Light pours into the Bowes Art & Architecture Library from its floor-to-ceiling windows and its oculus, which opens to the sky above and to the courtyard below.

Throughout the day, sun slipping through the oculus casts ever-changing shadows across the slate carpet. It’s a daily light show that delights Rachel Grace Newman, who recently earned a PhD in art history at Stanford.

A view of the McMurtry Building for the Department of Art & Art History at dusk (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Bowes Library, which is “suspended” in the middle of the new McMurtry Building for the Department of Art & Art History, takes up the entire second floor of the building, befitting its starring role in the study and practice of art at Stanford. Architect Charles Renfro said the two strands of the building – one for making art and another for studying art – hold the library in a “gentle embrace.”

“The location of the library, its integration into the circular architectural space, beckons its use,” said Lukas Felzmann, an art lecturer at Stanford. “It has already become a space that I frequent, treasure and integrate into my teaching practice.”


Three groupings of upholstered benches in turquoise, blue, beige and brown stand next to round end tables in an open space near the library's main desk, with glass walls and windows in the background.) (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Most libraries have only one door. The Bowes Library has two. When visitors enter through the east door, near the elevators, they can “touch down” for a moment on an upholstered bench before continuing their journey in the library.


A colorful wall of periodicals on the left, with an entryway set in a steeply sloped wall on the right. In between are upholstered armchairs – one tangerine, another turquoise – with a small, low round table in between. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Alexandria Brown-Hedjazi, an art history graduate student, dressed in black, sits on an office chair in her carrel, a pile of books in her lap. She leans forward to lift a book from her bookcase. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Bowes has turned its periodical collection into a vivid and ever-changing mosaic composed of 180 journals – six down and 30 across – from around the nation and around the world, including Asian Art News, Canadian Art, Frieze, Journal of Contemporary African Art, Storia dell’arte, The Comics Journal, Winterthur Portfolio and Zograf.

An entryway in a steeply sloped wall leads to the graduate carrel room, whose carrels are arrayed on five tiers. Each carrel has two bookcases and a desk with locking cabinet doors that can double as privacy dividers.

“What I love about the tiered design of the carrels is that when you’re here reading for hours on end you can hear that other people are here, which is nice, but you can’t see them,” said Alexandria Brown-Hedjazi, a PhD student in art history. “It provides a sense of community without being too distracting.”

Brown-Hedjazi also appreciates the fact that each carrel has two bookcases.

“Depending on how many classes I take, I might check out 100 books a quarter,” she said. “Plus, if you’re working on your dissertation you’re starting to hunt and collect books for your research. Having this much space for books is fantastic.”


Three empty armchairs surround a small, low round table in a corner of the library with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, with views of treetops outside. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“What I love about Bowes Library is the feeling of being up in the trees as you study – particularly when you sit at the tables overlooking Roth Way,” said Alexander Nemerov, a scholar of American art and the chair of the Department of Art & Art History.

“Trees and thoughts go together; the students there, and me, too, are alone with our thoughts, away from the street, and the mind branches like the trees do. The feeling of being off the ground – of being levitated, even among all those heavy, heavy books – is something I love about Bowes.”


Image credit: L.A. Cicero

Peter Blank, senior librarian at Bowes, said the collection’s strengths reflect the curricula of the Art & Art History Department, which has consistently taught courses in photography, Chinese art, American art, Byzantine and Medieval art, and modern and contemporary art.

“We also acquire materials that we know that undeclared freshmen and sophomores are likely to use when they are doing research and writing papers for courses in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and for ITALIC, a yearlong academic program focused on art for freshmen who live together and take classes together in Stern Hall,” Blank said.

“But what distinguishes the Bowes collection and makes our students’ experiences especially unique is our in-house special collections operation, whose holdings enhance research and teaching on a broad range of topics. We have an excellent collection of illuminated manuscript facsimiles that are used extensively in the Byzantine and Medieval courses, and very strong holdings of out-of-print and collectible photo books.”


Juniors Clara Galperin and Josie Hodson, sunglasses on the tops of their heads, sit close together at one end of a bright blue couch with open laptops in one section of the library's open stacks. Behind them is a tall bookcase filled with books (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

One recent day, Clara Galperin (left) and Josie Hodson – both juniors – claimed a wide blue couch, located in a cozy nook in the open stacks, to put the finishing touches on their honors thesis proposals. Galperin, an art history major, has titled her thesis Xul Solar and Jorge Luis Borges: The Art of Friendship. Hodson, who is majoring in art and art history, and in African & African American Studies, has titled her thesis: Black Alternative Art Spaces in New York City, 1963 – 1985.


A female undergraduate in a white wool sweater sits at a table, looking down at an open black book in her right hand, her chin resting on her left hand. Professor Lukas Felzmann dressed in black, with his eyeglasses on the top of his head, leans across the table, his eyes also focused on the book. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Professor Lukas Felzmann dressed in black, with eyeglasses on the top of his head, stands between two tables in a classroom filled with natural light, pausing in the middle of turning the pages of a large photographic book. One of the tables is strewn with a dozen books and a metal cart behind him holds a dozen more. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

In a classroom on the top floor of the McMurtry Building, Sofia Arimany (left), a Stanford junior, discussed the design of a photo book with Lukas Felzmann, art lecturer. Felzmann selected the book, Höhlen, by Christoph Bühler, from his personal collection to show to students enrolled in his course, “The Photographic Book.”

“We were discussing its black velvet cover and the fact that it gave off an air of mystery,” said Arimany, who is majoring in psychology, with minors in art practice, and in film and media studies. “The book came in a narrow black slipcase and contained black and white photos of caves, without any explanatory text. I really liked the feel of the velvet and its alluring effect.”

Felzmann used a metal cart to wheel dozens of books to the classroom, located one floor above Bowes Library, including Letters from the People, by Lee Friedlander.


Large art books, lying horizontal on the narrow shelves of a gray bookcase. One of the books is black, with its title, Hadid, emblazoned in bold gold letters on its spine. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Bowes Library has more than 150,000 volumes, including surveys and focused studies on all aspects of the history and practice of art, architecture and design, monographs on artists, exhibition catalogs, edited collections of scholarly essays, journals, rare and antiquarian materials, and even individual works of art known as artists’ books – scrolls, foldouts, concertinas, bound books or with loose items or prints contained in an enclosure.

Blank said that more than 90 percent of the new books he buys for Bowes are available only in print form. He doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

“That’s one reason I was so glad we were able to design a library with a substantial footprint for a visible collection,” he said. “We were able to move the entire Cummings collection into the new Bowes Library, with some modest room for expansion.”


Three undergraduate students, eyes closed, lean close to the cover of a book resting in a V-shaped black foam block resting on a table, to smell the spices infused in its pages. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Treasures of every size and shape reside in the library’s special collections room – until students summon them from their shelves to peruse at a table near the library’s main desk, or faculty request them for special class showings in one of the library’s seminar rooms.

Students enrolled in “Digital Printmaking,” taught by Gail Wight, an associate professor of art practice, visited the library with Wight to see, touch and smell books from the special collections room. Blank invited students to close their eyes and smell the cover of Mars, an artist’s book infused with spices, including cayenne, saffron and turmeric.


Jacqueline Langelier, an undergraduate student with long brown hair kneels on the floor while studying a page in Cry Uncle. The rest of the class stands behind her looking over her head. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Hadley Nelson, an undergraduate student with blond hair kneels on the floor, her chin resting on her hands on top of the table, as she watches Peter Blank, dressed in a dark suit and blue shirt bending a 10-inch cube covered in dark blue silk with a hand-colored image of Mount Rainier. It is an artist's book titled Local Conditions: One Hundred Views of Mount Rainer – At Least. (Image Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Jacqueline Langelier, a junior majoring in art practice and minoring in film & media studies, admires the detail of an etching in Cry Uncle, a 23-page accordion-fold book on torture by Frances Jetter.

Cry Uncle is a particularly intricate work, both in craft and in meaning,” Langelier said. “Every element of the book is intentional: from the paper that feels like skin as you turn the pages, to the fabric case that is sew to resemble a face. For my honors thesis in art practice I will be creating my own series of artists’ books, so I am looking forward to exploring the library’s own collection.”

Hadley Nelson, a junior majoring in art practice, watches Blank assemble Local Conditions: One Hundred Views of Mount Rainier (At Least), by Chandler O’Leary. The artist’s book is a collection of 120 hand-colored and hand-cut letterpress cards that are stored in tiny drawers in 10-inch cube artist’s book, which also has a viewing box.

“It is inspiring to see the infinite potentiality of book as art object, and it is exciting and encouraging for me to see that there are artists out there who make books and succeed,” said Nelson. “Local Conditions is an exceptional example of craftsmanship. Can you imagine cutting out and hand painting each of those pieces?”


A close-up of two pages in Mars, showing a male librarian's forearm and hand, with his index finger pointing out the artwork's texture and markings (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The artists who created Mars – Marshall Weber, Kurt Allerslev and Laura Smith – used burnt mustard pigment to evoke the deadly mustard gas used during World War I. The artists were inspired by evidence – from NASA’s land rover “Curiosity” – that there was organic life on Mars. The book is a meditation on Mars the planet, Mars the Roman god of war, war in general, and the battle of Gallipoli during World War I.

“I pointed out the textures and markings created by the artists, who used unique materials to create Mars,” Blank said. “I talked about how the artists created a sense of landscape, time, a moment in past history, by engaging the students’ senses of touch, smell and vision to take them to a new level of experience, to a new kind of encounter with the book.”


Undergraduate students, crouching, leaning and standing around a table as a male librarian dressed in a dark suit jacket and blue dress shirt focuses a beam of light from a very small UV flashlight on a page in 2013 (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Another treasure in the library’s special collections is 2013, by Justin James Reed. The book comes with a UV flashlight. Its pages, which appear white, were printed with experimental ultraviolet “Firefly” ink, which is invisible in normal spectrum light, but appears lush and ghostly under ultraviolet light.


Two people ascending the covered staircase that leads to the library from the McMurtry Building's courtyard. The photo shows the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the library, with a view of a long table that frames one side of the oculus. On the table are six desktop computers. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

To enter through the west entrance of Bowes Library, climb the stairs from the courtyard to the landing on the second level.

For hours, check the Bowes website.  The library supports art-related research, teaching, exploration and discovery; it is open to all Stanford students, faculty and staff, and registered visitors.

Story Credits

Writer: Kathleen J. Sullivan

Photography: L.A. Cicero

Design / Art Direction: Kevin Garcia