High-Tech Oasis

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Penn State’s new law building combines natural beauty with practicality

By Kevin Gray, Assistant Director of the Dickinson School of Law Library of the Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Originally appeared in the May 2009 edition of (AALL Spectrum), magazine of the American Association of Law Libraries

One of the nation’s oldest law schools has just opened one of its two new facilities. The Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law’s) new Lewis Katz Building, opened in January 2009, marks a new chapter in the school’s 175-year history.

The 114,000 square-foot building is located on Penn State’s flagship campus in University Park, Pennsylvania. Penn State Dickinson has two campuses – one in University Park and one at Dickinson’s ancestral home of Carlisle – but operates as one enterprise with a single vision. The Carlisle campus is also building a new home around the venerable Trickett Hall, home to Dickinson’s Carlisle operations since 1918. The new Carlisle facility will open in January 2010.

The buildings, both designed by the Polshek Partnership architectural firm, have a total cost of $120 million. Polshek also designed the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock and directed the renovation of the Ed Sullivan Theatre for the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

The most noticeable feature of the Katz Building from the exterior is the signature glass curtain wall adorning the south side. Virtually no two glass sections are the same. Each glass plate weighs approximately 400 pounds; the curtain wall is supported by “strongback” steel beams. Along with the curtain wall, the building is clad with Pennsylvania sandstone and limestone.

The curtain wall overlooks what will become Penn State’s arboretum and botanic gardens later in 2009, providing a truly beautiful “front yard” for the law school.

As part of attaining U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building certification, the roof of the Katz Building has plants in place of traditional roofing materials. This reduces the eco footprint of the building, resulting in less storm water runoff, less air pollution, and lower heating and cooling costs. Materials for the construction of the building were also sourced locally whenever realistically possible.

Given Dickinson’s two locations/one law school approach to legal education, all classrooms are fully connected with teleconference equipment so that a professor teaching live in one facility can also participate interactively with students at the other facility. The new courtroom, also fully connected, was designed with input from judges who are Dickinson alumni.

The H. Laddie Montague, Jr., Law Library spans three floors of the new building. The library was mindfully designed in light of the changing interdisciplinary nature of modern legal study and also to meet student demand for quiet yet social study space. In addition to meeting the usual modern day student expectations of wireless access and almost countless power ports for students’ laptops, the seating, study rooms, and carrels are designed to provide an array of differing forms of study space while instilling a sense of community. Gail Partin, the library’s associate director, notes that “early in the planning stages, we identified several critical features that were imperative to the development of a state-of-the-art, service-rich library environment. For example, pervasive technology and twenty-four-hour access, especially in the group study rooms, were designed into the library space wherever possible to facilitate collaborative learning.”

In the short time that the building has been open, library usage and traffic have surged exponentially. According to Steven Hinckley, associate dean for library and information services, “In its first few months of operation, the law library has become the signature space within the beautiful new Katz Building for serious research and study, and has provided the School of Law with an iconic intellectual core that bespeaks Penn State Dickinson’s seriousness of purpose and lofty scholarly ambitions.”

Perhaps the most notable feature of the library is the reading room, which features not only the glass curtain wall but also breathtaking views of the Penn State campus and Mount Nittany in the distance. The reading room is separated from the library by a full-wall display case, which not only permits attractive exhibits but also lets additional morning light shine through the library.

Another impressive feature is the library’s ramp connecting the second and third floors. The ramp, which juts out over the side of the main structure, is supported not by its floor, but by steel hanging tension rods extending from the floor to the top of the curtain wall. It is lined with carrels equipped with individual power and lighting, and is designed to provide students with a feeling of being outdoors while still in the library. The hardwood carrels feature not only waist-high bookshelves, but also some food for thought in the form of metal letter inlays expressing various legal and human rights icons, such as “Marbury v. Madison,” “Civil Society,” and “Thurgood Marshall.”

Soft seating is provided throughout the library. In the words of Colleen Toomey Lieberman, assistant dean for policy and planning, “There’s not a bad seat in the house.” The library also provides seven study rooms of various sizes. Five of the rooms have doors that are equipped with time locks so that the rooms are accessible to students when the library is closed.

A reading garden is also available outside the building, affording students another study space option in the warmer months. Of course, the garden also offers wireless access. The library’s digital center includes a classroom with 13 computers, two printers, and audiovisual equipment, providing an excellent environment for online training.

The open plan of the library makes it easy for library users to quickly find their way. Visitors coming through the library’s entrance are greeted by staffers at the spacious information desk, which is backlit by the curtain wall. Public access terminals are a few steps away, along with the library’s reference and statutes section, and access to the main stacks on the third floor via the ramp. Access to the main stacks is also available through an open staircase or by elevator.

While the layout of the library’s bookstacks takes advantage of the sunlight coming in through the glass curtain wall, individual lighting is also provided for virtually all public access shelving. Three banks of adjustable shades are used to control the amount of sunlight entering the library. At night, the shades are raised to reveal the lighting within the building, creating an impressive glowing effect for those outside the building or driving along nearby roads.

The library’s basement houses motorized compact shelving units as well as microforms and microform reader equipment. This arrangement allows easy and quick access to little-used items while providing a less-cluttered look for the library’s other floors. There is also additional study space, a copier, and public access terminals.

The library, as well as the rest of the law school at University Park, was previously housed in what was a bland, 50-year-old dormitory. While the converted dormitory provided suitable temporary space, it was a less-than-inspiring place to study. The new Katz Building has put that problem firmly in the past.

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