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History of the Library

About the Collections

The University Library holds more than ten million volumes, more than 90,000 serial titles, and more than six million manuscripts, maps, slides, audio tapes, microforms, videotapes, laser discs, and other non-print material. Records of these collections form the bulk of the Library's Online Catalog. This catalog is part of the I-Share Online system, which links the Library to more than 80 academic libraries in Illinois. Users at these academic libraries may borrow books directly from participating libraries' collections. Nationally and internationally, the Library's collections are accessible through the OCLC online bibliographic database and the Internet.

Among the Library's most notable collections are its holdings in Slavic and Eastern European history, literature, and science; music, especially Renaissance music; 17th- and 18th-century American and British literature; American, British and Irish history, including a distinguished collection of Lincolniana; French, German, and Italian literature, including world-famous Proust, Rilke, Dante, and Tasso collections; Latin American history and literature; historic and modern maps; entomology, ornithology, botany, chemistry and mathematics; and serials across all disciplines.

The Library is also world-famous for its outstanding collection of emblem books and incunabula and collections, including personal papers, of John Milton, Marcel Proust, H.G. Wells, Carl Sandburg, and Avery Brundage of the international Olympic movement.

Chronological History of the Library

  • The University Library is founded in 1867 in the charter establishing the school that became the University of Illinois. It opens with the school in 1868 with 1,039 volumes and grows slowly over the next few decades.
  • University President Edmund J. James, in a speech to the Board of Trustees in 1912, proposes to create a research library on a par with those at the great German academic institutions. He states that the Library should accumulate "...at least a million of books as rapidly as possible..." and that the state "...spend a million dollars to build a new building to house the collection."
  • The Library moves into its new building (the current main library building) in 1926. Under the inspiration of library dean Phineas L. Windsor, the building is designed to accommodate constant growth and influences the architecture of academic library buildings for decades.
  • The one-millionth volume is acquired in 1935. During this period of intense acquisition, the Library amasses the beginnings of its extremely strong collections in classics, architecture, chemistry, mathematics, history, Milton, and Shakespeare. By 1940, the Library is the fifth largest in the country.
  • Robert B. Downs becomes library dean in 1943. By the end of his tenure in 1971, he has acquired 120 of the Library's 177 special research collections and the Library has become the third largest in the nation. Among the most notable acquisitions are collections dealing with H.G. Wells, Marcel Proust, Carl Sandburg, Shakespeare, Elizabethan and early English literature, near eastern history, and freedom of expression.
  • Hugh C. Atkinson arrives as university librarian in 1976. Facing a filing backlog of nearly a million catalog cards, Atkinson steers the Library into the world of automation. By 1978, the Library becomes the first major research library in the country to have an online catalog. Atkinson also fulfills his vision of a statewide, computer-linked library network.
  • In 1992, the Library begins to create networked databases, including multimedia databases, that will become accessible both locally and internationally via the Internet. By 1994 more than a million users weekly log on to the Library's online catalog.
  • The Grainger Engineering Library Information Center opens in March 1994. The facility is designed to accommodate the latest in both library and user technologies and includes facilities for digital scanning, multimedia database creation, and on-site testing of new library-related software.
  • In August 1998, the University of Illinois and the 44 academic libraries that participate in ILLINET Online (the online catalog) switched to a new integrated library system provided by DRA.
  • The Library joined the other state-networked libraries that comprise ILLINET Online and installed a new integrated library system created by Endeavor in August of 2002.  
  • Today, with holdings of more than ten million volumes, the Library has strengths in many areas, ranging from hard sciences to the humanities. The fields most often cited by faculty and visiting scholars are: reference and bibliography; agriculture; chemistry; engineering; biology; mathematics; economics and business; history; philosophy; music; architecture and art; education; library and information science; maps; English and American literature as well as the literatures of most languages; and law.

Library Deans/University Librarians

  • 1869-1871: Henry M. Douglass
  • 1873-1893: James D. Crawford
  • 1893-1894: Charles M. Moss
  • 1894-1897: Percy F. Bicknell
  • 1897-1907: Katharine Sharp
  • 1907-1909: Albert S. Wilson
  • 1909-1940: Phineas L. Windsor
  • 1940-1943: Carl M. White
  • 1943-1971: Robert B. Downs
  • 1971-1975: Lucien White
  • 1976-1986: Hugh C. Atkinson
  • 1987-1992: David F. Bishop
  • 1992-1999: Robert Wedgeworth
  • 1999-2013: Paula Kaufman
  • 2013-present: John Wilkin

Interested in more history at the University of Illinois?