The Asher Library at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

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by Susan Baum, Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, Illinois Library Association Reporter, February 2008.

In November, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies moved to a new $55 million, state-of-the-art, 155,000-square-foot facility, built on one of the last empty lots on Chicago’s historic South Michigan Avenue. Designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects, the new facility provides enhanced features to better serve visitors and students of Spertus College, Spertus Museum, and the Asher Library.

Spertus has been an important educational and cultural resource since it opened in 1924 as an educational center for Chicago’s Jewish community. That important foundation remains, but over the decades Spertus has expanded to serve broader goals, adding programmatic centers to serve an increasingly diverse population and a much wider geographic sweep. Today Spertus provides a dynamic learning environment made vibrant through a synergy of academic and cultural resources, proudly based in Chicago but reaching out to the world.

The library of the Spertus Institute was founded in the mid-1930s and renamed the Asher Library in 1974, when Norman and Helen Asher, recognizing the importance of a first class Jewish library, gave the endowment for library support. Today, the Asher Library is one of North America’s largest Jewish libraries. Open to all, the collections include more than 110,000 fiction and nonfiction books, music, documentary and feature films, rare books and maps, periodicals, newspapers, and electronic resources, all focusing on Jewish subject matter for the broadest range of interests. Online resources include the Feinberg e-collection, which offers the full text of more than 800 Jewish reference books and 25,000 articles to Spertus members and students, worldwide, accessible from any computer anytime. The library is also home to the Chicago Jewish Archives, the repository of the material history of Chicago Jewry.

After years in cramped quarters, the Asher Library’s new physical space now provides the same excellence as its collections. Housed on the seventh and eighth floors of the new Spertus building, the library is one and a half times larger, with new amenities including free wireless Internet access, an increased number of workstations, and a stunning reading room filled with natural light. Floor-to-ceiling windows (specially treated to reduce ultraviolet rays) offer incredible views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan.

High-tech, electric compact shelving systems, purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, employ collapsible moving shelves that open with the touch of a button.

An expanded archives workroom and conservation lab facilitates the processing, cataloging, and preservation of material from the Chicago Jewish Archives, rare books, and rare maps. Those items are then made available for research in the Asher Library’s special collections reading room, a self-contained environment for scholars or anyone who wishes to view materials from the library’s special collections. Several audiovisual carrels are available for viewing films and listening to recordings on CDs, LPs, and 78s.

Says Asher Library Director Glenn Ferdman about the process of creating the library’s new home, “Everybody put in a lot of work, coming up with ideas and designs for what would be most beneficial for both staff and our users. We were able to integrate each component into one cohesive whole, providing a fluid, enhanced experience for both.”

Fast Facts
Building: 23,300 square feet
Project Costs: $55 million for the total Spertus project
Seating: 80
Collections: 110,000
Computers: 8
Hours: 41 per week
Staff: 12 FTE
Architect: Krueck + Sexton Architects
Engineer: Environment Systems Design
Interiors: Krueck + Sexton Architects with space planning consultant Anders Dahlgren
Construction: W. E. O’Neil
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