Geisel Library, UC San Diego’s ‘mother ship,’ turns 50

Clouds are reflected in the Geisel Library windows at UC San Diego in August.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A vending machine stocked with books? In the lobby of a library? On a campus teeming with STEM students hooked on smartphones?

It seems like the last thing you’d find at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library, whose futuristic facade inspired a key scene in the science-fiction movie “Inception.”

But the grab-and-go dispenser will soon be in place — one of many efforts large and small to serve the growing masses and keep things moving on a campus that’s become much bigger than anyone imagined.

The question is, when will students get to use it? Or even be allowed to roam the stacks of a library that resembles an inverted pyramid rising out of a canyon?

A student studies at Geisel Library at UC San Diego in April 2019.
A student studies at Geisel Library at UC San Diego in April 2019.
(File)

As it prepares to turn 50 on Tuesday, Sept. 29, the La Jolla landmark is closed to foot traffic due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And it’s unclear when it will fully reopen, even though thousands of students are about to arrive for the fall quarter.

There will be virtual celebrations. But students are likely to want more. They joke that UCSD’s initials stand for University of California Socially Dead. But that doesn’t apply to Geisel, the busy and buzzy center of campus.

Geisel attracts thousands of students who want to be in the “mother ship,” the name they’ve given the otherworldly structure.

They mash together chairs in a second-floor reading room, creating a communal experience that is missing from many areas of the campus, which has nearly 40,000 students.

UC San Diego students walk to the university's Geisel Library in 2019.
(File)

Students scan phone apps to check on available seating. Many show up early, hoping to find a spot near windows that offer prime views of La Jolla and beyond.

Like Hoover Tower at Stanford, Geisel’s appearance is so striking that it is used in virtually all of UCSD’s advertising, a symbol of how San Diego County became a mecca of science, technology and medicine in the early days of the Space Age.

“It seems like every kid who graduates from UC San Diego takes a picture in front of this building,” said Erik Mitchell, UCSD’s head librarian. “I’m sure they do that because it’s iconic. But I think they also have had a moving experience. There’s a reason they’re coming to this school rather than going somewhere else.”

UC San Diego's Geisel Library is named after Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
UC San Diego’s Geisel Library is named after Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.
(File)

The library also benefits from being named after the late Theodor Geisel, the La Jolla author-illustrator known to most as Dr. Seuss.

His writings and drawings are housed at Geisel — something tour guides mention when they lead prospective students through the library.

The only thing Geisel has been missing throughout its history is the general public.

UCSD’s walled-off design can make it hard for visitors to find the library. Parking is scarce. And as Chancellor Pradeep Khosla has noted, the school hasn’t done a good job of welcoming the public to campus.

That’s about to change.

UCSD is building its first “front door,” an entrance meant to make it easy to reach the center of the university. It’s being built at the foot of the Pepper Canyon Blue Line trolley station that will empty onto a grand plaza, guiding people to Geisel and other sites.

THE STORY OF A LIBRARY

Freshman Valerie Lipiniski and Chancellor John Galbraith study a model of UCSD's new Central Library in 1967.
(UCSD Special Collections & Archives)

1957: By the late 1950s it was obvious that the University of California system would need more campuses. The state’s population was soaring. And the Cold War had increased the demand for engineers and scientists, especially in San Diego County’s huge military and defense industries.

Prominent architect William Pereira was hired to find suitable sites. He came up with 19 possibilities, including a spot in north La Jolla that was later chosen by UC regents. It had ample room for a major library.

1960: UCSD was formally established and quickly enrolled graduate students in physics, emphasizing the school’s focus on science.

1963: Planners originally wanted UCSD to be composed of science institutes that included some graduate students. But the need to also serve undergraduates was apparent, leading to the creation of humanities programs that heavily rely on old printed book collections.

1964: Historian John Galbraith agreed to become UCSD’s second chancellor after being assured there would be enough money to create a major library. He said the library would help ensure that UCSD wasn’t a mere satellite of UCLA.

1965: UC again turned to Pereira for help, hiring him to design a building that would be known as Central Library. Pereira, a sci-fi fan, had become famous for bold, futuristic designs, including a building at Los Angeles International Airport that resembles a space ship with legs. Regents wanted something equally iconic for UCSD.

1967: Pereira began designing a library that would reflect Brutalist architecture, a style featuring big, heavy structures often made of concrete. Examples include the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building in Washington, D.C. Workers broke ground on Central Library the following year.

UCSD's Central Library (now Geisel Library) under construction in 1968.
UCSD’s Central Library (now Geisel Library) under construction in 1968.
(UCSD Special Collections & Archives)

1970: Central Library opened and soon had 750,000 volumes. Most of the collection was print. But Galbraith foresaw a digital age that would transform society, and change was occurring. MIT introduced email a short time later, and Canon introduced its pocket calculator.

1973: The library added its 1 millionth volume, John Ogilby’s “America,” a rare account of early discoveries and expeditions to America.

1978: Theodor Geisel delivered the UCSD commencement speech, speaking entirely in verse.

1985: UCSD celebrated the 15th anniversary of Central Library.

1990: Construction began on an expansion that added 200,000 square feet to the library, doubling usable space for patrons, staff and book storage.

1991: Geisel died at age 87 after living in La Jolla for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Audrey, had become big fans of UCSD, especially the library. “The first time Ted saw the form of that building, he said to me, ‘If I had turned my thoughts toward designing a building, it might have looked strangely similar to this,’” Audrey Geisel later told the Los Angeles Times.

The following year, she donated nearly 10,000 of her husband’s original drawings, sketches, notebooks and memorabilia to the library.

1992: The library celebrated the addition of its 2 millionth volume, a 1493 printing of the Nuremberg Chronicle, a hand-colored history of the world from its creation to 1492.

1995: The library was renamed Geisel Library after Audrey Geisel donated $20 million to the university. The change was meant to honor both Audrey and Ted. She continued to donate original works and memorabilia to UCSD, eventually pushing the number of items to more than 20,000. Also in 1995, UCSD opened Library Walk,a pedestrian path that better connects the library to other parts of the campus.

1999: Brian E.C. Schottlaenderwas appointed head librarian. A short time later, he began to provide access to electronic journals, making it faster and easier for faculty, especially in science, engineering and medicine, to see the latest research. E-journals didn’t catch on as fast with humanities faculty, who tend to like older, historic tests. Today, faculty can access hundreds of thousands of journals.

2004: The library celebrated the acquisition of its 3 millionth volume.

2006: San Diego author Vernor Vinge released “Rainbows End,” a sci-fi novel that prominently features Geisel Library. The plot raised the possibility that all of the library’s physical books would cease to exist.

2008: UCSD began shipping books to Google as part of a massive digitization project. More than 600,000 have been digitized.

Sources: UC San Diego, University of California, Los Angeles Times, William L. Pereira & Associates

GEISEL’S MANDEVILLE SPECIAL COLLECTIONS include the personal archives of Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective vaccine against polio; Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of DNA; Nobel laureate Harold Urey, who co-discovered deuterium and helped develop the atom bomb; Nobel laureate Maria Goeppert Mayer, who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus; biologist Walter Munk, the “Einstein of the oceans”; political activist Herman Baca, co-founder of the Committee on Chicano Rights; and poet Rae Armantrout, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

PERSONAL VOICES

Scott Paulson plays musical chimes from the roof of Geisel Library.
(Courtesy)

Scott Paulson, exhibits and events coordinator, Geisel Library
“There’s a small cement box on the roof of Geisel. It contains an electric clock — the library clock. And there are actual acoustic chimes hanging there, which automatically ring out on the hour. But there’s also a piano keyboard connected to the chimes. I play it live on Fridays at noon. Yes, I take requests! The most requested song? ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The second? ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath. Classic rock and old heavy metal is a surprising solicitation, but K-pop is gaining traction.

“My biggest challenge, thanks to a set of particular STEM students: finding a way to relay a rap song motif (through ceremonial bells?). Hard to do, but worth a try!”

Barbara Carlton, UCSD alumna
“When I was a freshman at Revelle College in 1974-75, I commuted from East County. I used to spend hours at a time between classes in the Central Library, as it was called then, studying and reading. My favorite spot was in one or another of the large armchairs in the corners of the fourth floor, hanging out in space with no part of the building visible above or below me, looking out at the eucalyptus groves.

“Frequently, fog off the ocean drifted through the trees, giving everything an air of mystery. The moisture frizzed up my hair, so that I even looked like someone other than myself. It was wonderful to be so immersed in a completely new environment, one that not only sparked my intellectual curiosity but my imagination as well.”

Malik J. Minert, age 11, La Jolla
(Courtesy of Eeman Agrama)

Malik Minert, age 11, La Jolla
“My first time in the library, I was very young, and it was years before I could read. My mother and father say they habitually took me to see the Seuss collection. I loved the clean display of the original concepts for beloved characters concealed in glass boxes. Old and frayed notebooks lay open-face on stands, the margins flooded with scribbled-down words and rough illustrations, perfectly arranged on the pages.

“Subconsciously or consciously, this first experience is one of the many intertwined reasons that I now find myself mesmerized by books and find myself reading almost infinitely throughout the day, escaping into these fantastical realms full of characters and filled with adventure.”

Alessandro Milio, senior, UCSD
“I slid my hand across the eroded concrete walls, trying to feel every divot formed by the years. Some parts of the wall were rougher; a texture reminiscent of the sandstone cliffs above Black’s Beach. Others were cold in the evening air, and smooth. Its roughness disguised by the gray lacquer it had been coated with nearly 50 years ago.

“The dwindling sunlight and clouds reflected off the polished windows; it was like they weren’t there at all. The laughs and sighs of students could be heard all around me as they returned home after a long day. A few went against the current, a late lecture still awaiting them. The ever-pervasive essence of eucalyptus wafted past everything in sight.

“Soon I’ll get to return to the musty air of the sixth floor or the coffee-tinted scent of the second. I’ll be winded from an eight-story climb in the dankness of a darkened stairwell. I’ll be able to look out and see the place and people that I and many others call home. But for now, my phone’s wallpaper will do.”

THEODOR GEISEL’S CONTROVERSIAL WORK

A 2019 academic study by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens says, “Before and during his career publishing children’s books, Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) also published hundreds of racist political cartoons, comics and advertisements for newspapers, magazines, companies and the United States government.”

UCSD almost never mentions the issue.

But Susan Brandt, president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises in San Diego, said: “Many of [Geisel’s] books have inspiring messages and deal with a wide range of topics such as the environment, the arms race, the dangers of tyranny and prejudice. However, some early books contain images portraying people in stereotypical ways. While unintended, the images are hurtful and wrong. Dr. Seuss Enterprises is reviewing his entire body of work to assess what changes need to be made to address these hurtful images.”

GEISEL LIBRARY BY THE NUMBERS

Geisel Library on the campus of UC San Diego.
(Courtesy)

Floors: Eight
Height: 130 feet
Construction costs: About $5.4 million at the time it opened, or about $25 per square foot
Collections: More than 7 million digital and print volumes, journals and multimedia materials
Urban legend: There is a myth that Geisel has so many books, the library is sinking.

Sources: UC San Diego, William L. Pereira & Associates, University of California