Although the exposed wires and temporary light fixtures indicate that the Countway Library of Medicine is under heavy construction, the undiminished pace of the students and faculty inside reveal that the demands of a career in the health sciences require that this library remain open at all costs.
It is this dilemma that most vexed Elizabeth Wu when she was named project manager of the library's renovation efforts one year ago.
Students, faculty and administrators alike agreed that the aging building, constructed in 1964 and located on Harvard Medical School's Longwood campus, needed drastic improvements.
And as construction continues to unfold this semester, library administrators say they expect that by the time the project is completed early next year, medical school students and faculty can enjoy a more comfortable and more modern learning facility.
The renovated library will feature a series of computer classrooms, modern projection equipment and software for on-screen molecular modeling. Thirty-five-year-old stairwells will be renovated, as will elevators and the atrium.
In addition, library staff will send lesser-used books to the depository and re-fill shelves with newer material.
But Wu faced a unique problem when she became project manager.
The library's mechanical infrastructure was "failing," she said, and the additional wiring necessary to keep pace with technology required space that was nonexistent.
"After a point," Wu said, "you can't just patch."
But because it is the primary library serving the campus, administrators decided the library could not be closed to allow for these improvements. The construction had to occur under a schedule that would not disrupt patrons.
For the construction crew, this means that most mornings begin at 6 a.m. and work continues throughout the weekends.
Wu cites the free earplugs the library makes available to patrons, several thousand of which have already been distributed, as a way that she is helping to achieve a compromise between the two dueling interests.
When Wu was charged with mediating this relationship one year ago, planning for the renovation had long been under way.
Committees that incorporated the wishes of users with the structural needs of the building formulated a set of concrete plans in 1994.
The renovation will cost $26 million and will be jointly covered by funding from the University and private donations.
In response to demands that current journals be easy to locate at all times, a new reading room will be constructed to house them. Extensive networking will allow Internet access from carrels throughout the library.
Wu steadfastly updates the library Web site and its section entitled "Where's the Noise?" to help patrons stay in relatively quiet sections of the library. The site directs library users away from stairways that might be under construction as the library heads into the second phase of its construction or from areas where there will be "intermittent drilling."
Still, noise doesn't seem to be the main problem. An examination of submissions to a suggestion box shows that the most common complaints involve problems with the temperature.
Wu acknowledges that conditions have not been ideal and that some people may have been disrupted, but she says she is pleasantly surprised with how smoothly the process has gone.
She says that as far as she knows, a project of this scale that has taken place while a library has remained open is unprecedented.
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