Meem Library 2021 Update

Ten months ago, after the final class on the eve of spring break, as the world and our College hurtled rapidly towards the unknown, the Meem Library closed its doors to all visitors.

In the days that followed our campus emptied and our community scattered. Students hunkered down at home or off-campus here in northern New Mexico. College staff moved their offices to their own homes, from which most of them still work. And faculty prepared for a strange new world, a world in which, for the first time in the history of this College, our conversations about books would not be taking place in the physical company of others around a single wooden table.

In the ten months since we moved our conversations online, as we have all continued to weather this storm in our respective corners and in our own particular ways, our campus has been quiet, quieter even than (this being a College made up of readers) it ordinarily is. Quiet, but not desolate. A small group of international students have remained here throughout. The buildings and grounds crews have been steadily active, tending our landscaping and upgrading our campus facilities. The Mailroom has been open, keeping books flowing steadily in and out of campus. The IT crew has been working marathon hours, looking after our now full-throttle network systems.

Still, in comparison to ordinary times, it has been quiet. With the campus closed to the public since March, and with so few people physically present on the grounds, the animals and birds that inhabit Monte Sol and Arroyo Chamisa have been more frequent guests. Deer drink from the Fish Pond and browse the shrubbery. Rabbits nibble the grass. Flickers come to roost each evening beneath the Library eaves. While the world of people has been in steady crisis, our wild neighbors here continue to go about their ordinary lives.

We know all this because during these ten months, even as the Library’s doors have remained closed to public entry, the Library staff have been here nearly throughout. The work of our College rests upon a foundation made of books, and the work of maintaining that foundation has continued here unabated. And so, as we enter this fresh new year, a year we all hope moves us closer to what we now fondly remember as simple normality, we thought we would share some of the projects in which we have been engaged these last ten months behind those closed doors.

A Deluge of Returned Books

Our first order of business after the campus closure in March was the check-in and re-shelving of the more than two thousand books returned to the library in the frenzied days of packing before the campus emptied. Ordinarily, this mass call-in occurs at the end of each semester, and ordinarily we have the benefit of our stalwart student assistants to help. This time, with only a skeleton crew left, and with the interruption of a statewide stay-at-home order to boot, processing and re-shelving this sudden and unexpected deluge took nearly a month.

Our Move to Online Book Fulfillment and Expanded Digital Resources

With our community suddenly scattered and our College rapidly pivoting to online classes came the immediate and pressing need to devise online book ordering and fulfillment protocols, which we instituted immediately and continue to this day. This new system entailed the conversion of one of our two 24-hour study rooms (Room 101, which has both an indoor and an outdoor entrance) to a contactless book pickup point for Tutors and for our remaining campus residents, and the conversion of library office space into a packaging room for order fulfillment and shipping. In addition, we reconfigured and augmented our online Digital Resources (Digital Loeb Library, JSTOR, Mango Languages, Naxos Spoken Word Library, Oxford English Dictionary, etc.) to ensure they would remain accessible for all students and faculty wherever their current location in the world.

Replacing and Increasing Class Copies of Seminar Texts

One of the primary missions of our collection is to maintain a wide variety of quality translations and editions of Program texts. Over the last ten months we have inventoried this core collection, replaced hundreds of damaged and worn volumes, and increased the number of class copies to a baseline of twenty-five for all undergraduate seminar readings.

Weeding the Collection

Every few years it is our practice to go subject-by-subject, shelf-by-shelf, and book-by-book through our circulating collection (some 65,000 volumes) replacing damaged copies, withdrawing obsolete editions, moving rarer and more fragile books into our special collections to protect them from further damage, and so on. This slow process has been underway for several months, and is now near completion.

Processing Large Book Donations

Over the last several years, the Library has been the beneficiary of a record number of high-quality book donations from alumni, tutors, and friends and neighbors of the College. A number of these individual donations have numbered in the thousands of volumes, and together they have totaled more than 15,000 volumes. Each donation is methodically unpacked, counted, sorted, and checked against our collection development goals and our catalog, upon which a determination is made for each individual book whether to catalog it or re-box it for the next Library Book Sale. Of these more than 15,000 donated volumes, approximately one third have either been added to the collection in the last eighteen months, or are now somewhere in the cataloging process. These include substantial additions to the collection in the areas of philosophy, religion, 20th century literature, French literature, women authors, art and architecture, film history, music history, African American literature and history, history of science, natural history, and the literature and history of New Mexico and the Southwest, among others.

Additional Shelving in the Math and Science Stacks and in Room 202-203

In order to accommodate increased class copies of Program texts, new acquisitions, and two significant science book donations from the personal collections of Tutors Howard Fisher and Linda Wiener, as well as two significant outside donations of titles related to the work of James Joyce, the Library has added fifty-seven feet of additional second floor shelving.  

Southwest Collection

To facilitate a greater awareness of the uniquely tricultural history and legacy of the Southwest region within which our Santa Fe campus is located, we have configured a designated Southwest collection, which gathers in one location within the library all works in our collection falling under the headings of Southwestern literature, history, art, and natural history. For new students looking to orient themselves to the rich history and diverse cultural and outdoor opportunities our singular Southwest region offers, and for any campus community member moved to delve more deeply into this Southwestern place we all for a time can call “home,” the consolidation of these regionally focused works into one shelving area now makes browsing and discovery much easier.         

Archives

Work in the Archives includes the ongoing digitization of hundreds of hours of reel-to-reel and cassette recordings of Friday night lectures and the continuing digitization of archival photographs from the first five decades of the Santa Fe campus, all of which will be made available for public access through the Library’s online Digital Archives once these projects have been completed.

Book Sale

The circumstances of these last ten months have sadly prevented us from holding our traditional campus Library Book Sale for the College community. This sale will assuredly still happen at such time as the campus community can assemble in full once again. In the meantime, sale books continue to accrue from the many generous donations we have mentioned above. When our community can finally reconvene and our Book Sale finally go forward, know that the quantity and quality of these sale titles (now filling two library storerooms and numbering in the thousands) will have made it well worth the wait.   

Renovations and Upgrades

Finally, in preparation for the time (whenever that time finally comes) when we can all safely reconvene and reopen, we have been engaged in ongoing Library HVAC and facility modifications. While the indoor areas of the library continue to remain closed pending staff vaccinations and changes in the State of New Mexico and campus Covid dashboard statuses (both still at the highest level of Red), we are currently in the process of reconfiguring the library’s south and west porch spaces as WiFi-accessible and roofed outdoor study spaces, in anticipation of the warmer spring days soon to come. We expect to add additional seating and table space to these outdoor porch areas and to open them for those students currently here on campus sometime in the weeks ahead.  

The Dedication and Opening of Meem Library

The newly-completed Meem Library (1990)

On November 10, 1990, more than 350 Santa Feans joined the College community in a public dedication ceremony for the newly-completed library. In his opening address, campus President John Agresto succinctly captured the importance of this long-anticipated day: “Now, with the addition of a central library to our campus, we have a fitting and appropriate place to house the books that are the heart of the St. John’s educational mission.”

Among the speakers that day were Werner Gundersheimer, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library; Jerome LaPides, Chairman of the Board Library Construction Committee; Thomas C. Phelps, Assistant Director for Library Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities; Student Polity President Maura Donnelly (SF’91); Vice President for Advancement Jeffrey Morgan; architect Lorn Tryk; contractor Stan Davis; and library consultant Lisa Carey. Grateful acknowledgment was made to the many individuals whose efforts had finally brought this vision into being, including tutor and chair of the Campus Planning Committee Steve Van Luchene, Acting Librarian Tracey Kimball, and campus Treasurer Bryan Valentine, who “monitored the project with scrupulous care and good humor throughout its planning, development, and construction phases.” Other individuals receiving special mention were Katherine Galvin and Florence Goutlesque; Edward Hoessler of Stan Davis & Associates, Contractor; and Board members Owen Lopez, Mara Robinson, and John Wirth.

And in poignant addition to all of these others was one particularly special guest of honor: Nancy Meem Wirth, the daughter of Faith and John Meem. Nearly thirty years had passed since the first fateful encounter between Richard Weigle and the Meems at their home in Santa Fe in late January of 1961. Now, at long last, the final essential piece of the original campus vision had fallen into place. On that brisk November day the newest building on campus was dedicated, gratefully and fittingly, the Faith and John Meem Library. Nancy Wirth cut the entrance ribbon, the doors were opened, and—in a space that very soon would come to be known for its welcoming silence—the celebration began.

Meem Library dedication on November 10, 1990
Werner Gundersheimer, the Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, delivering the keynote address
Lisa Carey, library consultant and SFGI86
Builder Stan Davis
Nancy Meem Wirth, daughter of Faith and John Meem
Nancy Meem Wirth cutting the ribbon
Meem Library opening reception
Library beam artist Father Ricardo Russo (right) mingling at the reception

The Move Into the New Library

On October 26th, 1990, campus President John Agresto cancelled all classes for the day, and the College community rallied “in what President Agresto called a ‘booket brigade’ to move the books into the new building. Acting Librarian Tracey Kimball oversaw 250 volunteers with book bags, carts, and trucks as they moved more than 50,000 volumes in about six hours. The library’s shelving capacity is 90,000 volumes.” (The St. John’s Reporter, December 1990)

Among the many staff and faculty helping move books into the brand new library during the October 26, 1990 all-campus booket brigade were longtime campus information technology employee Richard Kruempel (lowering book cart from truck), current College Treasurer Michael Duran (back right), and tutor Cary Stickney (far right)
A team effort from some future Johnnies
Filling an empty new library with books
Tutors Jim Carey and David Bolotin unloading a book cart inside the new library.

Meem Library Takes Shape

View of the parking area that was eventually to become the location for the new campus library (undated)
The groundbreaking for the Santa Fe campus’s Meem Library, which occurred on Sunday, May 14, 1989, before Commencement exercises. Pictured are James Carey (Dean), James Benefiel (Librarian), Richard Weigle (President Emeritus), Peter Wirth (son of Board member John Wirth and the grandson of Faith and John Meem), Michael Riccards (President of the Santa Fe campus), Owen Lopez (Board member), and J. Burchenal Ault (Board member)
Construction begins (1989)

With the College community’s shared vision now in place, the firm of McHugh, Lloyd & Tryk Architects set to work on the design of what would ultimately take shape as our present 24,414 square foot library. Among the architects who contributed to this project was David Perrigo, who twenty years later would design the Santa Fe campus’s Winiarski Student Center.

For the library’s construction the College contracted with builder Stan Davis, a prominent Santa Fean who two years later would, like Faith Meem, be honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure. Stan’s long building career had involved diverse projects throughout the region, including post-war housing in Los Alamos, the Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, Christ in the Desert Monastery in Abiquiu, and much of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Locally, Stan’s resume included a collaboration with John Gaw Meem on the 1974 restoration of the Santa Fe Plaza, as well as a repair of the portal of the Plaza’s singularly significant Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the nation (built in 1610), after it was damaged by a car crash.

And nowhere is Stan Davis’s character more evident than in our own library. All those who enter this quiet space soon find their attention drawn upwards towards the distinctively New Mexican hand-decorated beams gracing its ceilings. These roof beams–carved by Ricardo Russo, a local priest who also carved beam replacements for the Cristo Rey Catholic Church, another John Gaw Meem building just off Canyon Road–were Stan’s personal gift to the College.

Father Ricardo Russo carving the beams that now adorn Meem Library

The beams are just one of the many intentional architectural touches that combine to make this library such a beautiful and appealing reading space. No one has put this careful intentionality into words more eloquently than Lisa Carey, in an article she wrote for The St. John’s Reporter in conjunction with the library’s opening:

Anyone who has participated in a St. John’s seminar understands that it is a vital center in the life of the College. It is a lively, public exchange, united around a common purpose and a common table. The success of a seminar depends on a student’s ability to take part in a sustained and meaningful conversation about a book. However, to do this a student must have an initial exchange with a book that is private, focused, and reflective. This part of our activity that is internal and contemplative is as central to the life of the College as is seminar, and it is this way of being with the books that the library is concerned with above all.

Just as the seminar is focused around a common table, it is fitting that a building devoted to contemplative activity should exhibit a strong internal focus or center. Our intention was that the building itself should be sited so as to create a second center on campus. The placita to the front campus is surrounded by the Peterson Student Center, the administrative building, Weigle Hall, and two classroom buildings. This is the public center, where most people enter the College proper. The library and the plaza to the front of it create a second, more private center to the back of campus and is bordered by the south side of Peterson, the Fine Arts Building, and the open space at the foot of Monte Sol. Once a student arrives here and enters the library, the building should lead him away from the public activities of life at the College and inward. Our wish was to build a strong building with a strong momentum inward toward a focal point that was serenely beautiful and which played a symbolic and functional role.

We also wanted to make use of one of New Mexico’s finest assets—its light—as a principal aesthetic feature of the building, as a symbol of education and functionally, to help illuminate the building. The architects’ solution was to design a building that one approaches through a broad, deep-set plaza. As one enters, one passes through a succession of transitional spaces—a vestibule, lobby and catalog area which have the effect of drawing one away from the rest of campus into a qualitatively different kind of space—a large, central atrium that is streaming with soft, indirect, natural light. This is achieved through the use of a Kal-Wal skylight, which is constructed of two sheets of translucent fiberglass and an internal aluminum frame separated by spun glass. The effect of the skylight is rather like a shoji screen.

Around the atrium, books, reading rooms, and professional services are organized. In this connection it should be mentioned that after having developed a design with a large, central atrium it seemed obvious to use this space for bookstacks. Doing so would have fulfilled a preference of the librarians to house the complete collection on the first floor. Yet this sensible idea was at odds with our notion of developing a contemplative center as well as with the College’s most important understanding of itself. To place bookstacks in a strong central space would have been tantamount to building a tabernacle to the books; it would have effectively claimed that the College venerates the books in themselves. The books that comprise our program of study do not propound a specific, singular doctrine. Rather they challenge and disagree with one another in untidy and wrenching ways. What they hold in common is that they ask the most important questions that thoughtful human beings have asked and provide the most substantial answers to these questions. Together they proclaim a tradition—a tradition that is shared and continued by the College—that it is reason that moves us from opinion to knowledge. While our esteem for these books is unquestioned, to create a sort of tabernacle to them would be on the order of sacrilege to those who know and understand the College. We simply do not venerate shelved books no matter how antiquated or fine their editions, no matter who their author. It is the engagement of the reader and the book that is at the center of the College’s understanding of itself. It is fitting therefore that the function of the central atrium is to provide space for readers and to bring light into the building. A second important aesthetic goal was that the building should attempt to convey an institutional identity that is not otherwise apparent in the campus architecture—that of a College devoted to the classical tradition of liberal education. We wanted it to be clear as one enters and uses the facility that this library is unique because of its specialized collection, its understanding of the place of contemplation in the life of the College, its acknowledgement of the importance of the reader and its relation to an educational tradition that is classical in origin. While we wanted the building to be compatible with the other buildings on campus and with the regional style of architecture, we also wanted the building to refer to the roots of our program of study. Because territorial architecture is a neoclassical style, it was natural to strengthen the purely classical references in the building. One attempt to do this which constitutes a departure from the rest of campus was to render the columns at the front of the building round rather than square. The architects believe that this speaks directly to classical Greek architecture; others appreciate that it is reminiscent of the columns at the entrance of the library on our sister campus.

The Mabee and Kresge Foundations

At this point, ten years into the new campus’s existence, the College’s expanding library holdings had been in nearly constant motion, migrating almost yearly through basements and lab rooms and women’s dormitories and then back into basements, such that the collection had become widely dispersed around the campus. While the librarians and students and faculty made do as best they could, this made for a less-than-ideal situation. According to one undated evaluation by the Head Librarian:

Lack of anything like adequate study space is a serious, continuing problem. There seems no solution to the problem short of a new building which would provide such space…. The noise level is too high in all areas of the library, and there likewise does not seem to be any solution to that problem short of a well-designed building in which administrative work spaces are separate from shelf stacks and study areas. Telephones will ring, typewriters must be used, and verbal queries from patrons must be answered.

In the meantime, the College and its librarians carried on. In 1980 James Benefiel, who had already worked for the College for several years as a cataloguing librarian, took on the position of Library Director, a position he would hold until 1990. It was during the next decade that the momentum for a new library truly began to build. Richard Weigle had retired from the presidency in 1980, after thirty-one intensely productive years at the College, and under his successor, Edwin Delattre, the prospect of a dedicated library building again appeared on the horizon. The archives shows a conversation in 1984 between Mr. Delattre and Mr. Benefiel explicitly devoted to discussing various visions of a new library. In 1985 a rough cost estimate, based on the original library plans, was worked up, and with further input by the campus library committee and the head librarian, the vision of more than twenty years began to coalesce into the outline of an actual project. A summary of the state of the library at the time is telling:

The collection is now housed in three separate locations on campus: in the Peterson Student Center, the Fine Arts Building, and Weigle Hall. Storage for back issues of periodical titles and for new and gift books is in two rooms in the basement of Peterson Center. Altogether these spaces occupy 8,318 square feet…. With the exception of 6 carrels, 2 tables, and 2 lounge chairs, there are no accommodations for readers in the three library locations. The lack of adequate study space is a serious, continuing problem and it is the expressed desire of the college community that a new facility generously provide for this need…. Finally, the fact that the four staff members are spread out over three locations has caused some inefficiencies and managerial difficulties. Circulation activities occur in three locations rather than one, cataloguing and card production are handled in two locations…. Overall, supervision of a library and a library staff that is spread out over three locations is more time-consuming than it would be for one location.

By 1986, when Michael Riccards assumed the Presidency of the Santa Fe campus, the conversation had grown to include the Faculty, the Campus Planning Committee, the Board of Visitors and Governors, and a Strategic Planning Committee. At this point, a grant application was already in the works with the J.E. and L.E. Mabee Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, created in 1948 by oilman John Mabee and his wife Lottie with the goal of providing philanthropic support to educational, medical, and charitable organizations. According to a Foundation spokesman at the time, “the philosophy of the foundation is that since the Mabees acquired much of their wealth through oil operations in the Southwest, money should be put back into institutions in the Southwest.”

By this time, nearly twenty years after graduating its first class, the fledgling campus had arrived at full adulthood, and it was now able to apply for these grant funds from a position of strength. To quote from a letter to the Foundation drafted for the original grant application:

As you can appreciate, the academic program of St. John’s College relies heavily on the printed word. It has been a continuing frustration to have the College’s 50,000 volumes housed in three separate buildings on our campus.… When the Santa Fe campus was conceived in the early 60s and plans were completed for the buildings, a three-story library was envisioned…. The plans that were prepared in 1963 called for a library with 18,200 square feet—ample capacity for the present and long-term needs. The architectural style of those original plans was in keeping with the other campus buildings—called the Southwest Territorial style. The Library was not built in the early days of the College because of a lack of funds and a need to use all contribution income for current operations…. St. John’s now has the financial stability to allow us to concentrate on finding the resources to build a quality library which can serve the needs of its students now and in the future.

In April of 1988, the College announced that the Mabee Foundation would provide $1 million to St. John’s for a new library, contingent upon the college raising the remaining $1.8 million itself. With this grant offer, which gave the College one year to meet its challenge requirement, the race was now on. The College’s Advancement staff immediately set to work on fundraising, and as has always been the case for this College when there is a capital need, alumni and Board members and faculty and friends of the College all rallied on behalf of the new library. In the course of this broad effort, the College also netted a second significant challenge grant of $250,000 from the Kresge Foundation, yet another powerful vote of confidence in the project and a significant boost to the fundraising effort.

Meanwhile, the Campus Planning Committee carefully reviewed the original 1964 library plans and ultimately concluded that these were now insufficient for the needs of the College. This led to the creation of a steering committee comprised of staff, faculty, Board members, and students whose charge was to develop a detailed program document for the new library. Instrumental in guiding this work was library consultant Lisa Carey, SFGI86, who would work tirelessly on this new campus library project until its completion. In an article Lisa wrote for the St. John’s Reporter in December of 1990, she described these first stages of planning:

While the document addresses various goals for the building—such as the need to provide shelf space for 90,000 books, the need to manage all aspects of operating a high quality library geared to the College’s program of study, as well as the need to stay within a modest budget—it was understood that our principal goal was to provide study space to students. So significant was this goal that the committee made a commitment to provide seating for 50% of the undergraduate and graduate population, or 220 students. This is remarkable as a more typical seating goal for a library facility would be to provide seating for 10 to 15% of the student population.

In addition to the library steering committee, a student library committee was given the task of finding out what kind of seating was desirable to students—carrels, study tables, upholstered furniture or some combination. The committee consisted of six students—Owen Lee, ’90, Kelly Koepke, ’90, Lee Whiting, ’89, Ron Kaplan, ’90, Sarah Maxwell, ’91, and Luke Warren, ’92—all of whom worked tirelessly in their effort to make students’ wishes influential on the design of the building. They prepared a questionnaire which was distributed to the entire student body, and then interviewed students personally. In addition to breaking down student preferences for seating, the committee was also able to learn of students’ most important wish—a quiet, safe, warm 24-hour study space….and it was decided that the building would provide two 24-hour study rooms.

By this time, more than twenty-five years had passed since Richard Weigle’s fateful first meeting with John and Faith Meem, back in February of 1961. John Meem had gone on to serve four terms on the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors, remaining a stalwart supporter of the College and the Santa Fe campus up until the time of his passing on August 4, 1983. Following John’s death, Faith herself was elected to the St. John’s Board in January 1984, and after her first term expired in 1986, she was elected for another three years.

A year later her son-in-law, John Wirth, a professor of Latin American studies at Stanford who had married the Meems’ daughter Nancy, was himself elected to the Board, and both he and Faith became actively involved in the new library project. When Faith passed away on March 23rd, 1989, at the age of 87, she had just attended a Board meeting on the Santa Fe campus the previous Saturday, and she had also been the person to make the final gift completing the funding of the new library, which she would just miss seeing finally come to fruition on the land she and John had donated for the campus nearly thirty years before.