Library as Place: Penrose Memorial Library, Whitman College

Founded in 1859, just 12 years after Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were killed at the mission they’d established near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, Whitman College’s early years were lean ones as the school struggled to gain footing (Frazier & Paulus, 2006). Funding and resources were so inconstant that in 1882 the school library consisted entirely of one book and three educational reports (Frazier & Paulus, 2006). That year, though, Myron Eells, the son of Whitman’s founder, Cushing Eells, more than doubled the library’s collection by donating 10 books, 15 pamphlets, and 25 dollars (Frazier & Paulus, 2006). Twenty-five years later, he bequeathed his entire personal library and collections of Pacific Northwest artifacts to Whitman College (Frazier & Paulus, 2006); with these gifts the library that would eventually become Penrose Memorial Library truly took root.

In its earliest years, Penrose was located in the Memorial Building, the first stone building on Whitman’s campus (Frazier & Paulus, 2006). Growing the library’s collections was a priority but, as a consequence, they began taking up more and more space; the library first expanded from one floor in Memorial to two, then into an annex, and then collections had to be scattered to different locations around campus (Frazier & Paulus, 2006). A physical building for the library was needed—and not just because the collections were growing.

In order to remain viable as an institution of higher education, Whitman College needed to attract students capable of paying tuition and of supporting the school as alumni; in other words, students from prosperous families. To show these prospective students and their families that their monetary investment would be worthwhile, Whitman needed to demonstrate that it was dedicated to providing a quality education. Constructing a building for the library was one way to do that because it was symbolic of the value Whitman placed on learning. Education is the school’s raison d’être—it is its core mission as an institution—so it is unsurprising that when Whitman finally was able to build a dedicated library, it placed it in a prominent, central location on campus.

Organization of the main portion of Whitman’s 77 acre campus is reminiscent of northeastern prep and Ivy League schools in that ivy-covered brick academic buildings and dormitories line a central quadrangle (Fast, 2012). At the center is Ankeny Field, the primary common area for students (Crossroads, 2000). In 1957, the earliest iteration of a freestanding Penrose Memorial Library was built at one end of the quadrangle (Jurgens, 2004). Matching the style of the other buildings on campus, Penrose was a three story fireproof stone building (Frazier & Paulus, 2006), situated on the main pathway from one side of the campus to the other, “at the actual and symbolic heart of the campus” (Jurgens, 2004).

Dahlkild (2011) noted that two dominant trends in regard to library architecture have been the idea, on one hand, that library buildings should be iconic landmarks, and the view, on the other, that the library should reflect “the spirit of the place” (p. 28). Penrose clearly fell into the latter; it was well-situated and architecturally it blended in with the other buildings on campus. However, as the collections continued to grow through the 20th century and the college began considering ways to expand and renovate the library, the question arose as to whether something needed to be done to make it more prominent. After all, the library is a reflection of the college’s wealth and status (Gwynn, 2011); “the library building itself [is] a marketing tool” (Latimer, 2011, p. 126). Whitman needed to show current, ongoing investment in Penrose as a way of telling prospective students it had superior resources and, therefore, greater educational opportunities.

In 1974, the Stuart wing of the Penrose Memorial Library was completed and opened. This expansion, which increased the size of the library by 60% (Frazier & Paulus, 2006), had been added to the Ankeny side of Penrose—its natural entrance—and radically altered the appearance of the entire building. The “highlight of the addition [was] the construction of a dramatic entrance area” (Over, 1971); excavation around the library changed the entrance to the ground level and oriented it to the south, requiring students to walk down and away from Ankeny to enter (Crossroads, 2000; Jurgens, 2004; New, 1974; Over, 1971). The design was contemporary, distinctive, and unlike anything else on the quadrangle. It was an attempt to show Whitman’s investment in research and learning through current architecture, but it did so at the expense of “the spirit of the place” (Dahlkild, 2011, p. 28). Even worse, instead of becoming iconic, what was contemporary in the mid-1970s looked dated a quarter century later.

In 2000, as part of a complete renovation of the entire library building, the heavy brick façade from the Stuart wing was removed, the entrance was turned back to face Ankeny, and a two-story atrium was created to allow library users to see onto the field (Crossroads, 2000; Jurgens, 2004). These changes, according to the project’s architect, “repair the campus fabric and restore the intentions set forth by the original campus master plan” (Jurgens, 2004), which were to make “a strong physical connection between Penrose Memorial Library and the campus” (Crossroads, 2000) and establish the library “as the heart of academic life at Whitman College” (Crossroads, 2000). The brick used on the new building is from a “palette of materials that complements Memorial Hall and other historic buildings at Whitman” (Jurgens, 2004).

Since its founding, Whitman’s goal has always been to show students that its mission is education and that it invests its resources in providing the tools students need to succeed. The library as a place symbolizes this mission like no other building on campus can. To that end, Penrose Memorial Library is physically situated in an ideal place, right at the heart of student life on campus. Where Whitman College has struggled throughout its evolution is in using the power of the building itself in communicating the school’s commitment to remaining current, yet staying true to the spirit of the campus. The present day Penrose Memorial Library is a fine balance between these concepts. It may not be an architectural landmark, but it is prominent, eye-catching, and modern, yet its classical structure respects the landscape in which it is situated.


Crossroads of the college. (2000). Whitman College news. Retrieved from

Dahlkild, N. (2011). The emergence and challenge of the modern library building: Ideal types, model libraries, and guidelines, from the Enlightenment to the experience economy. Library Trends, 60(1), pp. 11-42.

Fast facts. (2012). Whitman College. Retrieved from

Frazier, B. & Paulus, M.J. (Fall 2006). The Whitman College Penrose Library. ACRL Washington Newsletter. Retrieved from

Gwynn, L. (2011). The design of the English domestic library in the seventeenth century: Readers and their book rooms. Library Trends, 60(1), pp. 43-53.

Jurgens, K. (2004, May 20). College libraries cater to widening needs. Library design and construction. Retrieved from

Latimer, K. (2011). Collections to connections: Changing spaces and new challenges in academic library buildings. Library Trends, 60(1), pp. 112-133.

New Whitman library almost completed. (1974, January 6). Walla Walla Union Bulletin, pp. 10.

Niegaard, H. (2011). Library space and digital challenges. Library Trends, 60(1), pp. 174-189.

Over $1 million given for Whitman library. (1971, May 24). Walla Walla Union Bulletin, pp. 1.


One thought on “Library as Place: Penrose Memorial Library, Whitman College

  1. For anyone who’d like to see pictures of Penrose over the course of its evolution as a building, check out the Frazier and Paulus link in the references section.

    This was a fascinating assignment for me, since, quite frankly, I’d never given much thought to what Penrose was like prior to the 1970s. For my entire childhood the library was dominated by the 1974 addition. I was surprised to find that the original dedicated building was much more in line with the rest of campus, as it is now.

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