Sterling Memorial Library

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Sterling Memorial Library
Facade and tower of Sterling Memorial Library at middle distance, from Yale University's Cross Campus.
Facade and tower of Sterling Memorial Library
General information
Type Library
Architectural style Collegiate Gothic
Address 120 High Street
Town or city New Haven, Connecticut
Country USA
Completed 1930[1]
Opening April 1931[1]
Cost $8 million
Owner Yale University
Height 150 feet (46 m)
Top floor 7
Technical details
Floor count 15
Floor area 441,651 square feet (41,030.7 m2)
Lifts/elevators 6
Design and construction
Architect James Gamble Rogers

Sterling Memorial Library is the main library of Yale University. Completed in 1931 and designed by James Gamble Rogers, it is an example of Gothic revival architecture, adorned with thousands of panes of stained glass created by G. Owen Bonawit. The library's tower has fifteen levels of bookstacks, containing over 4 million volumes. It connects by underground passageway to Bass Library, which contains an additional 150,000 volumes.


The Nave empty at the time of construction with the circulation desk in the background

For the ninety years prior to the construction of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale's library collections had been held in the College Library, a chapel-like Gothic Revival building on Yale's Old Campus now known as Dwight Hall.[2] Built to house a collection of 40,000 books in the 1840s, and later expanded to Linsly Hall and Chittenden Hall, the old library could not hold Yale's swelling book collection, which had grown to over one million volumes.[1] In 1918, Yale received a $17 million bequest from John W. Sterling, founder of the New York law firm Shearman & Sterling, providing that Yale construct "at least one enduring, useful and architecturally beautiful edifice."[1][3] The largest bequest in the history of any American university, it initiated a major period of construction on Yale's central campus.[3] Because the library collection's growth, the university decided to make a new library the centerpiece of Sterling's gift, with a capacity for 3.5 million volumes.[3][4]

Although the original architect, Bertram Goodhue, intended the library to resemble his State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, plans changed under James Gamble Rogers, who envisioned a library "as near to modern Gothic as we dared to make it."[5][6] He created the library in the image of a Gothic cathedral, designing a vaulted nave as its entrance hall and commissioning extensive stained glass and stone ornament to decorate the building's interior.[7]

The library's footprint would take up more than half a city block, and twenty buildings were cleared for its construction, many of them private homes. Because of a holdout homeowner, the construction site could not be fully secured until July 1928.[8]

While the new library was planned and constructed, the university began soliciting gifts from its alumni for the new library. By 1931, the collection had grown to nearly 2 million volumes, many of them rare books and manuscripts.[1] Central to the new library was a Rare Book Room, which allowed students and researchers to browse the most valuable books in the university's collection.[1] Most of these volumes were transported to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library when it was completed in 1963.


The library is situated on Yale's Cross Campus, the central quadrangle of the university. Surrounding buildings, including Berkeley College, Sterling Law Building, were designed by Rogers and built in the same period and Gothic Revival style as the library.


The entrance hall of the library is known as the Nave because of its similarity to the main approach of a cathedral. At its western terminus is a chancel containing an ornate circulation desk and altarpiece mural painted by Eugene Savage.[9] The main hall is flanked by two aisles, which originally held card catalogs for the library bookstacks. Though the original catalog drawers remain in the aisles, the cards have been removed and the aisles converted to seating areas and a computer lab. In 2013, the nave began a $20-million, yearlong renovation to restore its architectural details, overhaul building systems, and reconfigure visitor circulation and services.[10][11][12]


Fifteen levels of library materials, primarily books, are housed in the building's tower, commonly referred to as the "Stacks."[7] Originally intended to house 3.5 million volumes, it is a seven-story structure, with eight mezzanine levels interleaved between the main stories.[13] Although encased in a Gothic exterior, the tower's structural system is a welded steel frame, which permits a vertical rise that would not be possible with classical Gothic construction.[9]

In addition to the library collections, the tower houses reading rooms, study carrels, library offices, and special collections, including the Babylonian Collection.[13] Access to the Stacks is restricted to affiliates of the university and library patrons.

Reading Rooms[edit]

Starr Reading Room

Four main reading rooms are situated on the first floor of the library:

Smaller reading rooms are housed in the tower and accessible to library affiliates. These include reading rooms for the library's area studies holdings, including African, East Asian, Latin American, Near East, Slavic and East European, Southeast Asian, and Judaica collections. There are also dedicated reading rooms for several fields of study, including American Studies, History, and Philosophy.

Music Library[edit]

Irving S. Gilmore Music Library main staircase

In 1997, the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library was constructed, replacing an interior courtyard. It houses one of the largest collections of recordings and scores in the United States.


The library originally had two courtyards designed and landscaped by Beatrix Farrand. In 1997, one was enclosed and renovated to become the Music Library.[8] Sterling's remaining courtyard, named the Selin Courtyard, features motifs from the history of printing.[9][15]


Ornamented ceilings in the nave

The library is one of the most elaborate buildings on the Yale campus. The main entrance is adorned with symbols and writings in various ancient languages, the work of architectural sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan who executed the designs produced by Lee Lawrie. The rest of the sculptures throughout the library; gargoyles and interior panels and ornamental designs were designed and executed by Rene Chambellan. The Nave is decorated with marble reliefs depicting Yale's founding and the history of New Haven and Connecticut. Bosses on the ceiling of Nave represent writing implements. Even the doors of the elevators are handwrought iron, depicting Medicine, Law, Shipping, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Chemistry, Husbandry, and Machine Work.

Alma Mater mural[edit]

The Alma Mater mural

At the western end of the nave is a fresco painted by Eugene Savage, a professor in the Yale School of Art and Architecture. Savage titled it "The Imagination that Directs the University's Spiritual and Intellectual Efforts," but it is commonly known as the Alma Mater mural for its depiction of a personified "University."[16][17] Savage was an expert in Early Renaissance techniques and painted the mural in his characteristic style.[18] Surrounding "Alma Mater" are personifications of academic disciplines.[17]

Stained glass[edit]

680 unique stained glass panels by G. Owen Bonawit adorn the nave, reading rooms, offices, and tower of the library.[8][19] Eighty decorate the nave, depicting scenes from the history of Yale and New Haven.[1][20] Most reading rooms have stained glass panels that are themed to represent its subject matter.[20] Bonawit's firm also designed over 2,000 small outline images to inset in windows without stained glass panes.[19] Although Sterling contains the largest number, Bonawit's panels can be found in many of Yale's Gothic revival buildings, including the residential colleges, Sterling Law Building, and the Hall of Graduate Studies.[19]

The library featured in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Reading Rooms and Collections[edit]

Special Collections and Reading Rooms

  • Yale Babylonian Collection
  • American Oriental Society
  • Arts of the Book
  • Babylonian Collection
  • Map Collection
  • Manuscripts and Archives

Editorial Projects

  • Boswell Editions
  • Papers of Benjamin Franklin
  • Wing STC Revision Project
  • Yale Center for Parliamentary History


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Schiff, Judith Ann (Sept/Oct 2005). "The “Heart of the University” Turns 75". Yale Alumni Magazine. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  2. ^ Tolles, Bryant F., Jr. (2011). Architecture & Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England. pp. 37–39. ISBN 9781584658917. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c "The Sterling Bequest to Yale University". Science 28 (1230): 87. 26 July 1918. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  4. ^ "Yale Central Complex, New Haven Historic Resources Inventory". City of New Haven. 1984. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Bloomer, Kent C. (2000). The Nature of Ornament: Rhythm and Metamorphosis in Architecture. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 187–185. ISBN 9780393730364. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Mills Brown, Elizabeth (1976). New Haven: A Guide to Architecture and Urban Design. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 128. ISBN 9780300019933. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  7. ^ a b "The History of Sterling Memorial Library". Yale University Library. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c Martz, Rebecca (October 2006). "Sterling Histories". Yale University Library Gazette 81 (1/2): 6–7. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Husted, Ellery S. (April 1931). "The Sterling Memorial Library". The University Library Gazette 5 (4): 57–65. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  10. ^ "Sterling Memorial Library Nave Restoration". Yale University Library. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  11. ^ Shelton, Jim (6 September 2013). "Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library is getting a $20 million makeover". New Haven Register. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  12. ^ "Renewing an architectural ‘temple of the mind’ — for a new generation". Yale News. Yale University. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Snead, William S. (April 1931). "The Bookstack Tower". The University Library Gazette 5 (4): 77–80. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  14. ^ Langdon, Philip (November 1998). Renovating a Classic Campus. Retrieved 4 April 2014. 
  15. ^ Ota, Chika (16 May 2013). "SML Selin Courtyard". Yale University Office of the Printer. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  16. ^ "Eugene Francis Savage". National Academy Museum. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  17. ^ a b "Public art at Yale - Alma Mater". Yale Univesrity. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  18. ^ Wageman, Virginia; Freshman, Paul, eds. (2004). Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design: 1826–1925 (1st ed.). Hudson Hills. pp. 492–493. ISBN 9781555950293. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  19. ^ a b c Walker, Gay (27 January 2006). "Brilliance All Around: The Stained Glass of Sterling and Its Maker". Retrieved 6 April 2014. 
  20. ^ a b "The Decoration of Sterling Memorial Library". The University Library Gazette 5 (4): 81–123. April 1931. Retrieved 6 April 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Sterling Memorial Library History
  • Nota Bene--News from the Yale Library on the stained glass
  • More SML history
  • Grubiak, Margaret M. “Reassessing Yale’s Cathedral Orgy: The Ecclesiastical Metaphor and the Sterling Memorial Library,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2009): 159-184.
  • Walker, Gay. Bonawit, Stained Glass, and Yale: G. Owen Bonawit's Work at Yale University & Elsewhere, Wildwood Press, 2002.
  • Walker, Gay. Stained Glass in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library: A Guide to the Decorative Glass of G. Owen Bonawit, Wildwood Press, 2006.