News & Events

Gift Launches Library Transformation

With a kickoff blessing of $1 million, the Library Board of Advocates strides boldly toward realizing the library of the future.

The construction of a new, state-of-the-art vault to house the Library’s vast assortment of special collections will allow the library building project to finally begin—and with it, the chance to more suitably augment scholarship and better preserve history in serving the campus, the community, and the world at large.

The excitement surrounding the liftoff is palpable, as the project reflects the very essence of the aim of scholarship. As stated by Andreas Cangellaris, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost: “Libraries ensure that the history of the human spirit is preserved and protected.”

“This is an incredible first step for us,” said Dean John Wilkin, “a transformational enterprise that begins to make real the vision we have had for this undertaking.”

The library building project reconceptualizes current Library space, with plans to create a collections-centered research hub for the humanities and social sciences in the Main Library, and a home for Special Collections in the Undergraduate Library space. To do so, valuable items now housed in archival environments in the Main Library must be removed and transported to a new, appropriately controlled location.

“We want to be able to move from one highly secure, climate-controlled vault space to the new, climate-controlled, highly secure vault space,” said Lynne Thomas, MS ’99 LIS, head of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A single move offers safety, security, and economic efficiency for precious resources; to do so, a new vault must be ready and waiting to receive its contents.

And precious contents they are. Case in point: the oldest item in the Library’s collection, a Babylonian clay tablet from 2000 BCE. “It is the Library’s responsibility,” Wilkin said, “to preserve this, along with other priceless items in the collection, for at least the next 4,000 years.”

A responsibility to preserve the past

As a significant research pillar on campus, the Library and its treasured core of rare collections need particular care.

According to Wilkin, the proposed vault will comprise most of the lowest level of the current Undergraduate Library and will be “more contemporary, more reliable, more capacious” than what currently exists. Indeed, while today’s care involves best practices and highly trained experts, some of the systems are reaching the end of their useful life, and other areas remain non-ADA-compliant.

With estimates of a final price tag of $5 million, Wilkin says the board’s commitment indicates its strong support of the vault’s value. Campus discussions will continue to shape the plan, to be followed by a schematic design phase and, finally, construction. A timeline is yet to be established.

Careful preservation of the Library’s materials remains paramount to board member Mike VanBlaricum, ’72 ENG, ’74 ENG, PHD ’76 ENG, who says the Library “has a major responsibility . . . to curate, maintain, and preserve its valuable holdings.

“We have a duty not only to our students and our researchers and our faculty but to the whole world,” he said. “These are one-of-a-kind items that everyone in the world knows about. To protect them is critically important.”

Chair Marjorie Stinespring, ’61 LAS, MS ’63 LAS, PHD ’68 LAS, echoed that, saying, “There are three basic functions of a university: the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge.”

Control is key

The cost of the project reflects the environmental and security controls necessary to protect the Library’s rare assets. “The first rule of preservation is controlling your environment,” said Thomas. Preservationists look to regulate temperature, humidity, and light—each of which can damage items, and all of which fluctuate widely in central Illinois. Yet preservation always requires balance, said Jennifer Hain Teper, head of the Preservation Services Unit. You can preserve something very well—such as by freezing it—but nobody would be able to use it. Additionally, the rarity of the items necessitates expensive biometric security controls to monitor who accesses the collections.

While the idea of placing fragile items below ground may raise misgivings, no such qualms exist among the Library’s experts. In fact, Teper thinks the location is a plus, as the below-grade nature of the site provides less light and more insulation (thereby cutting costs). Library staff point out that no water issues have occurred in the Undergraduate Library’s 50-year history, and many notable libraries across the nation also safely store materials underground.

For Thomas, the state-of the-art vault “sets us up for future success in caring for these materials,” as well as offers the chance to fulfill a “double duty”—taking appropriate care of the materials for longevity’s sake while not adversely impacting the environment.

The sophisticated makeup of the vault is not the only aspect that excites librarians. “The vault sets the foundation for wonderful things to come,” said Chris Prom, PHD ’02 LAS, associate university librarian for digital strategies. The new home for special collections will bring together items from various archive-related units across the Library, provide better access for users, and stimulate a symbiotic interplay among the professionals staffing it. “By having this shared collections space, we can and will build on top of it—literally—a whole set of services and access possibilities that don’t exist now,” he said.

And as for undergraduates whose environs will shift to the Main Library, Wilkin sees the project as a boon for them as well. The research hub to be created in part of the Main Library will welcome them and offer “greater scholarly potential as they avail themselves of cross-collaboration opportunities that do not exist so easily now,” he said.

Those presently involved in caring for the Library’s special collections are embracing a vision of future growth. “We are one of the largest university rare book collections in the country,” Thomas said, “and it’s important to us to continue to enhance those collections so that they remain relevant over time.”

“This is not a facelift—this is a commitment,” Teper observed. “Preservation is not going to be an afterthought in the construction of this vault.”

Libraries make sure the history of the human spirit is preserved and protected." ~Andreas Cangellaris, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost