NCSU's hyper-modern James B. Hunt Jr. Library poised to open

jprice@newsobserver.comDecember 18, 2012 

  • Library opens Jan. 2 The library will be open seven days a week for much of the year, and to the public until 10 p.m. After that, entry requires a university ID. It will be open for the university community around the clock except Friday and Saturday.

— N.C. State University’s new library is such a leap forward that it took an information technology whiz to help lead a media preview Tuesday.

The James B. Hunt Jr. Library, a startling digital re-boot of what it means to be a university library and the new heart of NCSU’s fast-growing Centennial Campus, opens Jan. 2.

The public is welcome, and among the early visitors are expected to be architects eager to see the work of the cutting-edge Oslo firm Snohetta and library professionals from around the country curious – and perhaps apprehensive – about where their vocation is heading.

“For the first time in my career, I just fielded a call from Architectural Digest,” David Hiscoe, director of communications for NCSU libraries, said during the tour. “Some people are already calling it the face of N.C. State University in this century.”

It may well be the most advanced library in the world, and is one of the most unusual buildings in the nation by any measure.

And it’s such a thorough rethinking of the functions performed by libraries that at one point in the tour Hiscoe felt compelled reassure visitors that they would actually get to see books.

Not many, though. The vast majority, about 1.5 million volumes, are packed into dense storage that is accessible only by the robots that retrieve them. The system takes up about one-ninth the volume the books would require if stored on traditional shelves.

Since most people now consume and create information on video screens, screens are the real stars inside Hunt, hundreds of millions of pixels’ worth of them.

Seemingly every wall has large screens or smaller ones, or large ones built of small ones. Some are embedded in table surfaces. Nearly all respond to touch, and many offer startlingly high definition and ranges of color far beyond normal computers.

High tech spaces

There still are large, light-filled spaces for reading; one glass wall is more than 300 feet long and 50 feet high, and some of the best space offers views of Lake Raleigh and the woodsy part of the campus surrounding it.

But there are a host of technology-enhanced spaces for large-scale visualization research, videoconferencing and multimedia production.

One room is dedicated to high-end gaming, which is becoming vital not just for entertainment but for a host of more serious applications.

There is a reconfigurable Creativity Studio with sliding and rotating walls, and a Teaching and Visualization Lab set up to easily allow creation of, for example, an immersive environment such as a virtual bridge of a warship.

A key feature is the nearly 100 rooms that students can reserve to work together on projects, with screens to display work from their laptops and OK-to-write-on walls that can be treated as giant whiteboards.

NCSU students are taught to work collaboratively, and are accustomed to it, but they’ve had few suitable places for that in campus libraries until now, Hiscoe said

The library is so digital-centric that it has a supercomputer deep in its bowels to handle all the functions. It also will take advantage of the digital cloud, allowing students and faculty to work on their projects wherever they are, be it the library, their offices, dorm rooms or labs, said Maurice York, the head of IT for NCSU libraries.

During construction, a representative of one of the technology companies that worked with the university on the library once said that it probably shouldn’t even be called a library, York said.

Hard to explain

But after getting a look around, he changed his mind and said it actually was transforming libraries into what they needed to be.

“It’s really difficult for people to understand until they actually come and see it,” York said.

A local company, Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee of Raleigh, also played a central role in the landmark design. PBC+L served as executive architect, working collaboratively with Snohetta on the design and construction.

The library was meant to create a kind of heart on the public-private campus, which has been successful at attracting companies interested in working at and with NCSU but was slower to get places aimed mainly at students.

That’s changing quickly, with the library and new engineering school buildings in place, and a massive dorm complex under construction to help form a more typical campus quadrangle.

Price: 919-829-4526

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