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Mission Possible, A Renovation Story: How Years of Planning and Months of Execution Yielded the Environment of Our Dreams

by Karen J. Trivette, MLS, Associate Professor and Head of Special Collections and College Archives, Gladys Marcus Library, Fashion Institute of Technology-State University of New York

The Fashion Institute of Technology-State University of New York’s Gladys Marcus Library’s unit of Special Collections and College Archives (SPARC) is known throughout the world by those who study not only the history of fashion, but also the historical contexts of many other creative industries due to its exquisite, rare, primary research materials.

Like the unit’s name, its mission is two-fold: regarding Special Collections, it acquires, preserves, and provides access to a wide range of primary research materials in their original formats, across many languages and geographical spectra. All acquisitions support one or more curricula offered at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Regarding the College Archives, the unit acquires, preserves, and provides access to College records permanently-scheduled for retention, or deemed to have enduring, historical value, created or received in the course of college business; archival records are created or received by administrators, staff, faculty, and students.

Fulfilling this mission supports myriad goals in and across FIT units as well as research from those outside the FIT community.

In this article, I will introduce the unit to readers and discuss the large-scale renovation project that the unit has recently completed.

For Context – A Little about the Unit’s History

The Fashion Institute of Technology-State University of New York (SUNY) opened its doors in 1944 and became part of SUNY in 1951. From the beginning, FIT had an active Library, which began collecting “special” materials in the late 1950s. The first manuscript collection on record to be accessioned was the Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon collection, 1915-circa 1929, a collection of sketches, photographs, and press clippings.
Original sketch of ladies black satin evening gown with bustle treatment, Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, circa 1927, Courtesy FIT

In its earlier iteration, SPARC was a dependent segment of the then Reference Unit, now called the Research and Instructional Services Unit. Collecting material was, and still is, largely dependent upon donations – no collecting budget has ever existed. That said, the collection has grown over the decades to be quite expansive and cohesive. SPARC began as a more formal program in the early 1980s according to historical registration records. A security breach in 2006 highlighted not only problematic and persistent staffing issues but also problematic security issues – the unit practically operated with open stack access protocols. As devastating as the breach was, it helped stakeholders to realize the value of the collections. My position was created as another result – I’m the first incumbent to hold the position of Head of Special Collections and College Archives and I started in August 2008. Today, SPARC has approximately six thousand linear feet of material with dates ranging from 1590 to the present day. Collectively, there are over ten thousand rare books, roughly six hundred rare periodicals titles, over three hundred-eighty manuscript collections, and over five terabytes of digital assets.


Bergdorf Goodman Custom Salon sketch of a House of Dior black evening gown, Christian Dior, Inc., 1959, Courtesy, FIT

Value of Collection Realized – More Results

Extraordinary collections deserve a proper home and environment, in all respects. With that in mind, we strive to follow Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) guidelines as they relate to security, environmental controls, researcher confidence and comfort, and other matters.

The cost to pursue the proper environment was initially estimated to be approximately two million dollars. This figure was to cover such aspects as a new HVAC system, compact shelving, a complete security system, and to provide aesthetically pleasing and comfortable researcher and staff spaces. Funding sources might include the College, local governments, the state government, and the federal government. At the end of the day, FIT Library Director Professor NJ Bradeen rightfully asserted, “If we aren’t going to care for the special collections properly, then we shouldn’t care for them at all.”

Making the Case While Building a Budget

Making the case to keep the collections and to care for them properly began with engaging College colleagues; these would include and not be limited to Dr. Joyce F. Brown, FIT President; Sherry Brabham, FIT Treasurer and Vice President for Finance and Operations (including College facilities), and Lisa Wager, FIT Communications/External Relations, Government Relations. Early in the scope of project planning, FIT colleagues approached city officials, state legislators, and state representatives to the United States Congress for support. In the end, these entities ultimately donated two million dollars toward the cost of the project.

Time Marches on

In response to the security breach, in 2007, Bradeen issued not only a grand-scale inventory of collections but also a grand-scale stamping of collections. You see, the material that was stolen could not be proven to be FIT’s as there was no clear indication of ownership. Between 2008 and 2009, the Library applied for and received a preservation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant provided six thousand dollars for a preservation expert to survey the environment and collections and offer recommendations for over-all improvement. The expert strongly recommended elements of the renovation project being pursued.


Image of old storage facility, Courtesy, FIT

On August 15, 2008, I began working for the FIT Library. It was simultaneously my first day of employment and the last day of stamping collections. With the implementation of many ACRL guidelines for security, stamping became no longer necessary. Concurrently, I was building the collection; Bradeen had directed me to acquire materials aggressively so that we could make an even stronger case for more square footage for unit operations.

Another pivotal event took place in June 2010, when the FIT Board of Trustees adopted a New York State Archives-created Records Retention and Disposition Schedule entitled MI-1 for miscellaneous local governments (FIT is considered a local government in New York State). At this time, and for the foreseeable future, there was no physical space for a centralized archives. If the adopted schedule were to be enforced, then a centralized College Archives would have to be established.

Then, in 2012, I had the good fortune to meet Samuel Anderson of Samuel Anderson Architects in New York City. He was attending an event that I had organized at FIT to tour interested parties around the mid-century, brutalist buildings on campus. I did not know it at the time of our initial meeting, but Anderson would later submit a proposal in response to a Request for Proposals meant to price out a re-estimation of construction project costs. In 2013, Anderson submitted the winning proposal costing around two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The next few months illuminated the new estimate of four million dollars to complete the total renovation project.

While I worked over the course of years with the Anderson architects to plan the space, Bradeen and others tried to raise funds as we were still two million dollars short of the total estimate. Again, the project would include everything from reaching appropriate climate control targets to incorporating proper shelving.

Miraculously, in 2016, we were delighted to learn that Dr. Brown would ask the College to provide the balance of the funds or two million dollars! Things began to move very quickly at this point and we needed to determine what our operations could be during the construction phase of the project. Bradeen and others realized the opportunity of a temporary “swing” space on our existing floor in the Library. We would have to reduce our footprint from 3500 square feet to 2500 square feet but only for the short term. Our collections mover, National Library Relocations, Inc., argued for our keeping the collections on-site not only for cost effectiveness but also for collections security. Using this solution allowed us to operate at nearly 100 percent functionality during the entire construction phase.

Between January and February 2016, the construction phase of the project commenced. Construction would last about fourteen months over which time we would have regular, weekly project meetings. The construction phase was led by the architect’s staff as project managers and Vanguard Construction and Development served as the general contractor.


Image of reading room during construction phase, Courtesy, FIT


Image of the new SPARC reading room and staff offices, Courtesy, FIT
In March 2017, we were able to relocate to our new, permanent space, which measures 6100 square feet. In addition to this footprint, we also added an additional 1000 square feet, which holds the mechanical equipment for the new HVAC system. National Library Relocations Inc. moved us not once but twice within fourteen months, first to our temporary location then again into our permanent home.


Image of the new Mechanical Equipment room, Courtesy, FIT

When I interviewed for my position at FIT, I was told a renovation project was on the horizon. Having never been involved with such a project, I did not know what to expect; one thing I learned is that I would have to be agile and ready to react intelligently on a moment’s notice. That intelligence was amassed in advance of the construction phase as I worked with the architects; the more I learned ahead of time, the better I was able to react when the inevitable problem occurred. I was even able to be anticipatory along the way thanks to the relationship established with the fine architect crew and construction team.
In closing, I would like to say that working with all the partners and stakeholders in the project and mentioned in this article was truly a dream experience and I would recommend them to anyone facing such a project. Also, I am happy to relay more details to individuals who might have specific questions. I want to thank Arlene L. Eis for inviting me to contribute this piece and thank you, the reader, for your attention.
Copyright 2018 by   Karen J. Trivette, MLS

About the author: Professor Karen Jamison Trivette is the Head of Special Collections and College Archives in the Gladys Marcus Library at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a part of the State University of New York; she has held this position since 2008. She holds a Master of Library Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management from the University at Albany (New York) and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She has worked primarily in art libraries and art archives (including the Albany Institute of History and Art; the Clark Art Institute Library; and the Museum of Modern Art Archives) except for an over three-year post at the New York State Archives where she primarily advised practitioners on archives and records management matters. She edited the publication Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style (2015), which was sourced from SPARC holdings and recently co-authored a chapter on the early fashion forecaster Tobé Coller Davis. She has presented at many conferences and programs, both national and international in scope, the latest of which was to the local Dallas Chapter of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators International.