News & Events

Imagine This: Dean John Wilkin proposes the next big step in Library development

Aerial View of Main Library

Hold a conversation very long with Dean John Wilkin, and you’ll notice how often the word “imagine” filters its way into the discussion.

Good thing, too, because imagination will prove the driving force as the Library steps boldly into the next phase of its future.

What Wilkin envisions is a complete reconceptualization of Library space—establishing a research hub around collections for the social sciences, the arts, and humanities, as well as setting up a permanent home for special collections. Along the way, undergraduates will be given new quarters and new opportunities to work alongside graduate students and members of the faculty.

“Our Library has an incredible history of engagement,” Wilkin says, “and this new proposal is really the next chapter that takes us forward.

“Imagine this continuum of experiences.”

Yes, imagine a research pillar on the University of Illinois campus devoted to interdisciplinary collaboration among the arts, humanities, and behavioral and social sciences—serving these fields in much the same way as the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology engage the sciences.

Imagine a modern, conveniently accessible setting for the Library’s special collections, including the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Archives, the Map Library, and the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections.

Imagine 100,000 square feet of space opened up in the Main Library building—once the oldest part of the stacks undergoes reconfiguration—to accommodate an interchange at the highest levels of liberal-arts-related research, and provide a gathering space for students at all stages of the learning and research process.

Yes, just imagine.

Grappling with grand challenges

“Since the founding of our great University, the Library has been a catalyst for University of Illinois scholarship and innovation,” Wilkin says of the campus’s illustrious past and burgeoning future. “Now Illinois has a unique opportunity to create a new model of the research library.”

Wilkin foresees a vital, interdisciplinary collaboration among scholars and students of the humanities and social sciences, corralling their expertise to grapple with grand challenges of our times. A liberal-arts brain trust of sorts, the endeavor will examine critical topics like poverty, health, technology and society, performance as a vehicle of communication, and postcolonialism.

“If you take poverty as a theme,” Wilkin explains, “to which discipline does this belong?” He suggests the impossibility of pigeonholing such subjects in a single category; rather, he believes, they are better understood and solved when various branches of knowledge weigh in—from history to economics to sociology. Through transcending disciplinary boundaries and gathering scholars together—literally side by side—Wilkin anticipates that linking the Library’s considerable resources to an energetic hub of scholarly investigation will propel the University to an exciting future.

And Wilkin’s concepts have captured the imagination of the faculty. “To have a central space would bolster the intellectual bridges being built to other disciplines around campus,” says psychology professor Brent W. Roberts, director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative on campus.

Such a plan “would foster self-organized investigation of all sorts,” adds Sharon Irish, a project coordinator at the Center for Digital Inclusion at Illinois’ School of Information Sciences, “a place of percolating problems and improvisational encounters.

“A commons creates uncommon experiences and exceptional education when such vitality is nurtured.”

Fostering physical spaces

But where will this research hub take root? The plan involves reorganizing some well-known spaces and razing part of the stacks—but not the destruction of books.

“This plan won’t provide spaces to users at the cost of collections,” Wilkin emphasizes. “This is about the programming around collections. They will remain roughly the same size—only more focused.”

To create a research hub, the five oldest Main Library stacks will be converted into 100,000 square feet of space—five floors (from basement on up) that will host lecture rooms, collaboration space, and services to enrich the learning experiences of students. The volumes held there will complement the scholarship being tackled.

“Imagine that remaining sixth stack range,” Wilkin says, “holding two-and- a-half-million volumes that are particularly relevant to the social sciences and humanities, a broad swath of materials. Then additional stacks in the new part of the building too that are more focused—when we have those themes represented—more specifically in the roughly half-million volumes of capacity that we have there.”

Undergraduates, meanwhile, will move from their underground quarters to the Main Library, taking the best of the UGL with them (see Undergraduates on the Move). As the undergraduates fold themselves into the resources available in the Main Library, their former space will become the new, climate-controlled home for the University’s array of special collections (see A Home for Special Collections).

The contents in the oldest five sections of the stacks—the earliest one having been built in 1925—will be moved to either the sixth stacks section or in the Library’s Oak Street High Density Storage Facility.

Something old, something new

Like the time-honored tradition of “something old, something new,” the proposed reconfiguring of library space will both honor the past and welcome the future.

“This is just as much an embrace of the past as it is a foundation for the future,” Wilkin says. “When we finish this, what will be in the Main Library will be humanities and social sciences collections that are really relevant to the disciplines we’re serving in the Main Library.”

He is adamant that the new plan remain collection-centered. “Departmental libraries will continue to play their role as the point of first contact for disciplines,” the dean says. “The main part of the Library, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will stay.”

The proposal—estimated to cost approximately $54 million—will be fleshed out via discussions with key stakeholders over the next year, with an anticipated completion date of 2024.

“It does feel like now is the time,” Wilkin says of the bold, new vision. “The University is embracing this notion of the totality of who we are,” which includes not only its reputation in engineering, genomics, and information sciences but its vast resources and talent pool in the social sciences and humanities. “It’s like a moment of convergence.”

“The way research and education is being conducted is changing dramatically,” says Library Friend Hal Balbach, MS ’61 LAS, PHD ’65 LAS. “The Library continues to adapt to support these new ways of conducting research and teaching. This vision is a proactive step in addressing that need, leading research libraries forward.”

With the reconfiguration of space, “the Main Library will be the newest and most innovative form of institute at Illinois,” Wilkin says. He sees the project as a powerful way of amplifying the Library’s remarkable collections, facilitating transdisciplinary investigations, optimizing experimentation, and addressing urgent questions in ways that align with the University’s storied past and what lies before it.

The excitement comes through as Wilkin describes a vibrant vision of the Library of the future.

“There’d be this whole continuum” working with these ideas, he says, “in that big open space of 100,000 square feet,” from the most basic, undergraduate experience through graduate students and faculty, “all in the same location but differentiated by the knowledge and skills they bring to the problem.

“Imagine this flourishing relationship between faculty and their students.”

Yes, just imagine.

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