Manuscripts and Archives Department

MSSA Reading Room, Yale University

Empowering research and learning

Education & Research

 

Architectural context

The Sterling Memorial Library, Yale’s mid-century Gothic masterpiece with a distinct flavour of Giles Gilbert Scott’s University Library in Cambridge England, designed and built at the same time, is not quite the University’s architectural centrepiece – the Memorial Quadrangle by James Gamble Rogers, also the Sterling’s architect, with its 200-foot Perpendicular Gothic Harkness Tower owing much to England’s ‘Boston Stump’ generally holds that title – but library and Quadrangle together form the linchpins of the University’s Gothic Revival campus.

The Sterling resonates with Gothic cathedrals as much as Gilbert Scott’s English Cambridge University Library does with his Battersea Power Station in London - perhaps more; Rogers, who took over the project from Bertram Goodhue on his death in 1924 through to completion in 1931, gave the building a cathedral plan ‘as near to modern Gothic as we dared to make it.’

The brief

At 11,380 sq m (122,500 sq ft), the building occupies more than half a city block and houses more than four million volumes. It also holds several special collections, including the University’s Manuscripts and Archives (MSSA). MSSA is a department, but it is also a series of spaces in which generations of academics have pored over the original documents of their chosen research.

This space represents the beating heart of the University itself, the place where the most precious pieces of its intellectual legacy reside, and in which the emotional attachment of those same generations of academics is cumulatively invested. This was a project the team at Luke Hughes could not turn down.

Working in close collaboration with New Haven based architectural practice Apicella+Bunton and the Project Management team Yale Facilities, we developed a series of designs to meet the exacting needs of the department’s management team and teaching professors.

Technical challenges

Custom reading and teaching tables and the Luke Hughes Folio stacking timber chair are the major standard furniture items. To provide a naturally protective surface for delicate documents the tops have linoleum insets. 

Natural linoleum always represents a technical challenge for table makers because the fabric backing gives it an uneven thickness. Since a key part of the brief for the reading tables was that there should be absolutely no discernible gap, step, lip or difference in height between the lino and the solid oak edge of the top, the design team at Luke Hughes faced a challenge.

The solution was ingenious, and remains a trade secret for the team at Luke Hughes to this day. All we can say is that we developed a simple and effective way to keep the naturally uneven surface of the linoleum exactly in line with the perfectly finished and dimensionally stable edge profile for decades to come!

The large document tables look deceptively plain, but the lino fixing system was not the only feature hidden below the surface. Concealed cable management brings power and data to each reading position, two on each side. Outlets on the top surfaces of the tables were of course out of the question because they could interfere with or risked damage to precious documents.

Instead, power and data is carried up inside the legs, which were positioned over ‘pull-throughs’ or floorboxes. As power and data have to be kept separate to avoid electronic interference a hidden pattern of routes for power and data criss-crosses the underside of the table top and, in the legs themselves, machined rebates keep the two sorts of cable separate.

Rare document photography

Not content with setting this double technical whammy, the team at MSSA were also insistent that some of their sturdy and massive tables had to be height adjustable. Not the usual sit-stand type mechanism one finds with office desking, but sit-fall so that large format documents could be digitally photographed from above with greater ease. 

However, a sophisticated overhead camera rig was out of the question, since the whole idea of the MSSA is accessibility and usability, so these massive, oversized tables had to get as low to the ground as possible, seamlessly, smoothly and safely, to ease photography.

To meet the operational need, we designed and engineered a set of 3 large-format lift-fall tables. Knowing the large format would increase the weight, and needing to integrate electric actuators, we developed a unique box-in-box structure for the legs. Safety trips were installed with push button controls to ensure that user safety was an integral part of the design and end result.

Photos by Christopher Gardner.

Working on a library, special collection or reading room?

Contact us today