Sterling Memorial Library is named after New York attorney John W. Sterling (Yale class of 1864). Sterling died in 1918 and left much of his estate to Yale in his will, specifying that some of this money should be used to fund a new campus building. Construction on the library began under the direction of James Gamble Rogers. It features a seven-story semi-Gothic-style tower, housing sixteen levels of stacks with 3.5 million books. The library as a whole is built to resemble a Gothic cathedral, exalting the virtues of scholarship, knowledge, and academia. Its extensive decorations include carvings, paintings, and stained-glass windows. As John Sterling intended, Sterling Library is an iconic presence on Yale's campus, providing both practical work space and striking architectural and decorative style. Below, you'll find a link to an online exhibit where you can learn more about the library's construction and ornamentation.


  • (Yale University Library)
    (Yale University Library)
  • The nave of the library (Yale University Library)
    The nave of the library (Yale University Library)
  • Linonia and Brothers Room (Yale University Visitor Center)
    Linonia and Brothers Room (Yale University Visitor Center)
  • One of Sterling's many stained-glass windows (Yale University Library)
    One of Sterling's many stained-glass windows (Yale University Library)
  • John W. Sterling, the library's namesake (Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)
    John W. Sterling, the library's namesake (Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)
  • "Alma Mater" mural in Sterling Memorial Library (Yale University Visitor Center)
    "Alma Mater" mural in Sterling Memorial Library (Yale University Visitor Center)
  • Brenda Zlamany's 2015 painting depicting the first seven female PhDs to graduate from Yale (Yale University Visitor Center)
    Brenda Zlamany's 2015 painting depicting the first seven female PhDs to graduate from Yale (Yale University Visitor Center)

One of John Sterling's final wishes was that Yale use his bequest to construct "at least one enduring, useful, and architecturally beautiful edifice, which will constitute a fitting memorial of my gratitude to and affection for my alma Mater" (quoted in "A New Library," full citation below). Yale officials opted to build a new library with the funds, a fitting tribute. Architect James Gamble Rogers collaborated with the University Librarian Andrew Keogh to come up with a design that would be both functional and beautiful. The library opened in 1930. 

Sterling Library has recently undergone extensive restorations. In 2011, Richard Gilder (Yale class of 1954) donated $20 million to restore and update the nave, removing decades of accumulated grime as well as adding space for a study lounge. This work was finished in 2014.

Alma Mater
 Mural
At the end of the Sterling nave is the Alma Mater mural, created by Eugene F. Savage, a Yale professor who earned his BFA at Yale in 1924. The mural was completed in 1932. It depicts a woman holding the sphere of learning and an open book, with the Tree of Knowledge above her. In the words of Kathy M. Newman, who earned her PhD from Yale in 1997:

In college mythology, Alma Mater [or Mother Knowledge] replaces actual mothers, to pro-create knowledge itself, and a whole new family of knowledge seekers. The entrance to Sterling makes this clear—the translation of the Egyptian transcription reads: 'Would that I might make thee love books more than thy mother.' [...] 
These foster sons are nourished by the spiritual virtues represented in the Sterling mural above the circulation desk: Light bears a torch, while Truth, who is naked, looks at herself in a mirror. [...] Isn’t it strange that these women were created to represent Knowledge, Light, and Truth at Yale at a time when flesh-and-blood women were not allowed to seek knowledge, light and truth within these same walls? (Quoted in "Alma Mater," full citation below)

Stained-Glass Windows
Stained-glass designs in Sterling generally correspond to the purpose of each room. For instance, the windows of a room intended as an English Study feature King Lear, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet. The windows in Sterling's East Asia Library show scenes from traditional theater and Japanese motifs. Windows in the entrance hall trace the history of Yale and New Haven, depicting, for example, the college's 1701 foundation and the 1779 British attack on New Haven.

2015 Painting by Brenda Zlamany: Yale's First Women Ph.D.s
Inside the Sterling nave, you'll find a painting of seven women, each one holding an item relevant to her career and field of study. These women are:
- Cornelia H.B. Rogers (Romance Languages and Literatures)
- Sara Bulkley Rogers (History)
- Margaretta Palmer (Mathematics)
- Mary Augusta Scott (English)
- Laura Johnson Wylie (English) 
- Charlotte Fitch Roberts (Chemistry)
- Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (English)
Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dates to 1847, and it awarded its first doctorates--the first doctorates in the United States--in 1861. In 1892, the School admitted 23 female graduate students, who faced considerable harassment. The seven women in the portrait graduated with their PhDs two years later.

"About the East Asia Library." Yale University Library. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://guides.library.yale.edu/abouteal. 

"Alma Mater." Yale University Visitor Center. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://visitorcenter.yale.edu/book/alma-mater. 

Dunlap, David. "A Piece of Yale’s Library Is Brought Back to Life." New York Times, December 26, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/27/nyregion/yale-university-library-revives-entrance-hall.html?_r=0.

Husted, Ellery. "The Sterling Memorial Library." Yale University Library Gazette 5 (1931): 57-65.

"A New Library." The Sterling Memorial Library Nave: Past and Future. Yale University Library. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://exhibits.library.yale.edu/exhibits/show/the-sterling-memorial-library-/a-new-library. 

"Ornamentation." The Sterling Memorial Library Nave: Past and Future. Yale University Library. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://exhibits.library.yale.edu/exhibits/show/the-sterling-memorial-library-/ornamentation. 

"Sterling Memorial Library." Yale University Library. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://web.library.yale.edu/building/sterling-library/history.

"Yale’s First Women Ph.D.s." Yale University Visitor Center. Accessed May 03, 2017. http://visitorcenter.yale.edu/book/yales-first-women-phds-0.