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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Community access priority in the $56M UNCW library improvements

Design for the Randall Library entrance facing College Road. (Courtesy UNCW).

WILMINGTON — A look inside UNCW’s Randall Library will reveal hordes of students congregating around study tables to collaborate on projects, catching up with friends at Port City Java before their next class, or hunkering down at a computer to finish a last-minute assignment. Every table is almost always full, making the search for a seat akin to a game of musical chairs — but not for much longer. 

A new building is on the horizon to provide 118,000 more square feet for students to utilize. The new three-story building will be outfitted with additional study stations, event areas and modern technology accesses.

Dean of the Library Lucy Holman explained the learning facility was a few decades overdue for an update. Its last major expansion took place in 1986 — a time when enrollment numbers were around 5,000 students. 

Today 18,000 attend UNCW annually, an all-time high and 40% increase over the past 12 years.

“When I first came to interview at the library in 2018, there were students lying on the floor, sitting on the floor, in every nook and cranny because it was just so crowded,” Holman said. 

She assured the new building — which will be constructed next to the current library located on Randall Drive — will be able to accommodate students and the community better.

Years in the making, the project broke ground May 19. UNCW is using $56 million from the state’s budget allocation to fund the entire project. 

Designs were created by local architecture firm L3P and Boston-based architect Shepley Bullfinch. The new building is slated to open in late spring of 2024. Renovations to the existing infrastructure are also planned but won’t be complete until later that fall. 

The library spaces will be connected via a two-story bridge called “The Link,” much like the sky bridge that joins UNCW’s two Fisher buildings. The connector will be surrounded on both sides by lawn and terrace seating areas. 

Each floor in the new building will offer a different experience but will keep with library tradition of reserving one level for high-volume collaboration and another for silent learning, where guests cannot talk above a whisper. 

Most of the new features are targeted for student accommodation, but Holman’s vision extends past UNCW’s campus.

“We’re looking to be more of a presence in the community,” she said. 

Plans are in place to capitalize on the building’s alignment facing College Road, something Holman said makes the facility more noticeable and inviting because of its increased visibility. 

When visitors enter the new building, they will see a 100-person event space, an area for physical and digital exhibits and a data visualization lab. Those additions will allow more members of the public to attend readings, lectures and exhibits, and engage with library content. The multipurpose spaces will be open to outside organizations, though they will have to partner with the library to host events.

Event space concept for the Randall Library expansion. (Courtesy UNCW).

According to Holman, the main draw for Wilmingtonians will be the new and improved Center for Southeast North Carolina Archives and History on the second floor. 

“The center is really growing with its impact to the community,” Holman said. “It is really trying to become an anchor for public local history, economic development, and politics for the seven-county region.”

The previous center, which holds university archives, special collections and government information, was spread across four areas and not optimized for efficiency, according to Holman. The improved layout of the new space offers convenient access with an adjacent research room. 

“We hope that the center will draw in more local researchers and researchers from all over the country,” Holman said. 

For students, the new building will provide more work areas and technological upgrades to satisfy shifts in learning needs. An entire suite will be reserved for a podcasting studio with a green screen, an enhanced multimedia studio and expanded editing area.

“Libraries are evolving for students to create more knowledge,” Holman said. “As materials become increasingly available online, [providing physical copies] becomes less of the focus.”

A tech hub will offer more open computers to users on the new building’s first floor. It will double the “digital-makerspace,” where students can explore virtual reality and 3-D capabilities. The data-visualization lab will allow students and professors to showcase advanced mulit-media presentations.

The third floor will be devoted to student learning, mostly designed for individual study but equipped with group study rooms and a reading room. Study areas on the first floor will have a variety of designs based on private, public, alone and group characteristics. 

Study space concept for the Randall Library expansion. (Courtesy UNCW).

Renovations to existing areas in the current library building will mostly reconfigure office space, but a new graduate student lounge and reading room will be added. 

For students concerned about the fate of Port City Java, Holman said food service will remain in the coffee shop’s space, but it’s up to the campus dining services to decide on the vendor. Holman said a “grab-and-go” style coffee stand will operate in The Link, which will lead to outdoor seating areas. 

The biggest challenge will be limiting construction disruption and ensuring safety with the increased entrances, the library official noted. But designs and construction plans strategically mitigate those concerns.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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