Stylized photograph of UC San Diego's Geisel Library

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50 Years of Geisel Library

It has been called many things—an alien spaceship, a giant mushroom, a great lantern illuminating knowledge. An early university press release described Geisel Library—then known as the Central University Library—as “an enormous jewel of concrete and glass, held aloft by a cradle of outstretched concrete fingers.” 1960s-era Chancellor John Galbraith called the building “an exclamation point, an audacious symbol of the fledgling campus’ commitment to research, innovation, and above all, excellence.”

Now, 50 years later, our beloved Brutalist architectural masterpiece continues to symbolize the campus ethos. It is especially remarkable that a building designed in the mid-1960s looks as futuristic and otherworldly today as it did then. This speaks volumes about William Pereira, the fearless and visionary architect who conceived it, and the bold and unconventional campus leaders who lobbied to make it a reality.

Black and white photo of a model of Geisel Library..
The model of a modern library. Photo: Robert Glasheen Photograph Collection. MSS 154. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

As we kick off the 50th anniversary celebration of Geisel Library, we explore the milestones of the past, shining a light on those actions and experiences that have shaped our revered campus icon. Clearly, Geisel Library has served us well as both an intellectual and cultural hub for the campus community and a catalyst for continuing change and innovation. But, is the past prologue? Its future success as a library has made an auspicious beginning with the 2015 Geisel Library Revitalization Initiative, but it is this last phase of the project that will be critical for accelerated student research and learning.

The Starchitect

Only a few years after Mel Voigt was appointed UC San Diego’s first university librarian in 1960, several library departments at Scripps Institution of Oceanography had moved up to the main campus. Library space issues were already apparent, and Voigt made his concerns known. He would soon have a powerful advocate for a new central library building in John Galbraith, who was named the university’s second chancellor in 1964. Galbraith was determined to build an extraordinary central library, what he referred to as a “third great UC Library,” one that would, in time, stand shoulder to shoulder with the stellar libraries at the Berkeley and UCLA campuses. Galbraith believed emphatically that an exceptional research library was a non-negotiable requirement for attracting the top-tier faculty members envisioned by founding father Roger Revelle. He also knew—as a historian— that this was especially critical in attracting humanists to a new university, especially one that was already dominant in the sciences.

A man and woman lean down and look at a small model of Geisel Library.
Freshman Valerie Spiess Lipiniski and Chancellor John S. Galbraith study an early model of the soon-to-be built Central University Library at UC San Diego. Photos this spread: Robert Glasheen Photograph Collection. MSS 154. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

Enter architect William Pereira, who graced the cover of Time magazine in 1963 for his space-age designs, notably the Theme Building at LAX airport and, later, San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid. His vision for UC San Diego’s Library was one of the architect’s most radical—a structure that did not always translate as a building, especially in the early days when it was encircled by eucalyptus trees. When the fog rolled in, the building would appear like a spaceship hovering above the grade, revealing angles and odd forms, then disappearing behind low-lying clouds. The building was initially envisioned in steel and glass, but the high price of steel at the time led to the substitution for concrete. Conceptually, Pereira was aiming for a flattened spherical shape and a spatial organization that would ensure that all patrons of the library would be equidistant from a physical source of knowledge. Along with anodized aluminum windows and heat-resistant walls, the 110-foot tall structure was formed from 386,500 linear feet of reinforced concrete, with an exterior finish of rough form board in a horizontal, texturized pattern.

Spreading Wings

Originally built to house 650,000 volumes, the Library had to stretch its walls to accommodate the 1.3 million volumes that had accumulated by the time Dorothy Gregor was named university librarian in 1985. In fact, the Library had already begun to warehouse books offsite due to these space constraints. In 1987, architects Gunnar Birkerts and Buss Silvers Hughes & Associates were hired to design a much-needed addition, one that would essentially double the existing space.

Construction of Geisel Library
The high price of steel during the Library’s construction prompted the decision to use concrete instead—386,500 linear feet of it. That’s enough concrete to pour a four-foot wide, three-and-a-half-inch thick walkway from Oceanside, Calif. to the Mexican border.

The initial solution included a glass reading room on the outdoor forum level. While the concept made significant use of the austere flat concrete, it was vigorously opposed by faculty members, who argued that the building’s silhouette was sacred and not to be obscured in any way. Ultimately, Chancellor Richard Atkinson intervened, sending the architects back to the drawing board.

“We understood and respected the decision,” says architect Gordon Carrier, a close associate of Gunnar Birkerts at the time. “I was really amazed; I had never had a client that was so respectful and protective of the work of a previous architect. The challenge then was to create a reverse understory some 35 feet below the earth, while still bringing in natural light. Conceptually, the subterranean addition was a metaphor for the seismic stratum of California. The jagged skylights popping up were symbols of the earth shoving up.”

Boone Hellman, the university’s campus architect at the time, remembers his concern about how the campus would react to the construction: “The good news was that we were moving forward with an ingenious design that would protect the original building. But we would be creating the biggest hole in the ground this campus had ever seen, while removing about 200 eucalyptus trees. The visual impact was going to be shocking.” By 1993, it was done. Many of the trees were replanted, and a plaza fronted the Library entry with shrubs, benches, and paths all around. The dramatic Stuart Collection “Snake Path” installation by Alexis Smith wound up the east hill, while native vegetation covered the north side to blend in with the designated canyon parkland running through campus.

Then and Now

The updates of that era went beyond the subterranean addition, however. If anyone knows the ins and outs of Geisel Library, it’s Mike Mogelinski, a former student who would oversee the building’s maintenance for 40 years, starting as a chemistry and physics major in 1979. “When I started working at the Library as a student, it was an exciting time,” says Mogelinski. “I think back then, students got to do a lot of different things. I remember going to a meeting in the chancellor’s office one day, and putting labels on books the next.” Mogelinski recalls a day in July 1986, when San Diego felt the effects of a 5.4 earthquake centered off the coast of Oceanside. He was on campus that day, and felt quite a jolt. He was amazed to see the Library building sway gently, “as if it was doing a hula dance,” he says.

Besides the dance, many shelves of books also tumbled to the ground.

Although it seems unbelievable now, one of his regular assignments early on was emptying the dozens of ashtrays scattered throughout the building. “Just imagine,” he chortles. “Everyone smoked, there was no air filtration system, and the windows didn’t open. On top of that, there was no fire prevention—no sprinkler system. We’re lucky we survived!”

This practice didn’t last long—well before UC banned smoking throughout its campuses, the Library prohibited tobacco use in public spaces. Before that time, Mogelinski recalls the abundance of cigarette machines, as well as sandwich, soda, and ice cream vending.

It was truly an era of change inside and out. The construction and renovation efforts of the late 1980s ended up adding approximately 200,000 square feet and brought the building up to date with new HVAC systems, numerous seismic reinforcements, and of course, a sprinkler system.

The next decade would bring a different kind of update—a new name. Known over the years as Central Library—or “Not-So-Central” to those students who watched the structure arise seemingly in the middle of nowhere— in 1992, the Library received a treasure trove of art, sketches, and early manuscripts of Theodor Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss. In 1995, the building was renamed for Ted and Audrey Geisel in honor of their contributions to the university. Though Ted Geisel passed away in 1991 and Audrey in 2018, their memories live on in the form of a standing exhibit of Geisel’s art and illustrations and the 2016 addition of Audrey’s, the building’s first café.

A Library for the Future

In the two decades following the opening of the Library in 1970, visitors usually came for one of three reasons—to study, to check out books or other materials, or to attend a meeting or event. Now, in the digital age, that pattern of use has changed, and the number of reasons to go to the Library has expanded dramatically. While Geisel continues to offer quiet nooks and crannies for solitary contemplation and study, today’s Library has become a hub for active learning, collaborative study, and digital scholarship and media production. Advances in technology have also further enabled librarians to be proactive partners in the university-wide effort to maximize student success.

Brian E. C. Schottlaender joined UC San Diego in 1999 and became the campus’ longest-serving university librarian when he retired in 2017. While the harsh budget cuts that came with the Great Recession prompted a number of library consolidations and closures during his tenure, he was quick to implement new services and resources that met the increasingly digital needs of current students and faculty. The need for technological updates also spurred the Geisel Library Revitalization Initiative, launched by Schottlaender in 2015.

In 2018, the university appointed its sixth university librarian, Erik Mitchell. Mitchell has carried forward the work that Schottlaender initiated, prioritizing efforts to retool the public spaces of the library to meet the changing needs of today’s students, faculty, and the campus community. “While few, if any, libraries are expanding to accommodate book collections, interior spaces are being updated for data visualization and digital scholarship labs, all which have been envisioned for our space,” says Mitchell. “Geisel Library is an architectural gem that has always signaled the future. The opening of Audrey’s and the recent updates to the 8th floor have been huge benefits for students. I’m optimistic that our renovation to create more connected and active learning spaces will keep the Library at the forefront of innovation for UC San Diego for many years to come.”


Learn more about Geisel Library’s 50th Anniversary and view a comprehensive timeline and more at geisel50.ucsd.edu, and share your favorite memories of Geisel on social media, just use the hashtag: #Geisel50