Blegen Library Building

Despite many challenges such as asbestos, mold, decades of accumulated dirt and spots in the Classics Library stacks, cast iron bookcases forming the inner structure of the building, i.e., they are immovable and thereby hampering shelving flexibility, continuous water leaks, poor climate control, not up to code with regards to fire prevention and accessibility, etc., the many interesting architectural details and features described below have prompted the UC architects to commit to renovating the building in ca. 6-7 years from now rather than to demolishing it, contrary to the American custom of discarding and getting new, a common practice also on the UC campus where many modern buildings only last a few years. The Blegen Library building, named after the famed classical archaeologist Carl Blegen, is a living museum in addition to a contemporary functioning space for the Archives and Rare Books Library, the Albino Gorno Memorial (CCM) Library, the John Miller Burnam Classics Library, and the Classics Department with a historical archive, an archaeological laboratory, and philology rooms, in addition to classrooms, offices, study spaces, and more. Before the Blegen Library building became the home of three libraries and a department, it was the home of the original general or main UC library. However, before then, when it opened its doors in 1895, the main library was located on the third floor of Arts & Sciences Hall (formerly McMicken Hall). In those early days the main library with small departmental libraries was headed by classicists, William Everett Waters, professor of Greek and Comparative Philology, 1892-1894, and Frederick Leopold Schoenle, also professor of Greek and Comparative Philology, 1895-1896, followed by Thomas Herbert Norton, professor of Chemistry, 1896-1900. In 1901 the Van Wormer Library opened. On the main floor there were reading and periodical rooms located on both sides of the rotunda where there was a "delivery desk." Five-story book stacks with metal shelving and glass floors(!) were located in the rear of the building. The area was accessible from the rotunda and a cataloging room. On the upper floors were the quarters of the Ohio Historical and Philosophical Society and research and seminar rooms. On the bottom floor were seminar, receiving, and packing rooms. Van Wormer was also the location of the first UC bookstore. The first full-time librarian, Harriet Evan Hodges, was appointed in 1901.     

Much of the information below and above comes from a report written by a previous University Librarian, Edward A. Henry, as a supplement to the Biennial Report for 1949-1951, and from a "History of University Libraries 1895-2005" by Don Heinrich Tolzmann (Published in Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of Blegen Library 1930-2005), but with many additions and corrections. 

Plaque on the inside of entrance to Blegen

The Building

The construction of the Blegen Library, originally the ‘General’ or "Main' University Library, began on January 2, 1929. The grand opening took place on June 10, 1930. The light poles on both sides of the entrance to the building list two dates, 1870, the year the City of Cincinnati officially established UC, and 1930, the year the University Library opened. The cost of the building of the general library was 892,000 dollars. It was designed by Harry Hake and Charles H. Kuch. Edward Henry described the plan as a 'natural amphitheater' which helps understand the confusing and rather unusual structure.

Back then, according to Edward Henry, the entrance (fourth) floor had a Reserved Book Reading Room holding some 200 seats and a Periodicals Reading Room holding more than 100 seats. The fifth (now sixth) floor held the Card Catalog, the Circulation Desk, the Main Reference Room, the General Reference Reading Room, the Rare Book Room, library offices, and work rooms.  On the main floor was also a "Rental Library" of fiction, mysteries, and biographies with leather chairs around a club table. There was also a Tea Room on this floor "with silver tea urns with sugar/creamer sets and good china on lace clothes" (Tolzmann, p. 7).

The principal book stacks were located in the rear portion of the center section on the first, second, and third floors (most likely the spaces now referred to as S6, S5, and S4 belonging to today’s Classics Library). The stacks were described as having a working capacity of ca. 450,000 volumes (which is interesting since with the Classics Library’s ca. 300,000 volumes we are at capacity; most likely provisions were not made for the more than 1,000 elephant folios and tables and chairs of today’s Classics Library as the general university library began as a closed stacks library with a dumb waiter and a metal message tube, a so called pneumatic tube (still in place), running through the stacks floors to transmit book requests to staff below. Also, still in place is a non-smoking sign in the stacks from a time, not too long ago, when smoking was allowed in the library though not in the stacks. The issue was less the health of staff and users and more fire. In 1968 someone had deliberately caused a fire in the stacks. It was thankfully put out by library staff. Thereafter, locks were placed on the gates to the stacks and a faculty committee patrolled the area night and day for several months. In today's library, users in addition to not being allowed to smoke, are also not allowed to eat, and in the classics library also not to drink, to prevent the many books in poor condition from deteriorating even further in case of spilled liquids, invited insects, spots, bacteria, and eroded paper. However, those who lament these restrictions as harsh may want to keep in mind one of the rules of the early library: "So that the work in the Library may go on without interruption, it is necessary to observe silence in the Library. Anyone who disregards this request may be barred from all rights and privileges of the Library" (Tolzmann, p. 6).

An unfortunate loss is the windows on the east wall as they were boarded up to prevent book theft. Apparently, books were thrown out through the windows of the library, including a full set of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Tolzmann quotes Horst Bienek, "only once a year, on Valentine's Day, does it happen that students throw books out the windows (from high-spiritedness, from hate, or just because it's tradition?), where they are collected again the next morning by distraught librarians" (Tolzmann, p. 10). The lack of sunshine in the classics stacks may also be better for the books if not for the users of the library.  

In 1930 the number of volumes reported for the then named John Miller Burnam Library of Classics and Romance Philology was 9,772. No numbers were reported for Music or ARB. 

According to Henry's report, there were stacks entrances from the Reading Room for Political Science and Municipal Reference on the second floor (S3-S4?) to the south, the Reading Room of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio in the north section of this floor, the Graduate Reading Room for the Humanities and Social Sciences on the third floor (S5-S6?) to the south, and the Mathematics Reading Room to the north. On the third floor was also a room for binding preparation, receiving, and shipping.

The Classics Department with eight faculty studies and the Burnam Classics Reading Room were on the then sixth (now eighth?) floor on the south side. On the seventh (attic) (now eighth and ninth?) floor was a book stacks space with a capacity of ca. 600,000 volumes. On the north side was another large Reading Room planned for Modern Languages. 52 private studies for faculty and 4 rooms for small graduate seminar classes were available throughout the building. 

Today's CCM and Classics Libraries 

The Albino Gorno Memorial (CCM) Library has seen many changes over the years since its foundation in 1949 and move to Blegen in 1983 to the third and fourth (main and S6) floors and eventually, in March of 2010, to its current location (floors 6-7) -- a new classroom, computer lab, scores room, media room, journal room, large beautiful display cases as you enter the library. The Reading Room and the Circulation area with its vaulted ceilings, red colored panels, chandeliers, etc., may make it the most beautiful of all UCL spaces followed closely by the libraries of Engineering, with its amazing murals, and of DAAP, with its colorful and bright and whimsical interior and more than a thousand snow globes. The audio playback system installed in the CCM library with the move to Blegen was admired and copied by music libraries all over the United States. Many computer workstations with music composition, ear-training, and choreography software were added in 1997, and listening stations for sound recordings, and multiple electronic keyboards. 

CCM Circulation

The CCM Circulation Area.

CCM Reading Room

Looking towards the CCM Reading Room.

CCM Display Case

Display cases in the corridor between Circulation and the main Reading Room in the CCM library.

The John Miller Burnam Classics Library, which somewhat regrettably changed places with the CCM library in 2010 for additional book space, has seen many changes, also in the past few years -- a small seminar and study room with wall-mounted large screens, an Epigraphy and Papyrology Reading Room, the John Miller Burnam Palaeography Library (Scriptorium) area, a Rare Book and Manuscript Room with some 4,000 books transferred from ARB, a visiting scholars' alcove with designated and reserved shelving, a cubby hole for reading in the Circulation area in which both new books shelved monthly and a daily book sale are situated, books along the walls in the stacks, introduced in order to house an ever expanding print collection including new location codes, tables and chairs in the stacks, and subject signage throughout the stacks to facilitate browsing, armchairs, new chairs, and books in the Reading Room (Teubner, Budé, OCT, Loeb, Mondadori, Cambridge Commentaries), green bankers' lamps, flowers, many decorative items added throughout the library, ancient artifacts on long-term loan from the UC Art Collection, display cases for exhibitions in the Reading Room and Circulation, etc. Much effort by the library staff has been put into improving the ambiance of the Reading Room, Circulation, and Stacks areas despite its lack of vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, and colored panels. The probably nicest features are the huge wooden oak tables that are now more than a hundred years old and the equally huge paned windows, and the decorative pieces, including an almost two-thousand-year-old amphora, recovered from a shipwreck outside the coast of Tunisia, a more than two-thousand-year-old volute krater from southern Italy, and sculptured busts of "Homer," "Hypnos," and a Julio-Claudian unidentified young man.   

Classics Library Reading Room 2024

Classics Reading Room.

Reading Room corner

Classics Reading Room with a bust of "Homer," and the Mondadori series, large 100-year old tables, table lamps, and posters from an exhibition.

Reading Room exhibits

Classics Reading Room with a desk from the Engineering Library.

Reading Room exhibit corner

Classics Reading Room with exhibition cases and the Budé texts.

reading corner

Classics Circulation area and the 'new books cubby hole.'

Visiting scholars alcove

The Classics Library's 'Visiting Scholars Alcove.'

Decorative Elements and Inscriptions of the Blegen Library Building

What makes the Blegen Library building special is its many decorative elements with meaning on both its exterior and interior. 

On the outside, facing west on the parapet are two inscriptions. Facing north (Gaslight District) is an inscription from Sir Francis Bacon’s Essay on Education:

Read not to contradict and confute nor to believe and take for granted nor to talk and discourse but to weigh and consider.

Facing south (Calhoun and McMillan) is an inscription from John Milton’s Areopagitica:

For books are not absolutely dead things but do contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as he whose progeny they are.

On the parapet, civilization, She-Wolf, pyramids, etc.

In the center of the parapet just below the ceiling facing west and Clifton Avenue is a sculptured panel representing civilization, a product of East and West. A female figure, a personification of Civilization, carries the ‘Lamp of Knowledge' with individuals representing East and West standing beside her.  On the south-right side representing eastern civilization is a scroll with the Hebrew word אוֹר (light); underneath this are three Egyptian pyramids (I assume that this is a reference to the three pyramids of Giza), and below those is an Assyrian winged lion with a royal human head (most likely a reference to Nineveh). Beside the western figure towards the north is a similar panel. On top is an open book with the Latin word lux (light), below that is a medieval castle(?) (Gerardo Perrotta suggests that it is an image of "turrita," the towered crown on Magna Mater figures in ancient Rome and also a symbol used during the Renaissance and humanism), and below that is the She-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. If this is chronological as the pyramids of Giza preceded the Assyrian Empire, it would be odd if the Middle Ages (a medieval castle) preceded ancient Rome.  

Below the windows in the two pylons facing north and south are large, sculptured panels that continue these themes. The panel on the south pylon represents eastern contributors to civilization. From right to left: Sargon the Great, Cheops (Khufu) seated with a model of a pyramid in his lap, Hammurabi with his law code, Moses with his tablet of commandments, Darius the Great with a model of the Behistun inscription which helped decipher cuneiform writing, Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus, and Justinian with a volume of the Corpus Iuris Civilis and a relief of the Hagia Sophia in the background.  Below are carved the words ‘ex oriente lux’ (light from the east). Note: At the time of writing this, the eastern contributors' panel could not be photographed as the area was blocked off due to the demolishing of a campus building there. 

western civilization contributors on facade

The panel of western contributors, five Greeks, one Brit, one German, and two Italians (Florentines) on the north pylon shows left to right: Euclid with a geometric pyramid in his hand, Homer with his lyre, Phidias with a model of his Athena statue, Plato, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Galileo with an astronomical instrument in his hand, and Dante. Below are the words ‘ex occidente lux’ (light from the west).

On the west side towards the corners are reliefs of famous printers. Around the corner on the north side is Benjamin Franklin. On the south pylon on the left is Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press in the west; on the right is Christophe Plantin, active in Antwerp whose print shop was raided for suspicion of printing heretical, and protestant works; and around the corner facing south is a relief of William Morris, founder of the Kelmscott Press in London in 1891. 

Printer Aldus Manutius

On the right (north side) is Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), a printer in Venice whose press printed many early editions of ancient texts. His brother Paulus was also a famous pinter.  

Printer Caxton

On the front to the left (north side) is William Caxton who introduced a printing press to England in 1476.

The sculptured entrance is crowned by a sun disk. On the right and left side is a head representing Phosphor, the morning star (representing the east), and Hesper, the evening star (representing the west). The legend in the center panel above the entrance reads:

The University Library dedicated to the advancement of learning.

Above the three windows on either side of the entrance are words chosen to highlight fundamental fields of knowledge represented in the library’s books -- Philosophy, Science, Literature, Religion, History, and Politics – all subdisciplines within Classical Studies. Notably, Music is not there. Today, the Albino Gorno Memorial (CCM) Library is one of only three libraries in the Blegen building.

Facade of the Blegen Building

In the doorway are two groups of bronzes. Above the transom is a large bronze grill designed to illustrate various symbols of wisdom. In the center is Minerva, Roman 'Athena.' Around her are Six-Pointed Stars of divine wisdom, Five-Pointed Stars of human wisdom, the Dolphin, the Owl, the Key of Knowledge, the Rose, etc. 

Minerva and symbols at entrance
Manuscript leaf of Virgin of Litanies

Many of these symbols (star, sun, moon, owl, rose, etc.) were adopted in medieval and Renaissance iconography of the Mary legend, as seen on a printed leaf with hand-made illustrations of a Book of Hours from the 'Virgin of Litanies' in the Classics Library; the text opens the Immaculate Conception. From 1506 Rouen but published in Paris by Simon Vostre. 

Relief of a lyre, oral history

On the soffit above the entrance to the Blegen Library building is a relief representing ‘oral tradition.’ An old man passes a lyre to his son, and future generations of singers/progenitors of oral history are represented as well.

The relief on the left starting from the top represents Stone Age pictorials of a horse and possibly written symbols on a cave wall. Below the Stone Age individual is an Assyrian scribe writing cuneiform, seen also on the side of his throne.  On the right doorpost on top is a possible female Hindu scribe writing on a palm-leaf book, like the one in ARB. Below this scribe is an Egyptian individual writing on a papyrus scroll. 

Entering the building one passes through a vestibule in bronze. On the inside on copper panels are the signs of the Zodiac, a young pupil learning to the left, an adult male coming to the end of his formal education in the middle (seen below), and an elderly man whose research and writing are coming to an end along with his life to the right, and two inscriptions.

copper panel with zodiac

The inscription on the left in Greek is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 15:4 (see ) and the one on the right in Latin was found in an old European Monastery (no indication of which one) and is a motto above the entrance to the old reading room of the Bodleian Library at Oxford.     

Just inside the lobby and outside the Burnam Library is a chandelier with a Japanese proverb (see ). Interestingly, most chandeliers in different languages are not repeated whereas the Japanese proverb appears on multiple chandeliers also throughout the CCM library.

I have found no document with the original languages and scripts of the chandeliers in Japanese, Chinese, ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), and Hebrew.  For this reason, I am adding also those. 

Chandelier Egyptian

On the west side in the Blegen lobby outside the office of the Classics Department is a chandelier with an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription, a saying of Ptahhotep, a vizier in the 25th-24th century BCE. On the chandelier itself is a fish character (bs) in the first row. This has been removed from the image below as, according to UC Professor van Minnen, it is inaccurate. 
Do not boast of your knowledge and do not trust yourself (too much) because you are a scholar, but inquire of an illiterate man as of a scholar, there is no artist who has acquired his mastery and one cannot reach the confines of art.

Hieroglyphs on chandelier
Chandelier Latin

In the reading room of the CCM library, there is a chandelier with a Latin inscription from Terence --humani nihil a me alienum puto -- 'nothing human do I consider alien to me.'

Chandelier Greek

The north chandelier has a Greek inscription from Democritus -- μή πάντα έπίστασθαι προθυμέο -- 'do not aim at knowing everything.'

Chandelier Hebrew

The south chandelier has a Hebrew biblical inscription from Proverb 3:13. Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who obtains understanding.

Chandelier Chinese

In the CCM library stacks is a chandelier with a Chinese proverb.


Libraries are valuable to readers because they preserve the riches of the world from which come the beginning of wisdom. Everything in the heavens or upon earth is for our appreciation.

Note that there is some doubt about both the phrase in Chinese and in translation. 

Aldus Manutius printer's mark in Blegen

As the library around 1930 was a space of chiefly printed books, there are many printer marks or devices throughout the building from the 15th to the 19th century.  The most famous device, the anchor and dolphin belonging to the printing house of Aldus Manutius, can be seen above a no-longer functioning drinking fountain in the lobby on the side of the marbled staircase leading up to the CCM library. Aldus Manutius himself is depicted on a relief on the north-western façade. On the south side of the inner lobby is the device of Étienne Dolet of Lyon, a scholar and printer, an admirer of Cicero, who was executed for his opposition to the Inquisition. 

Printer's mark Coblentz

Also in the fourth-floor lobby is the device of Thielman Kerver of Coblentz, 1497-1522.

Inner doors of Blegen, marks

In the inner bronze doors of the vestibule are six devices using combinations of the cross and the orb,

Inner doors of Blegen, marks

and the old merchant’s mark sign of 4 (ΧΡ, also known as the ‘Staff of Mercury’).

Printer's mark Viteli

On the center door to the left is the device of the Albanian printer Bernardino Vitali, Venice, 1494-1536. 

Printer's mark TR

Other devices include the mark of Sixtus Riessinger, a printer in Naples, fl. 1471-1479.

Printer's mark Courbe

and the mark of Augustin Courbé, a printer in 17th-century Paris,

Printer's mark Estienne

and the device depicting an olive tree is that of Robert Estienne (Stephanus), the famous printer in Paris, 1503-1559, and son of Henri Estienne.

Printer's mark olive tree
Printer's mark Froben

Another device is that of Johann Froben, a famous printer in 15th-century Basel.

Printer's mark, Staff of Mercury
Printer's mark Scoto

Other devices include that of Ottaviano Scoto of Monza, a printer in Venice, 1498-1522, also in the CCM library above the entrance door on the inside. 

Printers' marks in CCM

The inner front doors of the CCM Library.

Printer's mark Sensenschmidt

And two shields by Johann Sensenschmidt, a printer in 15th-century Nuremberg (Nürnberg) on the left. 


Moreover, the building features marks of Johann Fust in 15th-century Mainz, a printer who sued Gutenberg and was accused of witchcraft when he and Gutenberg published several bibles in rapid succession as the technique of printing was not yet well understood,  

Printer's mark Caxton

and William Caxton, a printer in Bruges and Westminster, fl. 1476-1491. The printer himself is depicted on the building’s façade. 

Printer's mark of Morris

The word ‘Kelmscott’ in a decorative panel is the mark of William Morris of Kelmscott Manor, 1889-1896; the printer himself is depicted on the building’s façade.

Printer's mark, Giunti

The fleur-de-lis mark belongs to Lucantonio Giunta or Giunti of Florence, 1482-1536.

Blegen Library Building

The Blegen Library building seen from the north west.


By R. Lindau