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Sterling Library


Sterling Library

Coordinates: 41°18′41″N 72°55′45″W / 41.311315°N 72.929124°W / 41.311315; -72.929124

Sterling Memorial Library is the largest library at Yale University, containing over 4 million volumes. It is an example of Gothic revival architecture, designed by James Gamble Rogers, adorned with thousands of panes of stained glass created by G. Owen Bonawit.

The Library has 15 levels, each with its own category of books. In 1971, the adjoining underground Cross Campus Library was built. It was renovated and renamed to Bass Library in 2007 and connects to Sterling via an underground tunnel. Bass Library currently contains an additional 150,000 volumes.


Although the original architect, Bertram Goodhue, originally intended Sterling to be taller and resemble the State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, plans changed under the new architect James Gamble Rogers.

Rogers created the library in the image of a Gothic Cathedral, even going so far as to model the circulation desk after an altar. He even required that the library be seen from the street. As a result, Berkeley College was divided into two sections in order to create an unobstructed view of the cathedral-like library. It was designed as a memorial to John William Sterling (Yale 1864), name partner in the New York law firm Shearman & Sterling, who donated around US$29 million to Yale upon his death. Sterling Memorial Library, which Rogers remarked was "as near to modern Gothic as we dared to make it," is made up of fifteen stack levels and eight floors of reading rooms, offices, and work areas. Work on the library was completed in 1931.

The amount of stone transported for the construction exceeded the amount used, and as a result, myths and legends abound on the Yale campus regarding fanciful structures claimed to exist on the roof, built of surplussed stone and metal. One story has a small castle hiding the air-conditioning system. Another claims that there exists an entire miniature city up there, complete with its own stone golf course. In reality much of the fanciful design that exists on the roof was present in the original design.

Architectural details

The library is one of the most elaborate buildings on the Yale campus. The main entrance is adorned with symbols and writings in various ancient languages, the work of architectural sculptor Rene Paul Chambellan who executed the designs produced by Lee Lawrie. The rest of the sculptures throughout the library; gargoyles and interior panels and ornamental designs were designed and executed by Rene Chambellan. The Nave is decorated with marble reliefs depicting Yale's founding and the history of New Haven and Connecticut. A giant fresco of Alma Mater surrounded by figures representing academic schools greets scholars over the circulation desk. Bosses on the ceiling of Nave represent writing implements. Even the doors of the elevators are handwrought iron, depicting Medicine, Law, Shipping, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Chemistry, Husbandry, and Machine Work. The most famous detail about the construction of the library, however, is its windows. In total, there are some 3,300 hand-decorated windows in the library. They depict everything from fiction to history and even small insects on otherwise unadorned panes created to look real. In 2000, one former librarian published a book about the windows.

In 1997 the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library was constructed in one of Sterling's unused courtyards. It houses one of the largest collections of recordings and scores in the United States.

The library featured in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which appeared in the chase scene with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Mutt Williams (Shia Labeouf) escaping Russians.

Reading Rooms and Collections

Main Reading Rooms

  • Starr Reading Room
  • Linonia and Brothers (L&B) Reading Room
  • Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
  • Manuscripts and Archives
  • Newspaper Reading Room
  • Franke Periodical Reading Room

Area Studies Collections and Reading Rooms

  • African
  • East Asian
  • Judaica
  • Latin American
  • Near East
  • Slavic and East European
  • Southeast Asian

Special Collections and Reading Rooms

  • Yale Babylonian Collection
  • American Studies
  • American Oriental Society
  • Andrews (history)
  • Arts of the Book
  • Babylonian Collection
  • Map Collection
  • Manuscripts and Archives
  • Philosophy

Editorial Projects

  • Boswell Editions
  • Papers of Benjamin Franklin
  • Wing STC Revision Project
  • Yale Center for Parliamentary History


  • Yale University Library
  • Sterling Memorial Library History
  • Nota Bene--News from the Yale Library on the stained glass
  • More SML history
  • Grubiak, Margaret M. “Reassessing Yale’s Cathedral Orgy: The Ecclesiastical Metaphor and the Sterling Memorial Library,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2009): 159-184.
  • Walker, Gay. Bonawit, Stained Glass, and Yale: G. Owen Bonawit's Work at Yale University & Elsewhere, Wildwood Press, 2002.
  • Walker, Gay. Stained Glass in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library: A Guide to the Decorative Glass of G. Owen Bonawit, Wildwood Press, 2006.
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