State of the art: The Carol Grotnes Belk Library

Randall Bowman
December 6, 2013

Belk Library, 2002

Belk Library, 2002

By the mid-1990s, it was very obvious that the Iris Holt McEwen Library was woefully inadequate to serve as Elon College’s library.  The college was growing and progressing as an institution; the student body was not only increasing in size, but in quality.  Planning began to build an innovative library that would be a key component of Elon’s increasing emphasis on engaged learning.  Fundraising for the new library was part of the Elon Vision, a five-year, $40 million strategic plan for strengthening academic programs.  An Elon Vision brochure established that this library would be something new.  “The new library will be located at the center of campus, serving as a dynamic intellectual hub between instructional facilities to the south and residential halls to the north.  This 75,000 square foot facility will combine the traditional library collection with the latest electronic information capabilities and an array of services that support students and faculty.”

Belk Library under construction, 1999

Belk Library under construction, 1999

To design a library that could fulfill this vision, the college consulted with local and international library experts and hired the architectural firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbot of Boston.  Long-time Elon supporters Carol Grotnes Belk and her husband, Irwin Belk of Charlotte, gave a $1 million gift for the library; in her honor, the library was officially named The Carol Grotnes Belk Library.   Ultimately, $14 million would be raised to construct the new facility.

The dedication of the new library coincided with Dr. Leo Lambert’s inauguration as Elon College’s eighth president on September 15, 1999.  According to an article in the Burlington Times-News, a procession of faculty, staff, and students was supposed to carry books from McEwen Library to Belk that morning.  However, rain from Hurricane Floyd caused the ceremony to be moved into the nearly completed building.  Led by a Scottish bagpiper, the processional party and guests gathered beneath the beautiful oval atrium.  An article in The Magazine of Elon says that “Before the ceremony was over, faculty and staff joined the president in placing books, videos, computers, and other collections on a large shelf in the lobby.  Lambert chose to carry The Complete Works of William Shakespeare while others brought works by Salinger and Thoreau.  Also placed on the shelf was a Bible belonging to the Rev. James O’Kelly, founder of the Christian Church…the founding church of Elon.”

Belk Library "human chain," 2000

Belk Library “human chain,” 2000

Construction delays pushed back the library’s opening into 2000.   On a clear day in January, students, faculty, staff, and members of the community formed a “human chain” across campus to move books from McEwen to Belk Library.  President Emeritus Earl Danieley started the chain at McEwen, and President Lambert and Library Director Kate Hickey received books at the entrance to Belk.  With the collection moved, the Carol Grotnes Belk Library opened for business on January 31, 2000.

The new building was three times larger than McEwen’s 29,000 square feet.  Belk Library had 573 seats for patrons, double the 285 seats in McEwen.  There were also many more computers; 148, compared to 46 in McEwen.  The number of study rooms had also more than doubled, and with a collection capacity of 210,000 volumes, there was more space to house the growing collection.  The biggest difference between the two libraries, however, was the ambiance created in Belk Library.  McEwen library was cramped and dated.  Belk, on the other hand, was designed to be warm and inviting.

In addition to traditional collections such as books, microfilm, CDs, and VHS tapes, Belk Library featured a growing DVD and Blu-ray collection.  The library also provided access to a growing array of databases, containing a vast number of online articles and e-books.  From the start, Belk had Wi-Fi as well as computer jacks located throughout the building.

Belk Library, 2003

Belk Library, 2003

The most impressive feature of the new library, however, was the innovative design that consolidated several programs and services under one roof, known as the Information Commons.  An Information Desk replaced the traditional reference desk.  This desk had both a reference librarian and a student technology consultant called an ELITE (Emerging Leaders in Technology @Elon) assistant.  With both services together, a student could get research help for a project from a librarian, and then get help with any technology needs from the ELITE student.  Belk Library also housed a faculty instructional support center; Media Services; and the Writing and Tutoring Centers.

From the moment it opened, Belk Library proved to be very popular with students, faculty, staff, and community patrons alike.   Students pack the library; eventually, student demand resulted in the library adopting a 24 hour schedule Sunday through Thursday during the academic year.  At any time day or night, students can be found throughout the library studying, collaborating, sleeping, and more often than not, socializing.  This constant activity inspired the affectionate moniker “Club Belk” among Elon students.

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