Reading the New Library

Stetson-Sawyer LibraryHow can a library be an educational tool when it’s still under construction? One way is to read it like a text. Christopher Bolton, associate professor of Japanese literature and chair of the Comparative Literature Program, spent the fall semester helping students in his Twentieth Century Literary Theory course deconstruct literature. Then they took a hard-hat tour of the new Stetson-Sawyer Library, applying theories they’d learned about literary structure to a building whose unfinished structure was nearly completely exposed.

“Literary theory asks us to consider how the structure of literature affects our experience of it,” explains comparative literature and physics double major Gabriel Samach ’15. In class, students may strip the plot, setting, and characters away from, say, Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” in order to understand the carefully balanced tensions of its narrative structure.

Similarly, on their tour of the Stetson-Sawyer Library, the structure of the building—with its striking balance between old and new—was exposed for their consideration. Bolton’s students had the opportunity to think about how architectural decisions will affect their experience of the library once it’s complete—when all the metaphorical plot, setting, and characters have been added to the bare bones of the building.

Because the old section of the library has been preserved to look much as it did in the 1920s, students entering the completed building will initially experience the library as generations of “Old Williams” students did before them. “Then,” Bolton says, “they’ll walk through the old building into the new wing, and turn around to see old Stetson looking almost small in comparison to the space in which they’re standing—as if it were a book on the shelf of the new library.”

Samach agrees that this effect is a graceful, and intentional, architectural gesture. “The new building subsumes the old one, essentially putting it into a museum,” he says. “When you’re standing inside the new building, looking back, you can see old Stetson perfectly framed by glass.”

“This transparent structure celebrates the Williams of old while allowing us to consider our relationship to our own history,” Bolton says. “Even the short walk from the front to the back of the building provokes us to think creatively about how that history fits into the Williams campus and the Williams culture of today.”