Library's major expansion project gets underway

Temporary library entrance to be built, Information Services desk moving

Share this story

A $50.8 million expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University's main library is set to ramp up over spring break, marking the opening stages of the library's first major improvement since it was built in 1975.

As part of the expansion project, a new 93,000-square-foot library building will be built and connected to the north and east sides of the existing James Branch Cabell Library and an additional 63,000 square feet of the current library building will be renovated.

"We are overcrowded, there's not any other way to say it," said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider. "Students complain that they can't find a place to sit. The new building that we're creating will expand the space by over 30 percent. We'll add significant new seating capacity and we'll bring on the new kinds of new capabilities that our students and faculty have been asking us for."

Since the library was first built, Ulmschneider said, VCU's enrollment has grown by more than 10,000 students yet additional capacity was not added to the library.

"We have immense traffic and immense demand," he said. "And a significant portion of that traffic has not come from enrollment growth; it's come because the number of visits per student has increased. We have more visitors than any library in Virginia, more even than the Library of Congress."

VCU currently provides the least amount of square feet per student of any academic library in Virginia, yet has the highest amount of traffic, Ulmschneider said. Over the past 10 years, Cabell Library's traffic has more than doubled from 1 million visitors in 2003 to more than 2 million in 2013.

"Every year, the traffic has grown," he said. "I keep waiting for the traffic to level off and it doesn't."

During spring break, construction crews will shutter the main entrance and begin building a temporary entrance and vestibule that will last until the project wraps up in fall 2015.

The new entrance will be located at the current site of the first-floor windows south of Starbucks. Crews have poured concrete and are building the vestibule outside the new entrance's location. In addition, over the break, the Information Services desk will be moved to the center of the building, to be in the direct path of the new entrance.

New services being added

The expanded library will add a number of new services and capabilities aimed at students.

On the first ground floor of the new building, a new Innovative Media Studio will offer students access to high-end computing, a green-screen studio, audio and video recording and editing equipment, 3-D printing and data visualization.

The Innovative Media Studio also will include an immersive data visualization facility, allowing for the display of wraparound, large-form video.

"People have been asking for a lot of this stuff for years but we haven't been able to offer it because of space constraints," said Dennis T. Clark, associate university librarian for research and learning. "Now we can."

The project will also add a public auditorium, which will be able to seat between 150 and 300 people.

"We will finally have another space at VCU for lectures, presentations and events," Ulmschneider said. "There's a scarcity of space like that at VCU. This will be an important facility not just for VCU but for our entire community."

On the fourth floor of the new building, a new graduate and faculty research center will have sweeping views of campus.

"What great university doesn't have graduate and faculty space in its library?" Ulmschneider said. "Well, we're going to create one. It will be a beautifully appointed, dignified space that provides the kind of capabilities that faculty and graduate students need for individual and collaborative work."

Working closely with VCU Dining Services, which operates the facility, the Starbucks on the first floor will be significantly expanded, allowing for shorter lines and faster service.

"The Starbucks in Cabell Library is among the top 10 in gross sales of all Starbucks in the country. It's tremendously busy. It does over $1.5 million in business every year," Ulmschneider said. "We're going to more than double its size."

A cutting-edge "vitrine" video display wall facing Shafer Court will be installed on the exterior of the new building's third and fourth floors. The display, which will be nearly two stories tall, will be a semi-transparent screen with embedded LEDs, allowing the library to display students' video art projects, to provide information about the library or even to show VCU basketball games.

"It'll be large enough and bright enough that in the summer you'll be able to see it from Franklin Street, and in the winter you'll be able to see it from Broad Street," Ulmschneider said. "It'll be a mark of distinction for Virginia Commonwealth University."

Also as part of the project, the library will expand its special collections area on the fourth floor over the summer.

"Special collections is going to get a larger footprint out of this renovation, some better processing space behind the scenes for staff, and a much larger and more secure stacks area, which will have compact shelving so the capacity will be much larger in terms of materials," said Jeanne Hammer, associate university librarian for administration and policy development and a key liaison on the building program.

The project will also add two dedicated classrooms and a significant amount of additional seating for students.

"We're going to basically be doubling the number of seats that we have for students in the building," Clark said. "There'll be a lot more space for students to come and use the space in the way that they need to use it. We'll see a lot fewer people vulturing around, waiting for a computer to open up."

Major construction work ahead

Apart from the temporary entrance, much of the construction work this semester will involve moving utilities out of the "pit," the large sunken area on the north side of Cabell where the new library will be built.

Also this spring, the library is building new offices on the first and third floors to replace offices that will be demolished in early construction. The new first-floor offices for the departments of academic outreach and teaching and learning will be finished by summer.

Linden Street, from Park Avenue to Floyd Avenue, will close at some point in the spring. A date has not been set. It will remain closed to vehicle traffic throughout the building process.

During the summer, construction crews will pry the precast from the exterior on the north and part of the east sides to prepare the façade that will connect with the new building.

"That'll be the noisiest work we'll experience during the project so we're doing it in the summer when there aren't as many students in the building. We will encourage them to go to the far reaches of the building to get away from the noise," Hammer said.

A number of library staffers will be moved into swing space over the summer to get away from the noise, she said.

In late summer and September, heavy construction on the new building will be underway.

The library expects to move into the new building in late fall semester 2015 of next year, and some additional renovations will take place after the new building opens.

During the 18-month construction phase, some user space will be lost, though the library has been working to minimize the disruption.

The library is also working to minimize the disruption from construction noise.

"There will be noise, there's no way they can build a $50 million building next door and it not be a loud process," Clark said. "So we're doing things like ordering ear plugs to hand out to folks if they want that kind of sound insulation."

Throughout the construction, the library will continue to be open the same hours and offer its full range of services.

The project's architects are Shepley Bulfinch of Boston and Virginia-based Moseley Architects.

For more details on the library's expansion project, go to:

Alerts about noise levels and construction schedules will be posted to the library website and, as is feasible, to TelegRAM. Observers will be able to find construction updates and watch progress on a webcam soon at:


Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter.