach initiatives, a restaurant, classrooms, a radio studio, Archives, an informations commons free and open to the public with the most recent and up-to-date software. No books are hard to find, or even hard to reach. The collection is beyond impressive, and the interlibrary loan and other research services (something the article didn’t consider mentioning, that there’s pretty good reason to assume it’s not propaganda) are beyond stellar.

    Someone above mentioned how it should be the jobs of students working at the circulation counter to police their peers and make the library quiet. It shouldn’t be. What would they walk around with little devices checking the decibel levels, wagging fingers, and making an overall negative environment. Goucher students should be able to monitor themselves. It’s like when we were in kindergarten, the teachers had that “3 before me rule”. Maybe instead expecting library workers to quiet people down, you could walk over and ask the noisy kids yourselves, then maybe ask some of your friends to walk over too, rather than complaining about it in the comments of a well-written article praising the Athenaeum for what it is, a really impressive building and community hub.

    I’ve spent my fair share of time on the quiet floors, and have found them to be just that, quiet. All these complaints don’t address the issue at hand. The Athenaeum is really really impressive building. “Rethinking how the library operates is what makes the building so successful” was something the article mentioned. That’s what the building does it provides outlets for any students’ needs in one space. If you have issues with students hanging out in a library, go to your room or something. I agree wholeheartedly with Katie, the building is ours.

    The article sang the ath’s praises because it just won the honor of being a landmark library. Why on earth would the author say, “… but the acoustics, I give a 6 out of 10”. The fact of the matter, the athenaeum provides so many outlets for us as students, creative, social, technological and, above all, academic.