News & Events

‘I Belonged Here’

Above: Anu Murphy with her advisor, Professor Roy L. Schult, in May 1994


Students reminisce about working in the Library

If you’ve spent time at a University of Illinois library, you know that, in addition to books and materials, the spaces are stocked with student workers.

At Illinois, the Library employs 300 or so student helpers at any time over the course of the academic year; nearly every library has at least one student employee. The slew of experiences these workers undergo—from simply checking patrons in to analyzing Chemical Abstracts—ranges from the mundane to the momentous.

A recent Library inquiry asked: “Did you work for the Library when you were a student at Illinois? We want to hear from you.”

And hear we did. Of the dozens of former employees who replied, here are five stories.


A Place Called Home

In June 1990, a lone Anu Murphy ’94 LAS, MS ’99 LAS, arrived in Champaign, Illinois, from India.



Not that Murphy, then 18, was totally unfamiliar with the University of Illinois campus. Her father had earned master’s and doctoral degrees at Illinois, and her mother had worked in the Asian Library (now the International and Area Studies Library). Anu was born during their time on campus, returning with them to India when she was a baby.


Anu’s father, Somnath Datta, arrived in Urbana from Calcutta, India, in 1964 as a graduate student in Civil Engineering. He received his MS in civil engineering in 1966, then switched to a graduate degree program in physics. Somnath received his MS and PhD in physics, both from UIUC, in 1972. Anu’s mother, Aloka Datta, joined him in 1965 and worked in the Asian Library between 1966–1971. This photo appears in the 1972 Illio yearbook.


Regaled as a child with tales of the U, Murphy was determined to attend Illinois, too. To help their daughter adjust, Murphy’s parents got in touch with the same campus people who had helped them during their student days.

A member of the International Hospitality Committee opened her home to Murphy that summer, while a former library colleague of Murphy’s mother helped Murphy land a job at what is now the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library. The position made her feel, “in a small way,” she said, “like I was an integral part of the University of Illinois community, and that I belonged here.”



“Somehow it felt like this was going to be my home,” said Murphy, now the associate director of NetMath in the UI Department of Mathematics, “not just the country, but this university. My experience at the Library really solidified that idea, and I never left.”


Anu with her son Ishan ’22 ENG in May of last year


FAVORITE EXPERIENCE: The friendliness and generosity of her co-workers, including a gentleman who gave her his guitar upon learning Murphy loved to play.

FAVORITE SENSORY MEMORY: The combination of library aromas, including paper, wood, leather bindings, coffee, and copy toner.


The Lawyer Librarian

Follow this thread: Jeffrey Sulenski ’71 LAS, MS ’72 LIS, worked in the Undergraduate Library as an undergraduate and a graduate assistant, which inspired him to earn a master’s degree in library and information science, which led him to working in the California State Law Library, which led him to want to go to law school, which made him realize he got accepted to UC-Berkeley School of Law partly on the basis that he was a librarian.



Despite every intention of eventually returning to the library world, Sulenski practiced law for two decades. Nonetheless, “I’ve always felt more like a librarian than a lawyer,” he said.

Sulenski learned to love books as a way to entertain himself as an Army brat, when his family was stationed in Germany. At Illinois, he was there for the move into the then-new Undergraduate Library, which he described as “an experience both in planning out where the collection would go and just for [the] thrill of going . . . into a spacious new library with all the latest equipment and furniture.”

“It was truly a fun and interesting time.”

FAVORITE EXPERIENCE: Tales of the never-caught ketchup culprit who skulked amongst library carrels. Girls who kicked off their shoes while studying would find them filled with the wretched relish, even as they sat there.

FAVORITE SENSORY MEMORY: Moving to the brand-new Undergraduate Library filled with funky furniture and a fancy new study aide—carrels.


Ready To Go

For Alyssa Denneler, MS ’18 LIS, her graduate experience at the iSchool prepared her so well that she walked into a faculty position at Indiana University right after receiving her degree.



“It absolutely led me to the amazing job I have today,” said Denneler, who serves as a Scholars’ Common librarian at the Herman B Wells Library at IU-Bloomington. As a graduate assistant at Illinois, she worked in the Main Library at what was then called Research and Information Services, where she gained hands-on experience in instruction, reference, social media outreach, and more.

As an undergraduate anthropology major, Denneler had been looking for a graduate course of study which combined the excitement she derived from working with people with the satisfaction of helping with research. That search led her to the field of library and information science. “Just supporting our university community was really what I hope to do,” she said.



FAVORITE EXPERIENCE: A professor stepped in to cover Denneler’s desk when she was unexpectedly late to work at the Library. “They treated me like a colleague, and I appreciated . . . that we would just cover each other’s backs,” Denneler said.

FAVORITE SENSORY MEMORY: The Art Deco murals of the Four Hemispheres adorning the staircase ascending to the Main Library’s second floor.


Speak To Me

As an undergraduate linguistics student, Molly Banwart ’22 LAS loved studying historical languages, including Old Norse, Latin, and Hittite (yes, there is such a class on campus). As such languages are no longer spoken, “the only way that we have them preserved is through . . . the manuscripts that they’re in,” she said. “I was beyond excited I got to read and handle [similar items], along with other materials at the Library.”



Banwart says she got her dream undergraduate job at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, a place that made her realize how much she loved the work environment of an academic library. The experience spurred her to apply to graduate school to pursue a career in archives and special collections.

“I feel incredibly lucky,” Banwart said, “that I was able to explore the hidden passion-turned-career of mine at the RBML.”

FAVORITE EXPERIENCE: RBML’s annual birthday celebration for Gwendolyn Brooks, including
readings of her poetry and eating the poet’s famous orange cake.

FAVORITE SENSORY MEMORY: The occasional maple syrupy/cinnamon-like odor in RBML’s vault. While the aroma was pleasant, it signaled an increase in humidity that needed attention.


Illinois Library Luminary

When Linda C. Smith, MS ’72 LIS, came to the Midwest to pursue a degree in library and
information science, it was just the start of an illustrious career.



Now the interim executive associate dean for the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, Smith has spent nearly 50 years at the iSchool, first as a graduate student and later as a faculty member and administrator (with a short retirement in between). She is known for her innovation and mentorship, and as the key person behind creating the school’s renowned online master’s degree program in the late ’90s. She has amassed numerous professional accolades, including being named an Illinois Library Luminary in 2019.

But in 1971, Smith was looking for real-life experience as she started her master’s studies. Aspiring to be a science librarian, she found work as an hourly assistant in the two-story Chemistry Library in Noyes Laboratory. With large-scale digitization an as-yet distant dream, Smith had to learn how to use Chemical Abstracts to help researchers locate material (with some journals going back to the 1800s).

Her time at Illinois coincided with the pioneering use of computers for information retrieval, which, as she observed, would have “tremendous impact on all aspects of librarianship.” Smith pursued further degrees in information and computer science,
which poised her to embrace this new path that fundamentally changed the library field.

FAVORITE EXPERIENCE: A demonstration of AIM-TWX, an early online database that could be searched remotely.

FAVORITE SENSORY MEMORY: Being in the Main Stacks and discovering materials to use for school projects.

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