Sawyer Library

Buildings That Teach: Sawyer Library

Buildings That Teach: Sawyer Library

Buildings that Teach is an ongoing series that looks at the buildings on campus and explores how the space around us plays a role in the teaching and learning process at Williams.

Sawyer LibraryIt only takes a few weeks of the fall semester—suddenly, the once-empty carrels in Sawyer Library boast tablecloths, flowers, and decorations. Each year, as classes begin and students adjust to their weekly workloads, students lay claim to their work spaces in Sawyer.

For students, the library plays the part of what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg would call the ‘third space.’ Neither home (the dormitories) nor work (the classrooms), the library acts as a community-building place that is comfortable, accessible, and sociable.

“This is a place where students spend a lot of time,” says college librarian Dave Pilachowski. “We’ve tried to create a comfortable space that people are drawn to, and where they can be comfortable staying longer.” To that end, nearly all of Sawyer’s seating is designed to adapt as needed; students can lounge in beanbags or collect around larger tables on the main floor, find a window seat on the second-floor computer lab, or decide between a quiet carrel or a jovial round table in the basement, depending on target productivity rates.

Students study in Sawyer“The quiet places happen organically,” says Christine Menard, the head of research and reference services. “We don’t set the rules.” Yet each year, Sawyer settles into a pattern that favors an open, sociable main floor and a quiet third-floor. There aren’t even restrictions on food in the 38 year-old building, although pizza deliveries to specific carrels are now limited. However, students can still call for a pizza, pick it up in the lobby, and bring it into the library.


The libraries at Williams (there are four: Sawyer Library, Schow Science Library, Archives and Special Collections, and Chapin Library of Rare Books) serve not just as work spaces, but also as intellectual forums. Staff members curate exhibits that spotlight under-used resources, interesting classes, or little-known subjects, and encourage both curiosity and critical inquiry.

Decorated carrelEven though staff members in Sawyer are always present to provide resource suggestions, microfilm demonstrations, or class-specific research guidance in conjunction with professors, it is the students who truly maximize the library’s utility. By moving a favorite chair to the perfect study view, nestling into a monkey carrel for a power nap, stowing “brain food” snacks in the lockers, or covering a friend’s carrel with goofy post-it notes, the students claim their libraries as spaces that are just as social as they are academic.

So how will this claimed space be manifest in the new Stetson-Sawyer library complex, set for completion in 2014? The project, which also includes Schapiro and Hollander Halls, will serve as home to two-thirds of Williams’ faculty and be a focal point for the humanities and social sciences at Williams. By collecting previously dispersed collections and services with an eye to student study habits, the Stetson-Sawyer complex will create a new space where creative opportunities can thrive. Read on for more.