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Credit: Courtesy of Penn Libraries

When stepping onto the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library today, one might feel as if it were the lobby of a modern hotel, rather than the home of more than 350,000 rare books.

Near the end of 2011, construction crews completed the first phase of renovations for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the sixth floor of Van Pelt. The construction project — which has been underway for more than a year — will enter its second phase next month.

By the end of the calendar year, the entire project will be complete.

Carton Rogers, vice provost and director of Penn Libraries, said “changing technology calls for different spaces,” adding that the evolution of the library system over the years has marked an “incredible change.”

Completion of Phase I has given the library a brand new reading area with views of Locust Walk, a classroom area, a study alcove and a rare book reading room. There was also a space set aside during the construction process that will soon become Franklin’s Corner.

Franklin’s Corner will hold one of Ben Franklin’s personal desks and some of his other belongings.

While the sixth floor is not yet open, the special collections are still available for use by students and faculty on the fifth floor of Van Pelt.

“Our collection is only as good as it’s being used,” Tina Cowan, director of development for the Penn Libraries, said. “We want everybody to use our materials, and we work in close collaboration with our faculty and students.”

Phase II will begin in February and will involve the construction of a brand new media lab, a gallery area, some new offices and a green roof. There will also be renovations to the Shakespeare Library and the creation of a staircase that will connect the fifth and sixth floors.

Phase III, which will add a new stack space for the rare books on the fifth floor, remains contingent on whether Penn Libraries can raise enough funds, Cowan said.

The majority of fundraising for the project has come from alumni donations to the Making History campaign, parents and some individual donors, with additional help from the Board of Overseers of the library.

So far, the libraries have raised $13.5 million for the project and have about $2 million to go toward their ultimate financial goal.

“We are cautiously optimistic that our gap will be met,” Cowan said.

While Rogers views this project as significant, it is not the first major renovation at Van Pelt in recent years, he explained. The library has undergone continuous renovations over the past 15 years, with the most recent additions being Weigle Information Commons and the Undergraduate Study Center.

Rogers sees the current renovations as a natural step in the University’s response to the changes occurring in the digital environment.

“When I started [at Penn Libraries], this was a very cold and austere place,” he said. “I think now we have really changed that paradigm.”

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