Listen to this article

URBANA — For almost 50 years undergraduates at the University of Illinois have gone underground to visit their library, an icon that even inspired a campus song.

"You can't throw shade on the corn," the Other Guys a cappella group sings in its homage to the story of why the library was built two levels down: so it didn't shade the nearby historic Morrow Plots.

That's only partially true, according to the University Archives, as planners also wanted to maintain an open area behind Foellinger Auditorium to respect the campus master plan at the time.

The song may need a new verse now that the UI Library is making plans to convert the Undergrad, as its known, to a home for the University Archives and other special collections, and move undergraduates to a new modern home in the Main Library next door.

Students aren't sure what to make of the idea, which is part of a broader $54 million modernization plan.

"I feel like this is a great place to study," said sophomore Yulun Yang, who was studying on the upper level of the Undergrad recently.

Yang and other students said they like the distinction of an underground library.

"I think we're the only library in the nation that has this super-cool, underground library. And that makes this place special," Yang said.

He hasn't seen the plans for a new undergraduate space in the Main Library, but said, "I feel like we shouldn't replace it."

Library Director John Wilkin said the new undergraduate area in the Main Library, which would be part of a larger interdisciplinary liberal arts hub, will include many of the popular features of the Undergrad — such as group study areas and Media Commons, where students can use audio and video studios for class projects.

He said separate undergraduate libraries are no longer common on college campuses. In the past, the UI's Main Library was "off limits" to undergraduates, he said.

Under the new plan, students will be able to work with graduate students and faculty in a research hub dedicated to solving society's challenges, he said.

'Really exciting'

Undergraduate Librarian David Ward said there's some sadness among staff about leaving the Undergrad, but "it's a really exciting opportunity."

"For us, we've really developed a presence here on campus that students identify with, a building that's really valued," he said.

But everything had to be retrofitted into a 50-year-old space. And the configuration — a large square built around a two-story glassed-in courtyard — makes it hard for students to see all the services available, he said.

"Everyone's waiting to learn more. We're still at an early stage," Ward said.

He likes the idea of designing a space from the ground up to meet current needs, as opposed to 1969, and having a more direct connection to the other services in the Main Library.

Currently, the two libraries are connected by a tunnel, a popular hangout space for students that now boasts a coffee shop.

"Sometimes I think of us as the basement of the Main Library," Ward said.

But Ward emphasized the need to preserve services and space dedicated to undergraduates, especially more group study areas.

The Undergrad has been transformed in recent years to provide more space for collaboration and tech support, and now gets more than 1 million visits a year. Chairs and sofas are on rollers, so they can be easily rearranged. A bank of "collaboration rooms" line one wall.

Students flock to the Undergrad to work on group projects; check out books, videos or recording equipment; get tutoring help or visit the Writing Center.

At the Media Commons, they can use the video-production studio, computer lab, tech-support desk and media editing stations, or plug their laptops into a large monitor and work together on projects. The studio is used mostly for student projects but is open to anyone on campus, free of charge.

The lower floor of the Undergrad is a quiet study area, with traditional library shelves holding about 150,000 volumes used for both academic and recreational reading.

'Club UGL'

Ward said another key is retaining the Undergrad's "intangibles," including the social atmosphere. One of its nicknames is "Club UGL," and generations of students have memories of meeting there to study — or procrastinate.

"That aspect is important. When we talk to alumni donors, there is a strong connection to the space, things they embrace about coming in here," said Ward, who holds two UI degrees himself.

"I think if we do it right ... it will be something the students will be excited about."

Wilkin spoke to student government leaders about the proposal recently, and "I heard nothing but enthusiasm."

Student body President Walter Lindwall, a senior, is "cautiously optimistic."

He tends to study at other libraries, such as the Communications Library in Gregory Hall, so he doesn't have a strong attachment to the Undergrad, but he knows others do. And he's excited about students having mores access to the Main Library.

The primary need, he said, is for more study spaces dedicated to students. During finals week and other crunch times, "it's really hard to find places to study in the UGL."

For now, freshman Alexandria Marchert will continue to study there. An engineering major, she tried out a couple of other places to study during the first few weeks of the semester, including the Illini Union and the Grainger Engineering Library.

"This is my favorite place so far. It's just a good atmosphere to be in. It's easy to find people that you have classes with here if you need help," and it's quiet — but not too quiet, she said.

"I had never heard of any other institution that had a library underground, so it was pretty cool," she said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

Trending Videos