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Fiat Lux: Let there be light

The heart of McGill’s downtown campus – the Library – is being reimagined for the 21st century

Pre-concept image of Fiat Lux

A crown jewel of McGill’s downtown campus is getting some extra sparkle.

The McLennan-Redpath Library Complex, located on McTavish near Sherbrooke St., will be transformed as part of the Library’s extraordinary Fiat Lux project. Fiat Lux – translated from Latin as ‘let there be light’ – will create a new central Library complex dramatically reconfigured to suit modern users.

“The libraries are much beloved by students, faculty and researchers," says Colleen Cook, McGill’s Trenholme Dean of Libraries. “We’re excited to create a 21st-century library experience.”

The last major central library project was the opening of the McLennan Library Building in 1969. Since then, McGill’s enrolment has more than doubled, new technologies have emerged, and students’ use of the space has transformed.

“The Library is their home away from home,” says Dean Cook. “It’s where students go when they need to take a break between classes, and when they really need to learn. We need to provide all sorts of spaces to accommodate them – whether they need rock ’n’ roll or want it ninja quiet.”

The renewed Library will feature light-filled workrooms, extensive outdoor spaces, and state-of-the-art technology. “Flexibility is key, so that the library can adapt to whatever comes up in the future.”

To ensure the project’s success, the Library welcomed advisory groups from “just about every stakeholder community you could think of.” That includes deans, librarians, McGill’s Office of Sustainability, and huge input from students.

Yes, today’s students continue to use McGill’s libraries. In fact, says Dean Cook, “they’re overrun,” citing data that shows that at peak times, as many as 10,000 people per day enter McGill’s collective library buildings. The Fiat Lux project will more than double available seating to meet demand.

That will be achieved by relocating a significant portion of the low-use collection to an off-campus Collection Management Facility, from which items can be delivered within 24 hours. McGill has 11.8 million physical and electronic volumes in the Library collection – more than half of which are digital – including over 250,000 items that are not held anywhere else in the world. “We know that our collection is unusual, so we have an obligation to keep these materials and make them readily available.”

It’s a bold project, and it’s being realized thanks to private funding and institutional support. McGill’s Friends of the Library, a volunteer organization, sponsored an extensive feasibility study; donors to The McGill Fund have provided immediate support; and legacy gift donors are assuring the project’s long-term success.

All are carrying on a rich tradition of giving: McGill’s first dedicated library building, Redpath Hall, was donated by Peter Redpath in 1893, and the McLennan Library building was named in honour of Isabella McLennan, who left a bequest in her will. “I know a number of very generous donors who are supporting the Fiat Lux project through legacy gifts,” says Dean Cook. “This project would not happen without them – it’s that simple.”

Construction will tentatively begin in 2023 and continue for approximately three years, although the design and schedule are still in development. The Library will stay open throughout. “The Library belongs to everybody at McGill,” says Cook, “but it also belongs to the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec. We’re very aware of its standing and importance – to the University, to Canada, and to North America.”

I think the McGill Library is an extraordinarily valuable institution. Its enduring impact will provide and preserve both education and intellectual pursuit.”

Katherine Smalley, BA’67, 200 for 200 Legacy Challenge donor.

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