Turning the page? Big changes could be in store for library

By on

by Julie Wurth, courtesy of The News-Gazette

The University of Illinois Library has long been a point of pride for the campus, ranked among the best in the world for its vast collection and top-ranked academic programs.

Now the library is embarking on a $54 million modernization plan that would demolish its older "stacks," build a new interdisciplinary liberal arts center in their place, move services for undergraduate students into the Main Library and turn the current Undergraduate Library into a home for the University Archives and other special collections.

To University Librarian John Wilkin and other proponents, the ambitious plan would bring the library into the 21st century, provide a long-awaited home for special collections now scattered across campus, and improve services for students and scholars.  The changes are motivated by structural issues and technological updates that have altered the nature of library materials and services. With 14 million volumes and growing, storage is a constant issue for the country's second-largest academic library (after Harvard).

And while some faculty members welcome the initiative, questions about what the new library will look like have caused anxiety for others. They worry about access to the books and other materials housed in the stacks that could end up in a remote storage facility on Oak Street.

And the head of the Archives isn't sure the move to the Undergrad, which was built underground, is the best idea — or feasible financially.  The project is a scaled-down version of a $300 million master plan developed in 2009, four years before Wilkin came to the UI from the University of Michigan. He started giving presentations to campus department heads several months ago, and the library publicized the plans in a magazine mailed to donors and alumni last week.

The original 2009 plan would have converted the Undergrad into a special collections library and demolished all six of the library's stacks — brick multi-story additions to the original 1924 library that hold millions of volumes of books and other materials. Most of the stacks lack air-conditioning and other climate control, accelerating the degradation of the books.

They're also not compatible with modern building codes: the steel shelves act as structural supports, with few barriers between floors for fire safety.  In their place, the original plan proposed a large building with open flexible space, and a high-density, automated storage facility to replace the north wing of the Main Library.

But the price tag proved too high, and Wilkin has since worked with architects and facilities staff to modify the plan.  "The change in scale makes it much more feasible," he said.

A Beckman for the arts

The new version retains the idea for a special collections library and an undergraduate area in the main building. But it would keep the newest stack, built in 1982, which is climate-controlled and has movable shelves with room for 2.5 million volumes.

The old stacks would be replaced with a five-story, 100,000-square-foot building, about half the size of the one in the original plan.

The building would house an interdisciplinary research hub for the arts, humanities and social sciences — sort of a south campus version of the interdisciplinary Beckman Institute for Science and Technology, Wilkin said. It would feature lecture rooms, collaboration spaces, services for students and room for 500,000 volumes relevant to research themes chosen by faculty there, he said.

For Wilkin, that is the centerpiece of the plan: using the library's collections to support interdisciplinary work in history, languages and other humanities as well as the social sciences, such as psychology, sociology and economics. He envisions it as a liberal arts "brain trust," examining critical topics such as poverty, health, and technology and society.

Undergraduate services would also be incorporated, with a media commons and other features that make the Undergrad "great," Wilkin said. But undergraduates would no longer be segregated from graduate students and faculty, he said.

Clearing out the stacks would also make room for a separate project: a classroom facility for south campus, to be built near the corner of Sixth and Gregory Drive. Currently, there's a small structure there with mechanical facilities for the library.

The library is exploring a collaboration with the nearby Gies College of Business to raise money for that project, as the business school needs more classroom space, Wilkin said. But it would be open to the College of Liberal Arts and other units, he said.

"If we move down this path, it makes that possible," Wilkin said.

Library as laboratory

Wilkin said the idea of an interdisciplinary liberal arts institute was suggested by a campus working group several years ago, led by Antoinette Burton, director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. When Wilkin became interim provost, he started thinking about blending that idea with the library's plans.The campus has a rich, creative interdisciplinary culture where scholars cross academic boundaries and "ideas flourish," he said. "The connections people make at this university are more than any place I've been."

Burton and history Department Chair Clare Crowston said they've talked with Wilkin about it, but they're waiting to hear more as the library fleshes out the plan with a programmatic study this fall.  "The devil's in the details," said history Professor Mark Steinberg, who sits on the department's executive committee.

Crowston said the plan follows a model adopted by other university libraries: moving more of the permanent collection off-site to free up what is prime campus space for new areas where users can work in innovative ways.

But researchers want to ensure the changes won't limit their ability to find research materials.  "What a lot of people will tell you is that there's a kind of serendipity. You go into the stacks looking for one thing, which you're sure you need, and because of the way the library is cataloged, there you are in the collection with all the books about that subject. You make all kinds of connections and discoveries that you can't make just sitting there with the catalog," Crowston said.

For humanities scholars, the library is their laboratory. Books and other records are the backbone of their research. And the library's collection is world-class, Burton and Crowston said.  "So people have very strong feelings about it," Burton said. "There's a wealth of knowledge there. It's one of the biggest public libraries in the world.  "Symbolically, not just for us, it says a lot about the University of Illinois and what its citizens and taxpayers have put into it. It's a big deal."

The open access to the stacks that U.S. libraries provide is also rare, Crowston said, and "giving that up should not be done lightly." At research libraries in Europe, "you never get to go touch the books in the stacks. You fill out a piece of paper."

Lilya Kaganovsky, director of the Program in Comparative & World Literature, said scholars in her field don't need interdisciplinary centers or "fancy equipment. We need one technology only: physical books."

3 million volumes

Wilkin has tried to allay those fears. He said the Main Library will still house 3 million volumes, focused on the humanities and social sciences to support the new research hub, that users will be able to browse. The contents in the oldest five sections of the stacks will be moved into the sixth stack or to the storage facility on Oak Street.

He said faculty members are justifiably wary because of what they've seen at other university libraries — at Texas, Wisconsin and the University of Chicago, among others — where entire collections were moved off-site or stored in a way that was inaccessible.

Crowston said a great deal of research material is now available online, and traffic in the stacks has plummeted over the last 20 years or so. Still, "it always feels like a slippery slope to be moving it off-site and tearing it up or throwing it away. A lot of libraries have just thrown stuff away. That, any humanist would agree, is deeply troubling."

Wilkin said the UI has no plans to go that route.

"Frankly for us, that's nuts," he said. "That's just not who we are. Our collections are extraordinary, and they are the linchpin of research here."

The new humanities hub has earned praise from some faculty, including longtime English Professor Peter Mortensen and psychology professor Brent Roberts, director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative. Mortensen said the library's 19th-century collection drew him to campus decades ago, and the new collaborative research hub is a logical next step that will benefit generations of scholars.

Crowston also said Wilkin has indicated he's willing to listen to faculty concerns.

"I think this is a tremendous vision that's aligned with who we are as a library and Illinois. But change raises questions. Articulating it clearly and often is going to be very necessary," Wilkin said.

Wilkin said the library will still maintain departmental libraries in the Main Library. And the main section of the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will remain. That includes the ornate, and recently refurbished, Reading Room and wood-paneled main circulation area on the second floor, with their soaring ceilings, murals and stained glass windows.The plan also includes a more public-friendly "service point" on the first floor.

The goal is to complete the project by 2024 — 100 years after the building first opened.

Is plan to give special collections their own home feasible, sensible?

The unique special collections at the University of Illinois Library — everything from old maps and Audubon prints to the papers of Carl Sandburg — are used heavily by authors, students and scholars, University Librarian John Wilkin says.

They include the Rare Book and Manuscript library, the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, the Map Library and the University Archives, which houses UI records as well as the Student Life and Culture Archives and the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.

Now scattered in different buildings, they would be pulled together into a permanent new home in the current Undergraduate Library under the library's reorganization plan, with improved climate control, security and conservation, Wilkin said.

He believes the move would increase their accessibility to students, scholars and the general public, with room for exhibits and public events.

But University Archivist Bill Maher worries there's not enough information yet to say whether the move is feasible.  "I'm concerned that it's an afterthought and making it work is going to be a lot more complicated than it seems," he said.

A special collections building has been on the library's agenda since before Maher joined the university 41 years ago, but there's never been sufficient funding.  When planners decided in 2009 to remove the stacks, and develop a new undergraduate space within the Main Library, that left the Undergrad open for new possibilities.

Maher worries that the move is being driven by the availability of space, rather than a clear picture of what a special collections building should look like.  Maher said he can't speak for the other special collections staff, but those in the Archives see a "serious challenge" in being able to fit of all the materials into the Undergrad.

Another big challenge: retrofitting the building to meet modern preservation standards, a costly process, he said. Because it's underground, it's hard to assess how permeable the walls are to moisture or how planners can control temperature and humidity to achieve conditions that "make things last next to forever," as the archives needs, he said.

Wilkin said the climate-control improvements that will be needed aren't part of the $55 million project, so additional money will need to be raised.

He said a project several years back to build a climate-controlled vault and address a mold issue in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library cost about $2.5 million. And the library plans to keep using the Horticulture Field Lab for some of the Archives, where it recently invested in a $1.2 million climate-control and fire-suppression system.

Maher and his colleagues are encouraged that the library has hired a consultant to review the special collections units to see what services could be brought together in a new facility, which could guide that planning.

"We have to figure out what can fit there and what makes sense to fit there," Wilkin said. "I'm committed to ensuring that whatever we do, we do right."