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From Ridgley to Olin: The History of WashU’s Library

Ridgley Library, Washington University Archives

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.

Ridgley Library Reading Room, Washington University Archives

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.

Black and white photo of book stacks in the original library at Washington University circa the late 1940s.
Librarian at Ridgley Library

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.

The original construction of Olin, circa 1961, Washington University Archives

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 on the Washington University’s Holmes Lounge page). Olin was then renovated and expanded in the early 2000s, and rededicated in 2004.

Over the years, Olin has gone through 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 search the periodical racks in Olin Library, 1984, Washington University Archives
Users sitting in front of cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors in Olin Library's then-new PC Lab circa the mid-90s.
Grand opening of Olin Library’s new PC lab in the mid-90s, Washington University Archives

The new renovation includes renovated computer labs, a new Research Studio, 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. 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 come to check all of these new features out for yourself!

Newly renovated Whispers Cafe featuring bar counter study seating as well as smaller, paired tables, all done in a modern/contemporary style.
A view of the renovated Whispers Cafe’.