From Ridgley to Olin: The History of Wash U’s Library

An image of Ridgley Library from Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

May 1 was the official Transformation Dedication of the newly renovated Olin Library, so we thought we would take this opportunity to have a look at the history of Washington University’s library.

The reading room of Ridgley Library, 1961. Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

Ridgley Library

This history begins in the late 1800s when Stephen Ridgley, a former State Senator, donated $76,000 to Washington University for the construction of a fireproof library. The University broke ground on the project in 1900, and upon its completion, leased the building to the 1904 World Fair. During the World Fair, the main hall (now Holmes lounge) was used for balls and meetings, while the second floor contained a brilliant display of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee gifts.

A librarian reshelving books at Ridgley Library circa 1910. Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

The new Newman Tower features an archival photo of a librarian at the old Ridgley Library. Photo by Patricia Topping, Library Circulation Assistant.

Ridgley’s building was officially dedicated as Ridgley Library on May 3, 1907. Above you can see photos of what the library used to look like. As you can see, the space that is now known as Holmes Lounge served as the main reading room for the library, while the stacks were located on both the first and second floors of the main hall. One of the images that decorate the new Newman Tower is of a librarian reshelving books at Ridgley Library.

A photo of the original construction of Olin Library, circa 1961. Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

Moving the Library to Olin

Construction began on Olin Library on May 3, 1960, and opened in 1962, replacing Ridgley as the main library on campus. (You can read more about Ridgley’s reading room and its transformation into Holmes lounge here). Olin was then renovated and expanded in the early 2000s, and rededicated in 2004.

Over the years, Olin has gone though many changes, as innovations in technology have prompted other changes to library spaces, such as the downsizing of periodical spaces and the introduction of computer labs. Below you can see pictures of the old periodical room and the dedication of the new PC lab in the mid- 90s.

Patrons searching through the periodical racks in Olin Library, 1984.Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

A photo from the grand opening of Olin Library’s new PC lab in the mid-90s. Washington University Archives, Photographic Services Collection.

The new renovation includes renovated computer labs, a new Research Studio (featured below), and a Data and Visual Exploration(DaVE) space that features virtual reality and augmented reality environments. A new A/V studio will also be opening soon.

The new research studio on the A Level of Olin Library. Photo by Diana Bell, Library Events and Communications Coordinator.

Other exciting features of the recent transformation include the Thomas Gallery and Newman Tower exhibition spaces, a renovated Whispers Cafe, a new eating/study space called Risa’s Landing, additional instruction and study spaces, and of course the new north entrance. You can read about all of these new features in our previous blog post, or you can come and check them out for yourself!

View of the Newman Tower from the renovated Whispers Cafe. Photo by Patricia Topping, Library Circulation Assistant.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.