‘Intellectual heart’ of campus beats stronger after library

issue 02 | spring 2023
Doane Library Entrance

Sue Douthit O’Donnell learned at an early age that words and books mattered deeply.

Her father was a writer and editor, and her mother was head reference librarian at the State Library of Ohio. If a child asked O’Donnell’s mother how to spell something as simple as “cat,” she would make it a point to cite the dictionary.

“Here we are,” she might say upon finding the word. “Cat. C-A-T.”

“Both of them were very interested in books, and therefore libraries,” O’Donnell says.

When she and her husband, Bob, decided they were prepared to make a substantial gift to Denison, Greg Bader, vice president for institutional advancement, told them about much-needed renovations to William Howard Doane Library. It was a perfect fit.

“In our discussions, it became clear that Sue saw the library as the intellectual heart of campus,” Bader says. “She believes libraries are truly the essence of college campuses.”

The O’Donnells’ $7.5 million gift was announced in 2018, with $5.7 million earmarked for the library and the remainder set aside to grow the college’s narrative nonfiction writing program.

The library project came to fruition just as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed life, and library traffic greatly diminished.

Now, with campus life back in full-swing, the reinvigorated library is seeing its usage skyrocket. Between January and April of 2022, the library logged 17,000 visitors. During the same period in 2023, it saw 26,000 visitors. The improved, and in many cases all-new, study rooms are packed on a typical day, says BethAnn Zambella, Denison’s director of libraries.

Evidence of the O’Donnells’ gift can be found in all corners of the 1958 addition and in the original 1936 building, which has been renamed Douthit Hall. Reading rooms have been brightened, the faculty lounge retooled, harsh industrial lighting removed, and group study rooms added. But there are dozens of major upgrades not obvious to the casual visitor, including new roofs and an HVAC system that extends the library’s life for decades to come, Zambella says.

“It brought new life to the building, made it more accessible, more engaging as a space,” Bader says. “It honors the building’s past and ensures the library’s future.”

The improvements are evident as soon as you step through the main doors. Visitors are met with restored but largely original terrazzo floors, rich wood paneling, and the overall sense of former grandeur that long had been obscured by a utilitarian but uninspired front desk area. For many years prior to the restoration, library patrons had been directed to use the side doors, not the dramatic main entrance as it was designed by architects of the 1936 building.

“We had these beautiful doors, and you couldn’t go in them,” Zambella says.

O’Donnell remembers going through those doors, and she was surprised to learn that they had gone unused for so long.

“I just couldn’t imagine not going up those steps,” she says.

She remembers her years at Denison fondly, and she hopes the facelift encourages students to spend more time in such a valuable campus resource for years to come.

“Libraries are truly special places, where people come together and collaborate,” she says. “I wanted to give back to Denison, and this was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do.”

Published June 2023
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