Sterling Memorial Library

September 2, 2014

With the reopening of the Sterling Memorial Library nave, I feel as if we have welcomed an old friend back to campus – and that friend has had an amazing facelift! Through the generosity of Richard Gilder and Lois Chiles, the nave has been restored to its original beauty and also renovated to provide 21st century services. 

When I walked through the space last week, people were studying at tables in the alcoves, working on computers, scanning documents, and sitting in comfy chairs reading “real” books! And some, myself included, were standing with jaws dropped, staring up at the ceiling, at the leaded-glass windows, at the restored stonework, and at Alma Mater in all her glory. 

One of the giants in my field of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, observed that behavior is a function of the person, his or her environment, and the interaction between the two. As I stood in the nave, I understood all over again the power of place to inspire, to excite, to illuminate. Inspiring places attract and bring together inspired people who, together or individually, do remarkable things. And Sterling Library is certainly one of Yale’s most inspiring places!  

When John William Sterling, Class of 1864, made his transformational gift to Yale, he asked that the funds be used to create “at least one enduring, useful, and architecturally beautiful edifice.” Sterling Library has most assuredly met those criteria. But inspiring though it is, it is not just a beautiful edifice with a collection of books; it is really a collection of ideas. I have no doubt that Sterling, the building, will endure. I am also sure that the ways we collect, create, share, understand, and benefit from information will continue to evolve. The rise of the information age does not signal the obsolescence of the library – indeed libraries may be as significant as ever – but it does change the way we think about how libraries function. Whether it is support for digital humanities, access to ever-expanding electronic content, the preservation of ancient papyri, or the availability of journal articles from the last century and from last week, the library is at the center of our academic mission.