Media Hub: VCU's Cabell Library Update Is More Than Just a Pretty Face 

click to enlarge The graduate and faculty research center on the new library’s top floor is a soaring space architecturally.

Scott Elmquist

The graduate and faculty research center on the new library’s top floor is a soaring space architecturally.

No books. That’s right, the 63,000-square-foot addition to the James Branch Cabell Library holds zero book stacks. That was the whole idea.

The updating of the 1970 library takes the building into the 21st century by creating a light-filled, innovative, media-rich hub designed to change based on student needs and technology shifts in years to come. Students already are rearranging the furniture to suit their studying needs.

“The space is designed for academic work and intellectual pursuit,” university librarian John Ulmschneider says. “It brings print, digital technology and people together in an environment they can work in, because learning is fundamentally a social activity.”

In the strange-but-true category, numbers have proven that the more research materials are put online, the more people flock to libraries, making for a 37 percent increase in traffic over the past 10 years. Part of the reason may be accessing the expertise of librarians, who can navigate the world of information.

Signs in bathroom stalls read, “Librarians offer free consultations!” ensuring that students understand librarians’ function. Ulmschneider says many young people are flabbergasted at the news. “They have a perception that fees are involved in facilitated exploration,” he says. “We explain, ‘No, librarians are eager to help.’”

One area in which students have little problem navigating is the innovative media center called the Workshop. It’s here they can check out equipment to create video streams, document their thinking using a video studio with blue and green screens, access one of four 3-D printers, use a laser cutter or sewing machines, and digitize their vinyl or cassette collections.

click to enlarge A broad staircase links the entrance lobby with flexible second-floor study areas. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A broad staircase links the entrance lobby with flexible second-floor study areas.

The open plan of each floor accommodates group study. There also are designated rooms with larger tables and white boards, although students have also been known to write on the inside of glass walls once white boards are covered. “White boards are one technology we can’t have enough of,” Ulmschneider says, laughing.

A larger area for Special Collections allows easier access and more space for those wishing to view or work with the university’s incomparable comic, ’zine, book art and media history collections — all of which are available to the public.

By May, a two-story display screen will be operating, semitransparent from the inside and embedded with high-resolution LED bulbs outside, to highlight the university’s artistic legacy. Images of paintings, sculpture, faculty book covers, kinetic art and movies will be visible from the Compass.

New lecture halls allow the library to be a facilitator for important conversations of the day, engaging both the student body and community with compelling programming. Black comic artist Keith Knight gave a provocative talk he called, “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?” sparking a discussion of current race relations with the packed house.

Jill Lepore’s book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” had been chosen as the university’s Common Book, so her talk also drew a large audience to hear about the suffragist and feminist issues that underpinned Wonder Woman’s story. With a sly wink, Wonder Woman’s invisible plane was on display downstairs in the lobby.

Getting caffeinated seems like another essential to learning. When the university opened a coffee bar in the library 15 years ago, it was enough of a novelty that no less than NPR sent a reporter to document the occasion. It quickly became one of the top-grossing Starbucks in the country.

Its update, a new 3,400-square-foot Starbucks, is completely integrated into the library, connecting to a spacious, glass-enclosed atrium. Even when coffee service stops at 2 a.m. during the week, only the counter is caged off while the seating areas remain open to students.

As for books, for those who look to a library for nothing more than a quiet place to read, there’s the reading porch, a place with comfortable chairs, rockers and windows open to the distinctive energy of the urban environment.

“It’s the mix of art students with other disciplines and educators that’s different,” Ulmschneider says. “The building connects with the energy outside. It buzzes.” S

The grand opening of the new James Branch Cabell Library is March 16 at 5 p.m., at 901 Park Ave. For information call 828-1105 or visit


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