Library History and University Librarians - General Information


  • The University Library is founded in 1867 in the charter establishing the school that became the University of Illinois.  The Library pre-dated the University.  The first Library purchases at Illinois (an initial $1,000 investment in Library materials) were approved at a meeting of the Trustees of the “Illinois Industrial University” on November 26, 1867, a measure meant to ensure that a core collection of “ indispensable books” would be available to the faculty and students from the day they arrived on campus.
  • The Library 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.
  • President David Kinley dedicates the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library Building (now commonly referred to as the “Main Library”) on October 18, 1929.  James M. White is the supervising architect of the Library Building.
  • 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. The network included more than 2,400 libraries of all types, from public and grade-school to corporate and university, and was the most extensive in the country at its peak in the 1980s.
  • 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.
  • The Isaac Funk Family Library (also known as the Funk Library) was dedicated in 2001.  This library serves the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the Landscape Architecture Department, the Urban and Regional Planning Department, and the Life Sciences in general.  The state-of-the-art facility offers online resources, public computers, compact stacks, study carrels, and group study rooms.
  • Today, with holdings of more than fourteen 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; business and economics; history; philosophy; music; art; architecture; education; library and information science; maps; English and American literature as well as the literatures of most languages; and law.

Library Deans/University Librarians