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The McKissick Library records in its fabric the challenges faced by American academic libraries in the mid-twentieth century, as well as the sometimes unsuccessful approaches taken to meet them.
American academic libraries had grown rapidly since the late nineteenth century to meet the requirements of research, which was playing an increasingly significant role in university missions. The managerial response to ballooning book and other collections was often the multiplication of specialized departments to care for them; the administrative response was typically to centralize bureaucratic control over proliferating departments; and the architectural response was often to design a large structure that could at once accommodate all required departments while also symbolizing centralized, bureaucratic control. The resulting edifices tended to dominate their campus settings, and therefore called for monumental treatment. Not surprisingly, the new library that the University of South Carolina (USC) planned for itself in the late 1930s turned out to be a massive, centralized structure that dominated the campus’s historic “Horseshoe” and contained a large number of relatively small rooms intended to serve specialized functions.
The University secured funding for the new library from the Works Progress Administration, whose support of the project is recorded on a plaque in the building’s lobby. Henry C. Hibbs of Nashville, Tennessee, drew up the plans. Hibbs enjoyed a fine reputation as an architect skilled in the design of academic buildings. In planning the new library for USC he appears to have closely adhered to a program provided to him by his clients. Because the many functional shortcomings of the building, which was completed in 1941, soon became apparent, it seems likely that faculty and administrators had been allowed to have far more influence over the program than had been afforded to the library staff who, day in and day out, would actually work in it.
Although pragmatics seem to have dictated to a large extent the arrangement of the library’s vast array of internal subdivisions, Hibbs remained faithful to Beaux-Arts principles in composing its exterior mass. The library’s bilaterally symmetrical main and side facades all are centered on colossal colonnades, and the whole pile is surmounted by a dome. In describing the building, the librarian Lewis C. Branscomb admitted that the dome had been “put on largely to round out the architectural design.” Having the library produce a grand impression when viewed from outside—also a conservative impression, one of enduring fidelity to classicism—seems to have been the shared objective of Hibbs and his client.
Hibbs did not ignore practicality altogether, however. He designed the library to accommodate future doubling of the book collection; the H-shaped ground plan made allowances for expansion of the book stacks. Unfortunately, in the case of the McKissick Library, but just as surely in the case of countless academic libraries of its era, expandability did not equate to functionality. By the 1950s, dissatisfaction with the performance of the McKissick Library catalyzed enthusiasm for creating a separate library specially arranged to meet the needs of undergraduates. From 1957 onward, various minor changes made to room sizes and functions failed to improve the library’s usability. By the 1970s, when the University undertook a new round of planning for the future of its libraries, a seemingly easy decision was made to cease using the building as a library. Now the McKissick Museum, the building houses the university’s previously scattered collection of artifacts documenting Southern culture.
Branscomb, Lewis C. “The New Library of the University of South Carolina.” Library Journal(July 1943): 545-556.
Hollis, Daniel Walker. University of South Carolina; Volume II, College to University. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1956.
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