Need a book? Ask a robot

NCSU leaders preview high-tech library headed to Centennial Campus

Staff writerApril 17, 2009 

— University leaders got their first look Thursday at the design of the cutting-edge, robot-equipped library expected to become the aesthetic and cultural heart of NCSU's fast-growing Centennial Campus.

The design for the James B. Hunt Jr. Library, by the uber-modern Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, evokes woven textiles and stacked books. It will be clad in a "dynamic" reflective metal skin that changes its tones with the sun's movement across the sky and the viewer's perspective.

Inside the 200,000-square-foot building will be food for sale, spaces equipped for video gaming and areas for digitally-aided collaborative study and research.

There will be no stacks to wander, at least for humans. Instead, books will be densely packed inside a dark room where four robots will retrieve them when someone requests them via computer.

"This will set us apart from every other campus in the country," said trustee Gayle S. Lanier of Raleigh.

The $126 million library was unveiled during a meeting of the trustees' Buildings and Property Committee, which reviews all major construction projects on the campus. That committee has long struggled to bring more visual pizzazz to a campus dominated by straightforward brick architecture, but without adding buildings that don't fit in or that cost too much.

"We've been joking that you've been asking for a building that's not a brick box, and the Hunt Library will be neither of those," said Michael Harwood, university architect.

"This," he said, setting up large drawings of the building for the committee to see, "is the unbrick-not-a-box."

The committee was simply reviewing the design Thursday so that it can offer suggestions. The final approval would come in its meeting next fall.

When Harwood asked what the trustees thought, the single official response came from the committee chairman, Derick Close of Charlotte.

"It's fantastic," he said

The automated book retrieval system is one of a handful of its kind in the U.S. It's not just a technological gimmick: It will reduce the amount of space needed for book storage to a fraction of the normal amount, opening more room for students to work and study. That space is a vital need at NCSU, which ranks at the bottom of the UNC system for library seats. It has enough for less than 5 percent of its growing student body, compared to a system standard of 20 percent.

The new library will more than double the number of seats available.

It's named after the former governor who approved the land grant that created Centennial Campus in 1984. The idea was to bring together academia, government and businesses on a single research campus just south of Western Boulevard. An amount equal to nearly 3 million square feet of buildings is complete, and 21/2 times that amount is planned.

Snohetta, which is working with lead architects Pearce Brinkley Cease & Lee of Raleigh, wanted to create a design that suggests the modern technology that's the focus of Centennial and also the weaving together of public and private partnerships that is the underpinning of the campus.

The building will host the Institute for Emerging Issues, a think tank started by Hunt.

Land clearing is expected to begin later this year and the building is scheduled for completion in 2012.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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