By Nan Johnson
When Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library opened in 1970, John Jay Schwartz (B.S.’69/B), like many students at the time, watched the construction from the ground up.
Today, an avid and loyal supporter of the university, Schwartz is playing a key role in the next stage of life of VCU’s library system as chair of the Friends of the Library fundraising committee. And he’s watching. Again.
“We offer students less [library] space per person than any other university in the commonwealth, and we’re one of the biggest schools in the state,” he said. “That’s got to change.”
That change is happening now.
One of the busiest academic libraries in Virginia, a crowded Cabell serves about 32,000 students. The building was designed for 17,000. In late 2015, an expanded and revitalized library will open in the same location near the Compass in Shafer Court. Designed to meet the needs of today’s students and researchers, the new facility features 93,000 square feet of new construction and 63,000 square feet of improvements to the existing building.
About 2 million people visit Cabell annually. That’s more visitors than the Library of Congress. Annual online use is also staggering: 9 million database searches, 3 million search box queries and 2.3 million journal downloads.
Alumni such as Schwartz have seen the Monroe Park Campus grow up around Cabell. A revitalized library is long overdue, but the transformation won’t be complete without the help of private philanthropy.
That’s where Schwartz and others like him come in.
“I’m trying to get all of my alumni friends to join in the fundraising efforts,” he said. “The student body, faculty, staff — we can all make it something to be very proud of, and we’ll step back and say, ‘Why haven’t we done this before?’ We will all be mesmerized.”
A private, $10 million fundraising campaign will augment the estimated construction budget of about $50.8 million, which is funded from public sources. The money raised will support three key areas of need: an endowment to ensure that furnishings and equipment for the new building can be adapted to the different ways VCU students will learn and study 40 years from now; an endowment to create first-in-class physical and technology capabilities for today’s students; and an endowment to further develop VCU’s collections of rare and unique materials in the expanded special collections area and archives.
More than 90 percent of the building will be dedicated to usable square footage for students and faculty, with an emphasis on technology-enabled space instead of space for storage of books and materials. It also provides more room for graduate- and professional-level study as well as university and community events.
“As an undergraduate student, I underutilized my time in the library,” said David Dennier (B.S. ’75), a member of the Friends of the Library board. “I used it for research and quiet study space. I really didn’t realize the immense treasures that exist in the library.
“The new library will not only ensure that the university has the premier library in the commonwealth but that it’s also one of the nation’s best urban, public research universities. Let’s take VCU to the next level.”
Plenty of treasures will await in this new academic hub — a large-scale display wall visible both inside and out, multiple gallery spaces, a 300-seat auditorium, an outdoor study terrace and event area, expanded special collections and archive spaces and much more.
“Our new library on the Monroe Park Campus will serve more students each day than any other library in the commonwealth,” said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider. “I cannot imagine a building anywhere in Virginia that will be more visible to students, faculty and visitors, affect more students or have a greater impact on student success. A gift to help build our new library will help more students, every single day, than any other gift you can give.”
To request a copy of “Moving Forward,” a brochure about the new library, or to join the mailing list for construction updates and library news, contact Kimberly R. Separ (M.A.’97/A), director of development and community relations, at (804) 827-1163 or