Knowledge is power

Construction has begun on UNR’s new library—but no one’s calling it that

The construction of UNR’s Knowledge Center means that more of the big, broad parking lot south of Lawlor Events Center is history.

The construction of UNR’s Knowledge Center means that more of the big, broad parking lot south of Lawlor Events Center is history.

Photo By David Robert

Though ground was broken several months ago, actual construction on the Knowledge Center at the University of Nevada, Reno started last month amid flurries of snow. The Knowledge Center is a fancy name for the pairing of the old and the new: a library, complete with books and stacks, and a high-tech hub of electronic gadgets. Carol Parkhurst, director of planning and assessment at UNR, says that students “can get help with everything from research to computers at one centralized location.”

Gathering many services already existing on the campus together with a few improvements into one huge building is supposed to make going to college much easier. The five-story, 300,000-square-foot brick edifice is designed to dually embody history and futurama. The historic-style brick construction belies the ultra-mod, high-tech inner workings of the center—at a grand total, it should be mentioned, of $105 million.

“It’s pretty far out for a building,” says Parkhurst, “as far out as we could.”

Because of its far-out nature, officials hope the center will attract out-of-state researchers, local businesses and important people. Of course, the building will also cater to students, giving them priority with computers and technology. “The Knowledge Center is our No. 1 institutional priority,” according to the Knowledge Center Web site,

The project’s byword is technology. No more leisurely strolling through the three stories of book stacks at the Getchell Library, designed in 1962 by David Vhay Sr. and his architectural firm as part of a contest to redefine the look of the campus. The new look of technology is the Knowledge Center.

Progress and technology go hand in hand. The new Knowledge Center will boast a robotic retrieval system, where students can go to the already-existing library Web site, find a book on the online catalog, and then push a button. The student’s choice will be waiting at the circulation desk.

But the new retrieval system isn’t even the technology kicker. The Knowledge Center will be home to a fleet of technology, including scanners, computers, multi-media outlets, plasma screens and multi-media mixers. These workstations are to ease stress loads of students working in groups on class projects. This might have a negative effect on content because of the focus on the high-tech, presentation-building, multi-media equipment in the Knowledge Center.

Librarians to the rescue, it is hoped. Donnelyn Curtis, librarian and research services director, has been with the university for eight years. “That’s where librarians will come in—content,” she said. “That’s how we’re looking at this. We’ve got the IT [information technology] people and the content people in the same building. But if people don’t really care about content, that makes it harder for us. We have to not only be there to help, but we have to sort of sell the [content] idea and make it easy to use.”

“Easy to use” is a questionable phrase, at least geographically. According to the center’s Web site, “It was a given that the facility would serve as the physical, intellectual, and cultural center of the university.” Though the building will have four public entrances, it will be a considerable trek north from the majority of campus, unless academic focus moves to Lombardi. North even of the recently-constructed education building, the new Knowledge Center won’t be easily accessible to between-class students.

Curtis says she thinks “students will get used to walking a little farther. Students still want to leave their dorms and hang out somewhere else, and they’ll probably walk.”

Casey Smith, 20, UNR accounting major, said, “I don’t like that it’s going to be way the hell up there. Campus is down here.” (The current library does serve as a central location for students all hours of the campus day’s cycle.)

In keeping with current UNR policy, students have priority with computers in the libraries. The public will be able to purchase a library card, though, for $35 and have limited daily access to guest computers. The community, in various incarnations, did indeed donate large chunks of money to this large endeavor.

So let’s talk money. The project costs roughly $105 million. Of that, $10 million were donated by Chuck and Ann Mathewson and IGT, hence the formal name, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center.

“What I wish,” says Curtis, “is that they would have made it more of a green building, more energy efficient, alternative energy sources. But that would have made it more expensive.”

According to Steven Zink, vice president for information technology at UNR, not a cent of the 26 percent fee increase over the next two years will go into the building. It has been paid for already.

Speaking of what has already been paid for, what is to become of the old library? So far, nothing has been formally decided. Parkhurst says the building might be remodeled or dismantled.

“I don’t think a final decision has been made,” Curtis explains. “There’s no money in the budget for the next two years to remodel it, and the next two years starts July 2007, so ’til 2009, there’s really no money to do anything with it. They’ll either tear it down or remodel it.” That explains why a committee that can plan to the ‘T’ the color of the carpets and the finish on the chairs for the Knowledge Center has made few plans for the Getchell building.

Talking business, Zink says that knowledge is a commodity. “Create once, use many times—that’s the mantra out there,” says Zink. “Knowledge creation is the idea that you are applying new knowledge to generate innovation to produce a product or a service. And what you have, all of a sudden, is the tremendous market value of innovation and knowledge … as a strategic asset.”

On the bright side, at least work can be done in a state-of-the-art facility with lots of computers and technology, data visualization labs, a deli, a Basque studies center, a special collections center, an auditorium seating 200 people, special quiet study rooms and special group study areas, meeting halls and a few stacks of books here and there. About half the library collection will be out of reach of browsing. (Just as the recent campus debate on “free speech zones” provoked the question, “Isn’t the whole campus a free speech zone?” so too has the name “Knowledge Center” prompted the question, “Isn’t the whole campus a knowledge center?")

Curtis is preparing for the change from library to Knowledge Center along with the rest of the library staff. “We’re going to need some people who have different skills than they’ve had, and some of us will be developing skills and interests that are more suitable for a Knowledge Center. We’re going to have to leave behind some of the things that we’ve been doing. It’s not about books anymore.”