Located in New Haven, Connecticut – the home of venerable and prestigious Yale University - ‘Beinecke is essentially where the Yale library system houses all of the good stuff. It’s also one of the largest libraries or buildings in the entire world dedicated to rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents.
It also hosts endless seminars, conferences, research projects, and visiting exhibits, including from modern and living authors.
The featured piece in Beinecke’s collection is The Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book ever created using movable type back in the 1450s (they actually have two in their collection). Only 48 of these bibles still exist, and they’re considered the most valuable books on earth.
Built in 1963, the building rises six stories from a stone-lined sunken courtyard that's typical for Yale University. But the structure is anything but typical, a rectangular white box that sits on inverted triangular "pylons." Those pylons only stand a few feet from the ground to the base of the library's structure, but they extend down a full 50 feet beneath the earth, all the way down to bedrock.
Within the rectangular metal structure sits a honeycomb-like frame, with 15 individual frames running lengthwise, five vertically, and ten deep. The layout of these “cells” follows the Golden Ratio, which is prevalent in mathematics as well as the layout of early books: 3:1:2.
Within each of those frames is a piece of white translucent marble.
There are no windows and only one front entrance, the structure completely uniform and without variation otherwise. The veined marble façade is actually made of special marble and granite from a quarry in Danby Vermont. Although each piece is massive, they’re milled to a thickness of only 1.25 inches, allowing sunlight to filter through so they’re translucent when you’re standing inside.
Due to its aesthetics as much as its contents, the Beinecke Rare Book Library has been called a “jewel box” and “laboratory for the humanities.”
Inside the library, the visual is no less jaw-dropping, dominated by a massive central tower that runs the whole six stories from floor to ceiling, with glass walls encased in stark black metal frames.
This library-within-a-library safeguards 180,000 of the rarest and most precious volumes in the world.
Aside from two Gutenberg Bibles, the Beinecke Library collection also includes original works by:
Incunabula (collection of first printed books from 15th century)
D. H. Lawrence
Eugene O'Neill, Jr.
the Papyrus Collection
Ezra Pound Papers
The Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Collection
Robert Louis Stevenson
The Thornton Wilder papers
and far more that aren’t recognizable to the average person who’s not a super nerdy Indian Jones-type.
Of course, if you’re the caretaker of a rare library, preventing fires is a special concern, but you definitely can’t just turn on the sprinklers. So, in the event of a blaze, that glass-enclosed central tower can also be flooded with a mixture of Halon 1301 and Inergen fire suppressant gas, squelching any fuel the fire needs to burn.
At first, the central stack was flooded with a carbon dioxide mixture if the fire alarm went off, but they changed that with the realization that any unfortunate librarians working in that area would be instantly asphyxiated.
Fires and pests accounted for; nefarious human intentions are sometimes harder to police. In 2005, a well-known antique dealer named Edward Forbes Smiley III was caught cutting maps from rare volumes with an X-acto knife! Since the library welcomes tens of thousands of scholars and special guests from academia every year, Smiley almost got away with cutting out these maps while in the reading room, which he intended to hide, smuggle out of the library, and sell on the black market.
(Do I need to mention that you can't simply check out the first bible ever printed and just pay late fees if you don't return it?!)
While you think we may have all bases covered, remember that the library was built in the 1960s, the height of the Cold War and atomic age. At the time, there were real concerns about what would happen to humanity's most treasured books in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. So, the myth is that in the event of a nuclear bomb hitting nearby New York City, for instance, the whole central stack could be mechanically lowered into the ground and then sealed up, serving as a bomb shelter for the books.
However, that myth has since been dispelled. In reality, there are two levels of basement floors under the library that extend out under the Hewitt Quadrangle, containing secured reading and research rooms, offices, and storage areas. Further down, there's also an underground stream, so it seems impossible that the central tower lowers into the ground in the event of a nuclear attack!
So, you might be wondering where the name ‘Beinecke’ comes from? The library was a gift from three members of the Beinecke family who were Yale alumni, endowing the university and building to serve as “a source of learning and an inspiration to all who enter.”
I’d say they definitely succeeded, and I try to visit the Beinecke Library for inspiration every time I’m back visiting my hometown of Hamden, Ct, which is only a couple of miles away from Yale.
If you’re ever in the area, give it a visit!
(And say ‘what’s up’ if I happen to be around, too!)