The addition of the five-story Robert E. Kennedy Library to campus and the authorities responsible for its success will be celebrated this week as the library enters its 31st year of service. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the library’s dedication.
Thirty years ago, a student looking to study in the library would find few options as they wandered through the windowless floors and narrow aisles of the library. It would become a choice between sitting among the rows of books that ran floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall or in a cubby against a wall with an extended bookshelf that served as a study desk.
“It was a maze; you’d be surprised at how many floors were in (the Walter F. Dexter) library,” Judy Drake, a former student and head of library access and interlibrary services, said. “Even as a student, there is no way I would study there. I would go in, get my books and take them home.”
Today, students know that building as the Walter F. Dexter Building, home to Cal Poly’s department of art and design and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. The portion of the Dexter Library that remains behind a locked door “reminds you of something out of the ‘40s, like when you see old-school pictures of librarians,” said Marya Figueroa, a former student and Web developer at the current Robert E. Kennedy Library.
“Whenever people complain (about the current library), I just want to say, ‘You should have seen what a difference it was between the old library and this library — your mind would be blown,’” Figueroa said.
With its 2,000 seats, 280 computers in seven labs and dozens of individual and group study areas on every floor, today’s library is what former President Emeritus Kennedy realized was essential for student success. He lobbied to gain the $11 million it took for the library to officially open in 1980. A year later, the building was dedicated to Kennedy, who died in December 2010.
Since its opening, the library has changed in a variety of ways to keep up with and meet student demands.
Five years ago, students were not allowed to have food or drinks in the library. Now the second floor has Julian’s Patisserie as well as a microwave, and students can be seen enjoying food and drinks on every floor.
More recently, the library has added wireless printing, new laptops available to check out, more access to power outlets and a tripling in size of the 24-Hour Study Room, which now allows for 24-hour access to computers, said Anna Gold, the associate dean of library services.
Gold said the library’s utilization of electronically accessed articles, news, technical reports and books has allowed the second floor to shift away from the image of a traditional, book-filled library.
“The library can now use its spaces to encourage people to work together,” Gold said. “We can devote more of our intention to the process of bringing people together and bringing you in to interface with resources.”
The encouragement of group study and the addition of collaboration rooms on the second floor consequently caused library services to establish the fourth and fifth floors strictly as quiet study zones, Gold said.
The varying environments each floor provides are something civil engineering senior Chris Sy said makes the library cater to any study method.
“During finals week, the fourth and fifth floors definitely (are the most helpful),” Sy said. “Not during finals week, the third floor (is helpful) just because you can actually converse and use those huge tables in the big open areas to do homework.”
To meet the needs of all students, no matter their study preferences, library services uses a series of formal surveys, ad hoc surveys, student projects and feedback box to connect with students and hear concerns.
“What we don’t want is for the library to be for some; we want it to be for all and meet the full range of needs for people,” Gold said. “There is stuff happening here, and it’s exciting. You feel like you’re part of something, and the visibility you get where you see other people working is very supportive.”
A space to study is not the only resource the library offers students. To some, such as graphic communication junior Sarah Danley, the library is a place to take a break from a hectic schedule.
“I found that I like the second floor with the really comfy chairs,” Danley said. “I go there to relax if I have time in between classes. But it’s also a really nice place to study and get away from home.”
Since students are the driving force behind library services, they are encouraged to attend the upcoming anniversary event. Faculty, staff and alumni are also encouraged to come in support of the many improvements the library has seen in the past 30 years, said Dale Kohler, director of library information technology and event organizer.
“The provost (Robert Koob) mentioned (the Robert E. Kennedy Library) seen as the living room of the campus, and we like the idea of being the living room of the campus,” Kohler said. “We think in kind of a down budget time period, when there has been less progress than people would have liked as far as benefits to students, that we’ve been able to make changes in the library that have been beneficial. We’ve been able to show positive change, and we’re excited about that.”
President Jeffrey Armstrong and Dean of Library Services Michael Miller will deliver speeches about both the library and former President Emeritus Kennedy and his role in its creation. Following this, room 11H will be dedicated to former Cal Poly administrator Dale Andrews, who retired in 1983 after serving as the executive vice president.
Special tours of the first two library floors will also be given in addition to a reception that will be held by Julian’s Patisserie. The event will be held April 8 at 2 p.m.
Editor’s Note: Check out this then-and-now slideshow of the Robert E. Kennedy Library. Multimedia by Victoria Billings.