The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Spatial optimization serves as primary focus of Fondren Library renovations

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Fondren opens the new Fondren Foundation Centennial Reading Room. Photo credit: Reece Kelley Graham

Gillian M. McCombs beamed a giddy enthusiasm while showing off the newly renovated spaces of Fondren Library. The sound of her short heels and lofty English dialect echoed off the polished marble at a muted volume fitting a librarian like herself.

Even in a hushed tone, McCombs voice filled with pride on the tour of the renovations, which included the new Fondren Foundation Centennial Reading Room. The reading room, which opened on Founder’s Day Weekend in April, was the first phase of a facelift many believe Fondren has needed for years. As Dean and Director of Central University Libraries, McCombs hopes the ongoing renovations will make for a better learning environment for those at SMU.

“It’s no accident that one of the hallmarks of this renovation is the return of the reading room to its original purpose: providing an inspirational and elegant space for reflection and silent study for all students and faculty,” McCombs said during the reading room’s dedication ceremony.

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Fondren Foundation Centennial Reading Room offers new study areas. Photo credit: SMU Website

The reestablishment of the reading room’s place in Fondren was a major goal of McCombs and her team throughout the planning of the library’s makeover. She says re-opening the room was key to making the space more useable for students and to highlighting portions of various library collections, which otherwise would go unappreciated. The renovation allows for a better usage of space across the board.

“Everything we’ve been doing has been to open up, create more light, create more study opportunities, and make it a more attractive and functional space,” McCombs said in an interview following the reading room’s opening.

Many students were surprised to learn that the reading room had always been there, including sophomore finance and public policy major Jimmy Buckley.

“I had no idea,” Buckley said on a study break during finals week. “First time I walked in I was shocked.”

McCombs says the reading room was one of the largest study spaces on campus when Fondren Library opened in 1940. As the special collections of SMU’s DeGolyer Library grew over the years, Fondren needed to find more storage space. When Fondren East opened in 1968, the reading room was reconfigured into a repository for the DeGolyer collections with only a small reading space left available. The reading room was eventually forgotten as other portions of the library flourished.

“We wanted to bring back the reading room for the students,” McCombs said. “When students first came in 1940, they had that. We all felt really sad that current students didn’t have the opportunity.”

She says using the reading room as storage for collections was never the best-case scenario. By doing so, the library not only eliminated a gathering space for students, but also effectively hid those collections away from the public eye. The library has now given itself a way of displaying its extensive collections by creating the Hillcrest Foundation Exhibit Hall and the Texana Room, which currently display an original printed copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Texas banknotes, artifacts from JCPenney and Texas Instruments, and sheriff’s badges from every county in the state.

The void left in the reading room has been filled by students, many of whom have religiously studied there in the short time since its re-opening.

“I had only been into Fondren once before, but I’ve been in the reading room almost everyday since it opened,” first-year business major Emma Culver said.

“I was really excited when they opened up a real study space in here,” first-year marketing and French major Lauren Veith said. “My dad and I, when we were visiting, wanted to see the library and we walked in this area and it was like completely different. We were like, ‘oh, this isn’t the library really.’”

McCombs says another motivation for the entire project was to make the library feel like the center of the university’s academic mission. She wanted to create a space that would both provide students a variety of learning experiences and create a better flow in the library.

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Digital rendering of Fondren’s Collaborative Commons design. (Photo credit:

The reference desk will now be combined with the center circulation area, creating a one-stop shop for all forms of content. Librarians will now be housed in one suite so students know where to go for assistance. The old information commons is being rebranded as a learning commons with more space for computers and open-concept classrooms. The next phase of the renovation to open will be a collaborative commons with comfortable seating, computer generated art, presentation stations, and a Starbucks.

“It was important to create a café, because I think today there’s a different way of living, studying and using space,” she said. “We wanted to create a ‘third space’ where people can come together very democratically, chill out and do whatever they need to do.”

Despite the positive changes going on at Fondren, some students have been critical of the renovations on social media. Shortened hours of operation and restricted access to certain library collections have been the primary frustrations. Though the construction may be bothersome, McCombs says temporary breaks in service are better than the library shutting down completely. Buckley, who uses the library frequently, was never inconvenienced.

“Fondren before was old and a little bit dilapidated, so this is definitely worth the lack of late hours,” Buckley said.

Frustrated students may be unaware of how dire in need some of Fondren’s renovations are. McCombs says before construction began, some portions of the building did not have a sprinkler system. Other areas, including a main stairwell, contained dangerous asbestos. The library also lacked an elevator wide enough to accommodate a stretcher in the event of a medical emergency on an upper floor.

But this renovation is about more than just safety concerns. McCombs believes the building’s evolution coincides with how the times and needs of students are changing. The pacing of the construction was methodical, deliberate and calculated on purpose. Getting it right was a must.

“We first shape our buildings, and then, they shape us,” McCombs said at the dedication, quoting Winston Churchill. “And so it will be with our beloved library.”

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