AD Classics: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill

© SOM - Ezra Stoller of Esto Photographics

Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is the largest building in the world dedicated to the containment and preservation of rare books, manuscripts, and documents. It was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill and is located in New Haven, Connecticut. Prior to the completion of this project, Yale University placed its rare books on special shelving in Dwight Hall, which was the Old Library in the late 19th century. In 1930 these special books were relocated to Rare Book Room collection in the Sterling Memorial Library. The Beinecke library was a gift from the Beinecke family, and since 1963 has accomodated six major collections in its rare and marvelous structure that coincides with the literary gems it stores, including those from the Rare Book Room. The major collections are the General Collection, which are divided into the General Collection of Early Books and Manuscripts and the General Collection of Modern Books and Manuscripts, the Collection of American Literature, the Collection of German Literature, the Collection of Western Americana, and the Osborn Collection of British Literary and Historical Manuscripts.

More information and images of the library after the break. The main concern that both SOM and Yale University considered in the design of the library was the preservation of the documents within it. The challenge was to provide ample lighting in the interior for people to study and read and to make it a pleasantly habitable space while limiting the amount of light that affects the stored volumes. The response became a beautiful choice of classic materials gleaming amongst the neo-Classical and neo-Gothic buildings surrounding the library in the Hewitt University Quadrangle on the campus.

© Ezra Stoller of Esto Photographics

Made of Vermont marble and , bronze and glass, the exterior gives the illusion that the building is completely solid when viewed from the outside. It’s “windows,” blocked in a consistent linear rythmn along the exterior, consist of white, gray-veined marble panes that are one and one-quarter inches thick and are framed by shaped light gray Vermont Woodbury . The sleak marble allows for enough light to filter into the interior spaces without damaging the collections. The structure that frames these rectangular blocks consists of of Vierendeel trusses, high, and 88′ and 131′ long, which transfer their loads to four massive corner columns. The trusses are made out of of prefabricated, tapered crosses which are covered with grey granite on the outside and with precast granite aggregate concrete on the inside.

© Ezra Stoller of Esto Photographics

The beauty of the library is enhanced by the large open plaza in which it is located. Visitors enter from the ground level into a glass-enclosed lobby that reveals the grand exhibition hall that holds the books. Beneath this level are two stories which contain the mechanical equiptmnt and large book stack space on the lower level, and another stack space, catalog and reference room, reading room and staff offices arranged around a sunken court designed by Isamu Noguchi on the upper level.

© Ezra Stoller of Esto Photographics

When visitors first enter the building they are faced by two large marble staircases that ascend up to the mezzanine level and a large glass tower that is the central core of the building. The mezzanine level allows for people to rotate around the glass tower which holds 180,000 volumes, centralizing the main purpose of the library. In total the library presently holds 500,000 volumes and several million manuscripts, and SOM’s design serves to preserve and glorify the billions of words inscribed inside each rare book.

Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
Location: New Haven, Connecticut
Client: Yale University
Project Area: 125,262 square feet
Project Year: Completed in 1963
Photographs: Courtesy of Ezra Stoller of Esto Photographics
References: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill

Cite: Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill" 29 Jun 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • jcarch

    This is one of my all time favorites. Photo’s can’t do justice to how beautiful the light coming through the stone is on the interior.

    One thing I’ve never been able to figure out is how the main volume of the building is supported. There’s just 4 columns…and the depth of the beam that would be at the top of those columns just seems too shallow to hide a beam that could handle that span. And there doesn’t seem to be room in the frames around the stone panels to have turned the whole facade into a truss (w/ no diagonals) any resistance to deflection.

    • mssngvwl

      ‘The structure that frames these rectangular blocks consists of of Vierendeel trusses, high, and 88′ and 131′ long, which transfer their loads to four massive corner columns.’

  • mhash

    If you look closely at the plan, you will see that there are columns integrated within the glass wall. The same works on the interior within the glass box.

  • GLK

    This is also one of my favorite buildings. I’m not very fond of the sunken plaza in front of it, but SOM wasn’t the only firm building those nasty things in the ’60s.

    Here are construction photos of the Beinecke, for whoever may be interested:

  • The Big Black & White Zebra

    The Elephant & Castle roundabout – London… but I’m thinking that was derivative, surely…

  • David Basulto

    clap, clap, clap

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  • Matt

    SOM at their best.

  • Rodrigo Duque

    One of my XX century Top ten

  • The Big Black & White Zebra

    I don’t want to take anything away from what I think is a still unique creation…
    But just going back to the Elephant & Castle roundabout… It’s a memorial to William Faraday – the physicist, and houses an electricity sub-station for the metro line nearby. It has historical status and is not a patch on the SOM effort, but two points to note…
    Firstly it is credited as 1959-61 and SOM’s library is 1963. Secondly, I forget Faraday Memorial’s architect but if you do a Google you’ll see stainless steel cladding… his original intention was for a glass box exposing the machinations of the sub-station… ¡ and more like the SOM effort… maybe the SOM client had more vision…

  • Banc

    A jewel of the past! Swoon!!

  • Simen Christiansen

    There is a beautiful church called St. Pius in Meggen, Switzerland (close to Luzern), drawn by Franz Füeg between 1964 and 1966, which uses translucent marble (28mm thick)in the same way as SOM does here. It’s not on archdaily, but here is an external link:

  • d.teil

    one of these masterpieces. one of the top projects by som.

  • Axe

    This is wonderful. If you look at the plan it bears a lot of resemblance to ancient Greek temples. With that in mind and looking at the pictures it must be one of the best modern interpretations of a “temple of knowledge”, rather than the method many “classical” museums used to cast this idea on their public.

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  • Ece Cakir

    I think this is the point where the architect is mastered with the materials. He knows the material so well that in his dictionary glass is not the only way to achieve transparency.