Undergraduate Library closure generates concerns about UGL services


Sidney Malone

The Undergraduate Library remains vacant on its last day of operation before renovations on Friday. Many have concerns when it comes to the undergraduate library spaces and services reemerged.

By Lilli Bresnahan, Assistant News Editor

As the Undergraduate Library closes for renovations at the end of the spring semester as part of a wider project to renovate the Main Library, concerns regarding undergraduate library spaces and services reemerged. 

According to Ralph W. Mathisen, professor in LAS and chair of the Senate Committee on the Library, the idea to close the UGL originated in the fall of 2018 as part of a plan to renovate the stacks in the Main Library. 

“(The stacks) badly need renovation and knowing that they need renovation, no work has been done on them so they continue to become more and more dilapidated … It’s not good for the books,” Mathisen said. 

According to John Wilkin, dean of libraries and University librarian, the UGL had to be renovated before the main stacks because the University’s rare books and special collections needed to be moved out of the Main Library before renovations could be done there.

Lori Newcomb, professor in LAS and member of the Library Consultation Working Group, said the stacks are like “a skyscraper that’s supported by the bookshelves” and if there are no bookshelves then stacks would need to be demolished. 

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    “It’s like a Rubik’s cube with one side that wouldn’t turn,” Newcomb said. “So it’s always been a tough puzzle.” 

    Mathisen said that the University Library, students and faculty all agree the stacks in the Main Library need to be renovated.

    According to Wilkin, some of the stacks in the Main Library are a fire hazard and their location is accelerating the decay of the materials. 

    Mathisen said that when announcing this plan to renovate the stacks, there was the inclusion of changing the UGL to a Special Collections facility, which was not widely known. 

    This plan included moving the rare book and special collections collection into the UGL and moving the undergraduates into converted spaces in the Main Library. 

    “Nobody wanted the Undergraduate Library to be renovated because (it’s) their home away from home,” Mathisen said. 

    According to Wilkin, when introducing the plan to renovate the UGL into the Special Collections Facility, the University Library held about three dozen public sessions with small groups of faculty, departments, schools, colleges and the Illinois Student Government. As more details became available, the University Library held more sessions and town hall meetings to discuss the project. 

    “My perception is that at the outset, when we talked about it in its totality, the controversy around the Undergraduate Library was nearly absent,” Wilkin said. “So when I talked to a lot of student government, I thought it was relatively well received at the time.”

    According to Mathisen, these town hall meetings were not well advertised, despite being the only option for students to provide input. 

    In early 2021, it became clear that the University Library was not going to change these plans. 

    A group of faculty and students in the humanities faculty drafted a resolution to put before the University Senate. The resolution stated that the plan was problematic and wanted additional consultation with students, faculty and staff.

    “(This resolution) was signed by the heads of 14 of the programs and departments in the humanities — the very people that the (University) Library was advertising that this plan was supposed to benefit,” Mathisen said. 

    The resolution was ultimately rejected by the University Senate with a vote of 40 in favor, 76 against and 14 abstaining.

    “Some people were in favor of the resolution, but the majority, two-thirds, was not,” said David Ward, head of the UGL. 

    Wilkin said that part of the reason the resolution was not supported was because it was not the best for the long term. 

    “(The renovation) is really about the students and faculty and what we need to do in the long term,” Wilkin said. 

    According to Mathisen, the UGL — where the University Library is planning to build its new Special Collections Facility, is particularly concerning because the UGL is prone to flooding. 

    “Back in the 2000s, the backup pumping systems failed and the basement of the Undergraduate Library was within one foot of flooding, which is where they propose to put the vault of the new Rare Book Library,” Mathisen said. “As a person who uses rare books and who uses medieval manuscripts, it’s just living on the knife edge,” Mathisen said. 

    Tom Teper, associate dean for the University Library, said there is little evidence that there is significant risk of a flood occurring. 

    “There is nothing in the records that Facilities and Services or the Library have indicating that there’s ever been a flood in this building,” Teper said. 

    According to Wilkin, the University Library considered a number of alternatives, but the UGL was the best because of its location and price. 

    “The building in 2008 was identified as being a strong contender,” Teper said. “Because of the assets that it provided, it had a strong foundation, it had no evidence of leaks, it was centrally located. And, despite being contained within the ground, had expansion space possible.”

    The cost for the UGL renovation is $50 million, as approved by the University System’s Board of Trustees, and the library has secured all of that funding. 

    “The major piece which we do not have funding for is the demolition of a 100,000 square foot infill in that space,” Wilkin said. “And the price on that is estimated at $100 million.”

    Wilkin said the University System requested state capital funding for that $100 million. 

    The entire project, which includes the UGL renovation and Main library renovations, costs $300 million, and that large price tag required the project to be broken into stages. 

    The first stage, the UGL renovations, has been completely funded. The second stage has no funding but is the “number one capital priority” for the University, according to Wilkin.

    “We’re really dealing with funny money here, we’re talking about something so far in the future,” Mathisen said. “And this is what a lot of us have been very much afraid of, that this half finished renovation of the Undergraduate Library is going to be worthless, basically, for the future.”

    The Main Library renovations won’t occur until after 2024 and won’t be expected to be done until far into the future. 

    “We are looking at the future for the next eight years of undergraduates,” Mathisen said. 

    In order to plan for the amount of study spaces needed to handle closing the UGL, the University Library analyzed peak usage of the UGL from before the pandemic. 

    Then, they determined how many students would need to find other places to study. They counted the places in the Main Library, the Funk ACES Library, Music and Performing Arts Library and the Grainger Engineering Library. They concluded that students should be able to move into these spaces and decided to add more seating to the ACES Library. 

    “So the idea is that if we get every library on campus, stuffed 100%, we’ll have close to what we would have had with the Undergraduate Library,” Newcomb said. 

    Wilkin admitted that the University does not have the kinds of spaces for students and “for research support that we ought to have considering the caliber of the research library we have.” 

    “When we do that next phase and the 100,000 square foot infill, there will be some extraordinary things for student access, for support, for research and teaching — all the things that we need to do,” Wilkin said. 

    But all these changes will require a “staged approach,” he said.

    “Once we get there, the spaces for students, the spaces for researchers are going to be top notch, much easier for everyone using the Main Library building to get at whatever it is that they’re most interested in,” Ward said. “(It is) a lot easier to build communities as well, across individuals, the current design is so compartmentalized, it can be difficult to have a lot of collaboration.” 

    According to Teper, the University is late to shifting undergraduate library services into a general library system, which became more common in the 2000s. 

    “By and large, I would think that most people recognized the potential that was there in the space and the potential to bring the undergraduate library services into the Main (Library) and really try to move away from this notion that undergraduate and graduate students are inherently different,” Teper said.

    Newcomb is concerned over whether undergraduates will feel welcome in the Main library building. 

    “Even though the justification is that they’re being more integrated, I don’t see how they’re going to feel more welcomed because it’s going to be crowded,” Newcomb said. 

    Nevertheless, Wilkin believes that the long term merits of having a more integrated library system will be seen more clearly as the renovation project continues.

    “The conversations in the (University) Library in the last few years around making the library more usable for everybody, not just undergraduates but for everybody, have intensified and I think people will see that as we embark on the project,” Wilkin said. 

    Going forward in the summer, Ward said that the library has been working on increasing communication. 

    “We’re continually ramping up how much signage and information about where undergraduates students can go next year,” Ward said. 


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