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April 24, 2017

Yale’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (BRBL) was a 1963 gift of the Beinecke family. The building was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Gordon Bunshaft of the firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, and is the largest building in the world reserved exclusively for the preservation of rare books and manuscripts. It is located at 121 Wall Street in the center of the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut, in Hewitt Quadrangle, which is more commonly referred to as “Beinecke Plaza”.

A six-story above-ground glass-enclosed tower of book stacks is surrounded by a windowless rectangular outer shell, supported only on four massive piers at the corners of the building, which descend 50 feet to bedrock. The outer walls are made of translucent veined marble panels quarried from Danby, Vermont, which transmit subdued lighting and provide protection from direct sunlight. At night, the stone panels transmit light from the interior, giving the exterior of the building an amber glow. The outside dimensions have “Platonic” mathematical proportions of 1:2:3 (height: width: length). The building has been called a precious “jewel box”. The building has also been called a “laboratory for the humanities”

A public exhibition hall surrounds the glass stack tower, and displays among other things one of the 48 extant copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Two basement floors extend under much of Hewitt Quadrangle. The first level down, the “Court” level, centers on a sunken courtyard in front of the Beinecke, which features The Garden (Pyramid, Sun, and Cube). These are abstract allegorical sculptures by Isamu Noguchi that are said to represent time (the pyramid), sun (the disc), and chance (the cube). This level also features a secure reading room for visiting researchers, administrative offices, and book storage areas. The level of the building two floors below ground has movable-aisle compact shelving for books and archives.

During the 1960s, the Claes Oldenburg sculpture Lipstick on Caterpillar Tracks (Ascending) was displayed in Hewitt Quadrangle. The sculpture has since been moved to the courtyard of Morse College, one of the university’s residential dormitories.

The elegance of the Beinecke later inspired the glass-walled structure that holds the original core collection of the British Library (the books gifted by King George III and referred to as the King’s Library within the British Library building in Euston, London).