WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- For some college librarians, the thought of beginning a new academic year with your library caught in the midst of a $10.5 million construction project might be reason to fret and fuss and fume.

But after years of careening through whitewater rapids in a kayak and surviving a recent bout with cancer, Whitman College librarian Henry Yaple isn't one to lose perspective or get overly apprehensive about running his library as it undergoes a major facelift.

"I won't say this year will be a piece of cake," Yaple says. "It's going to be the most stressful and challenging time of my professional life, in fact. At the same, it's going to be very interesting and a lot more fun than the cancer ever was. I'd much rather deal with this kind of challenge.

"Plus, I can look forward to the outcome of this particular challenge with a great deal of anticipation," he adds. "By the end of next summer we're going to having a new state-of-the-art library with the flexibility to take us well into the next century. With the cancer, I really didn't know what the outcome was going to be."

Renovation and expansion of Whitman's Penrose Memorial Library began May 24, the day after spring graduation ceremonies. Workers plan to have the first floor ready for the start of fall semester classes on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

A temporary entrance, reception and circulation area is nearing completion at the rear of the three-story structure. The first floor will feature an expanse of compact shelving in which rows of books rest on a rail system. Browsers will use a simple steering mechanism to open aisles to the books they need. The system will hold all books and journals, about 260,000 volumes in all, that were housed last year on the second and third floors.

While those volumes will remain directly accessible to students and faculty, other materials such as government documents and reference texts have been moved to other campus locations. "We're going to have a paging system in effect from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily," Yaple says. "It shouldn't take us more than 30 minutes to retrieve any requested item."

More importantly, perhaps, the Penrose library will remain open 24 hours a day throughout the construction project. It is one of two collegiate libraries in the Northwest, and one of only a handful in the nation, that provides around-the-clock access.

One of the biggest impacts facing students this fall is the temporary loss of library study space. Apart from 15 new study carrels with computers on the first floor, students will be directed to other study areas on campus. By the December holidays, however, workers plan to have the library's second floor ready for use. That floor will have a variety of new individual and group study areas, along with a new main entrance and administrative offices.

"We know there will be some disruptions for students and faculty," Yaple says. "Some of the noise, dirt and dust is unavoidable, but we're going to do everything possible to alleviate any problems and help the students. One way we will help the senior thesis students, for example, is by providing free access to a 9,000-journal online database."

The entire project, which includes provisions to make a portion of the attic (fourth floor) accessible for public use, is slated for completion in time for the start of classes a year from now. Plans call for about 18,000 square feet of new floor space along the east side of the building, bringing its total size to about 100,000 square feet. The new facade will feature large expanses of wood-framed glass, allowing people inside the library a view of nearby trees and Ankeny Field, the geographic heart of the campus.

A new cafe, planned for the south end of the building, will reinforce the library's role as a gathering spot for students, faculty and visitors. The cafe will open onto a courtyard facing the Memorial Building, the oldest and most historic structure on campus.

The 59-year-old Yaple, who endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments while knocking his cancer into remission, feels fit and ready for however rocky his librarian's ride might be this academic year.

"From a kayaker's perspective, this year is going to be Class 4 rapids -- just a good, tough challenge," he says. "Those of us on the library staff will have to sit up straight and paddle for all we're worth. It could be a Class 5 at times, which can be pretty scary, but it's going to be fun and we're going to make it."


Dave Holden, Whitman News Service, (509) 527-5902
Email: holden@whitman.edu