Monday, May 21, 2018
Last updated: 3 years ago

Our Campus: Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is one of UBC’s most historic buildings

The historic centre of Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Photo Mackenzie Walker / The Ubyssey

The historic centre of Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Photo Mackenzie Walker / The Ubyssey

It’s one of UBC’s most identifiable and striking buildings. It’s been featured in movies and TV series, and is a second home to thousands of students during finals season. You’ve studied there, eaten there and possibly slept there. Each year, hundreds of students run through it in their underwear. Irving K. Barber Learning Centre is one of UBC’s most notable — and oldest — buildings.

The history of the Learning Centre, colloquially known as IKB or ‘Irving’ by most students, stretches back to the “Great Trek” in 1922, in which thousands of UBC students marched to Point Grey demanding the creation of a proper university campus. The government responded to the student-led movement, and agreed to continue the construction of a campus in Point Grey.

The Main Library was one of the first three buildings built on the now-UBC campus. Primary construction began in 1923 and the first section was finished in 1925, with additions (such as stained glass windows and two new wings) being made in later years. A 1920s UBC publication described the original library as “a massive structure of two stories and a basement built of British Columbia granite. The style is late Tudor, modernized.” 


The library was constructed in part while the Scopes Trial — which debated the legality of teaching evolution in schools — was underway and a focus of public attention. Accordingly, the stone masons alluded to this on the main façade of the library by installing two small carvings — one with a human-like figure holding a sign that says “funda” (for fundamentalism) and another with an ape holding a sign marked “evol” (for evolution). 

The first — and chief — university librarian of UBC from 1916-1940 was John Ridington, whose reputation as an authoritarian within the library walls led to the Main Library being nicknamed “King John’s castle.” Prior to Ridington’s appointment, J. T. Gerould, a librarian from Minnesota University, was assigned to acquire the first 20,000 volumes for the UBC collection. He made his acquisitions throughout Europe near the beginning of the First World War, and he was imprisoned for three weeks in Germany, on suspicion of being a British spy.

The library saw its budget cut from $12,000 per year to $2,000 per year during the Great Depression, and survived by laying off staff and through a donation from the Carnegie Corporation. By 1936, despite the challenges of the Depression, the library’s collection had expanded from 20,000 volumes to 100,000. Today, the UBC library collection is comprised of over six million volumes.

In 2002, following a $20 million donation by UBC Forestry alum and entrepreneur Irving K. Barber, the library began the process of a major renovation — expanding and transforming the nearly 80-year-old building into today’s Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. Though the refurbished library incorporated the original façade in the centre of the building, both wings and the majority of the interior were completely redone — a move that evoked the ire of some heritage site preservationists.

The refurbished building, renovated at a cost of almost $80 million, features classrooms, lecture halls, a café and an “automated storage retrieval system” — also known as “the library robot.” It also has over 1,500 study seats, though that may seem hard to believe come midterms. The refurbishment incorporated various sustainable features into the building, such as locally sourced and recycled materials (some materials from the demolished parts of the building were reused in the new sections) and radiant in-slab heating.

The next time you walk up the steps of the library, or rush by its imposing and juxtaposed neo-gothic, modern exterior on the way to class, pause a minute to catch your breath and take in the architecture and history of this landmark building.