Cozy up at the Edward Clark Crossett Library
BENNINGTON, Vt. — Libraries are intellectual hubs, centers for curiosity, learning and reflection. During the coldest months, however, they can also be refuges.
On Wednesday morning, I found myself retreating to Bennington College's Edward Clark Crossett Library following a short walk around the campus. The temperature was positive, a blessing I've recently learned, but I was still shivering. The warm building I had abandoned minutes earlier was beckoning once more, a rectangular white shelter against the cold tucked into the snow-covered countryside. I scampered back up the steps overlooking the visitor parking spots and was soon greeted by another flush of heat.
The library itself was, from a journalistic perspective, why I was here. In October, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that strives to save historic U.S. sites, named the library one of "Six Midcentury Modern Campus Buildings You Need To Visit." In early November, one of the college's officials alerted me to the piece, noting that USA Today had published it on the newspaper's website.
While the significance of Crossett's inclusion on the list was somewhat dubious (and the seemingly click-driven headline didn't quell my concerns), the library has some other architectural bona fides going for it. It was one of two collegiate libraries to take home a 1963 Honor Award for library design, a distinction given out by the American Institute of Architects, the American Library Association and the National Book Committee. Additionally, Crossett's architect, Pietro Belluschi, was celebrated by many around the country during the latter part of the 20th century. According to the school's website, Architectural Forum, a leading trade periodical that is no longer published, once praised the work of the man who won a National Medal of Arts lifetime honor in 1991:
"In trying to bring the library into harmony with its colonial surroundings, the architects used three devices: first, they sited the building so that it fitted naturally into the pattern of rectangular spaces formed by the existing dormitories. ... Second, they used materials and details that recalled those of existing structures — white-painted wood siding, horizontal wood louvers that relate to the clapboard patterns on the campus, vertical finds around the porch that recall colonial pilasters, brick and stone walls and paving that resemble similar details in neighboring structures. And, finally, the architects kept down the scale of the library so as to make it conform to the scale of the dormitories."
Though what inhabits Crossett has changed since its opening in 1959 — card catalogs out, computers in — the building's architectural identity has been preserved.
"We've really kind of kept true to [it]," Bennington College Dean of the Library Oceana Wilson said.
Crossett is probably worth a visit, then, for those who don't need to look up words like "louver" and "pilaster." But this is where I must confess, dear reader, that it wasn't the architecture that brought me to the library on this chilly morning. It was the books.
More specifically, it was novels written by Donna Tartt ("The Secret History") and Bret Easton Ellis ("The Rules of Attraction"), the latter of which was my introduction to Bennington College, a once far-away place to me. Although neither Tartt's Hampden College nor Ellis' Camden College are technically reproductions of Bennington College, it didn't take too much Googling to learn that the two authors, as well as contemporaries Jill Eisenstadt and Jonathan Lethem, essentially used fictional schools to depict their alma mater. Through their stories, I had come to know Bennington College as a small, woodsy liberal arts school with enough intrigue for multiple large state universities. I had long wanted to visit, and a story about the school's library felt like the perfect excuse to pay homage to these literary figures, whom I assumed had been enshrined somewhere in the building.
Instead, I discovered that the library was a tribute to the current crop of Bennington students' interests. Though the seven-week field work term meant that many students wouldn't be returning to campus for weeks, their presence was ubiquitous. For example, a shelf on the second floor of the three-story building supported a diverse collection of their personal plants. They were soaking in the room's ample natural light that was afforded by a window-wall backdrop. A note was attached to one: "Olivia Black's plant!!!"
"We plant-sit," Wilson said of plant upkeep during school breaks.
Downstairs, a seed library lived in a dresser near the stairwell, with corn and eggplant and pumpkin seeds all available to be checked out. Three students spearheaded the library's creation in 2016. Some people even find ways to return seeds after growing season, though it's not required.
"There are no fines," Wilson had quipped earlier.
On the top floor, students working on senior theses and projects are provided with a labeled shelf to stash their books. Wilson said it's one way in which the school strives to make a potentially solitary assignment more collaborative.
Then, of course, there are the books themselves. Wilson said that the building holds more than 90,000 print works, with more available digitally. Students play a central role in building the collection.
"We really actively encourage our students to make suggestions. And we purchase everything that the students suggest, everything the faculty suggests," Wilson said, noting that prospective students can recommend a book on their applications.
Books that community members nominate are bought as well. The library is free and open to the public. Wilson said that some regulars from the surrounding area stop over. She would like to see more, though, and hopes changes around the building, such as the addition of parking spots, will facilitate more community visitors.
"That was really deliberate to say we do want people to come," she said.
If you go soon, you might be able to grab one of the three "Secret History" or two "Rules of Attraction" copies that were occupying third-floor shelves during my visit. (OK, so I did kind of pay homage.)
I can promise you, it's warm, too.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
If you go ...
What: Bennington College's Edward Clark Crossett Library
Where: 1 College Drive, Bennington, Vt.
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