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WKU opens news study and gathering space at The Commons at Helm Library

Dean of University Libraries Susann de Vries says The Commons at Helm Library will encourage a robust exchange of ideas.
Rhonda J. Miller
Dean of University Libraries Susann de Vries views The Commons at Helm Library as a gathering place that will encourage a robust exchange of ideas.

Western Kentucky University opened The Commons at Helm Library on April 18. The three-level study and dining facility is the latest incarnation of a structure built in 1931 as a health and physical education building that included a basketball court.

Standing on the third level of the light-filled Commons with arched windows and skylights, overlooking restaurants and inviting conversational nooks, WKU President Timothy Caboni recently said the opening is the realization of a big promise to the campus community.

Caboni said when he took over the leadership of the university in 2017, the area that’s now known as the Commons was “a tired space that needed a refresh.”

The $35 million project renovated 85,000 square-feet. Caboni said it’s the culmination of a vision he announced in 2018.

“So, what you have today really, we would argue, is a national model for the library of the future,” said Caboni. “Libraries are no longer book repositories or places where people come to copy materials. They’re gathering spaces. They’re intellectual hubs.”

Dean of University Libraries Susann de Vries said the bookshelves will be lined with journals, even as the library expands electronic materials. But she said the real magic of the building’s new design will come through when students, staff and faculty collaborate and relax in the new Commons at Helm Library.

“I hope to see that type of activity happen here, where there’s a robust exchange of ideas or creation of new ideas and intellectual pursuit,” said de Vries.

That creative activity can be fueled by offerings of coffee, a snack or a meal. The Commons has permanent space for several restaurants, as
well as space for rotating eateries.

WKU Chief Facilities Officer Bryan Russell said the Commons project was done by “selective demolition.”

After the 1931 building was no longer used for athletics, its second incarnation came when it was rededicated as the Margie Helm Library in 1967.
The selective demolition done for the new Commons project brought the building into the 21st Century, while maintaining some of essential structure.

“The bones of this building are really solid. One of the interesting things on this facility is that this is the original superstructure and it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the building for me,” said Russell. “The other part is the location of the skylights are original to the building.”

The renovation began when Helm Library closed at the end of the spring 2019 semester.