The Library as Catalyst: A Plan for the Future

Since the founding of our great university, the Library has been a catalyst for University of Illinois scholarship and innovation. Now Illinois has a unique opportunity to create a new model of the research library, one that actively fosters engagement with grand challenges that transcend disciplinary boundaries and leverages access to enduring historical collections. A re-designed Main Library will provide a home for scholarly pursuits, some of them based in formally-defined centers. In addition to serving as the heart of our book collection, this Main Library building will also house many of the services and activities now found in the Undergraduate Library, including the Media Commons and large-scale library instructional activities. We will use the Undergraduate Library building as a dedicated home for rare and archival collections, easily accessible to the Main Library through the pedestrian tunnel; the special collections will strengthen many of these scholarly enterprises in the Main Library and will also inspire future generations of Illinois students to find their own voices in the ideas of their forebears.

The Main Library continues to be the home of a set of library collection-centric spaces that foster research and collaboration in the humanities and social sciences. Illinois has a long commitment to addressing questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries, and this interdisciplinarity is key to our institutional identity. Throughout its history, the University has attracted the brightest scholars because of a rich environment that nurtures their work and creates a transformative learning experience for their students. A physical space where planned and spontaneous encounters take place is a necessary corollary to virtual and networked interactions: this reimagining of the research library will foster serendipitous connections and real-time collaboration. The liberal arts, which cultivate critical inquiry and create exceptional value for the University of Illinois, will be strengthened by this investment. Our library collection is one of the largest and most distinctive in the world and has been a constant for the vital research ecosystem at Illinois. By combining this collection with a hub of scholarly activities, we will propel the University forward.

The Library’s rare and archival collections are an extraordinary University asset. These collections are scattered throughout our campus, and there is a pressing need for a dedicated home for the collections and our scholars who use them.

  • The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML), established in 1936, is home to over 600,000 volumes and several kilometers of manuscript material, including early manuscripts, rare books, and literary papers. The RBML is renowned for its outstanding collections of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, early printed books, English literature, American wit and humor, theater history, free speech movements, Italian history, the history of economics, the history of science and technology, mathematics, geology, and natural history. The literary papers of such notable figures as Marcel Proust, Carl Sandburg, H.G. Wells, William Maxwell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shana Alexander, and W.S. Merwin are housed in The Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
  • The University Archives, an international research destination, preserves and makes accessible over 12 kilometers of personal archives and university and system office records. It also includes the Student Life and Culture Archives and Sousa Archives and Center for American Music archives. With over 90 million manuscripts, the Archives enables students and scholars to research topics ranging from cybernetics, ecology, electronic music, Olympic sport, to public art.
  • Our other important special collections also include the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, documenting the history of Illinois as well as Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy, the Map Library with over 625,000 maps, and other rare book collections housed in a variety of our campus libraries.

Bringing these extraordinary resources together in a single location will enable us to provide superior spaces to serve our students and faculty, to support instruction, to mount exhibits, and to house these valuable collections in a secure and climate-controlled environment. It will also improve our conservation and digitization support for these collections.

A confluence of factors has created an opportunity to develop a new model of our library:

  • Collections are central to the Library’s identity, and our strategy for managing these collections has evolved. The stacks were constructed in six phases over the course of the 20th century: the first was built in 1925, and the second through fifth additions were added in 1927, 1939, 1957, and 1968. Preservation of collections must be balanced by access to those collections. We have the opportunity not only to better preserve our collections by relocating them to climate-controlled spaces, lacking in the existing five stack additions, but also to broaden our impact by creating a space that facilitates access to and use of library materials and resources. The sixth and final stack addition, built in 1982, offers a substantially better environment for older printed materials. The University built the Oak Street High Density Storage Facility in stages beginning in 2004, allowing the bulk of the Library’s print collections to be managed in a temperature and humidity-controlled facility with a capacity of nearly 6 million volumes. We have an opportunity to build an open and flexible space that will feature more than three million volumes. That library collection will be effectively the same size as what is currently held in Main Library, but will be more focused and actively managed, e.g., with a flow of materials from Oak Street as needed.
  • We have defined a compelling and viable path forward. Elements of this concept are represented in the Campus Master Plan, and capital funding for this work has been among the highest priorities for the University for the last ten years. While the 2009 Library Master Plan provided a road map for both the special collections facility and repurposing of Main Library, estimated at $300 million ten years ago, it proved too costly. An updated 2017 feasibility study helped define a cost-effective strategy that captured the spirit of the 2009 plan. That study suggested the first five stacks ranges could be replaced with a new 100,000 sf facility for less than the University’s state capital request of $54 million. Over the next year, in part through formal campus approval processes but primarily through a series of focused discussions with key stakeholders, we will develop a conceptual plan for the space to be built, with a projected completion date of 2024.

Illinois now has an opportunity to combine the Library’s rich collections in a space focused on the humanities, the arts, and the social and behavioral sciences. This effort is timely and will help us to address two great needs with one consolidated strategy. We will replace the oldest part of the Main Library stacks with space that will foster collaboration across disciplinary boundaries while providing students spaces and services that will enrich their learning experience. This space will leverage library collections and will serve the humanities and social sciences. We will create a home for our exceptional rare book, manuscript, and archival collections. The creation of a focused special collections library and the re-envisioning of Main Library as a rich hub of research and learning in the humanities and social sciences will amplify our remarkable collections, facilitate transdisciplinary investigations, optimize experimentation and address urgent questions in ways that are aligned with the University’s great history and bright future.