Opinion | It’s time for a much-needed renovation of the Main Library

The University of Iowa’s outdated Main Library poses a major threat to the priceless resources in the Department of Special Collections and Artifacts.


Gabby Drees

Special Collections is seen at the University of Iowa Main Library Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.

Grace Hildahl, Opinions Contributor

Did you know the third floor of the the University of Iowa Main Library holds hundreds of thousands of dollars and centuries worth of time in relics collected throughout history?

The UI Department of Special Collections and Artifacts, located on the third floor of the Main Library, is a repository for the archival of rare books, maps, manuscripts, and documents. With over 300,000 items ranging from a clay tablet dated back to 2050 BCE to modern works, this extensive, world-class collection brings pride and prestige to the university.

Although extraordinary in monetary and educational value, these resources are housed in an environment that is anything but desirable.

A few weeks ago, I experienced the Department of Special Collections firsthand. As I flipped through the pages of an original pressing of the medieval manuscript, the Nuremberg Chronicle, I couldn’t help but notice the lack-luster, inadequate setting that held such prestigious works.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Eric Ensley, curator of rare books and maps for the Department of Special Collections and Artifacts, described the downfall of boarding the collection in the Main Library.

“A struggle for us and many other special collections is space,” Ensley wrote.

The Main Library, constructed in 1951, allocates not only an inadequate amount of space to the collections, but also insufficient conditions in such space.

Unfortunately, the saying “out of sight, out of mind,” is also applicable to the resources provided by the Department of Special Collections and Artifacts.

While students and community members are encouraged to use the expansive collection for research as well as pleasure, the location of the department considerably reduces foot traffic.

“I think one disappointment we all have is when students come to a class in senior year and say that they weren’t aware we existed,” Ensley wrote. “I wish we had a bit more visibility in the library so students might have to walk by and see our space and materials.”

Tucked away on the third floor, the resources cataloged in the Department of Special Collections and Artifacts often go unnoticed and are underused.

While the location of the space proves to be a liability for the use of resources, so is the quality of the space.

The artifacts in the collection require specific and spacious areas for upkeep. For example, temperature-controlled rooms for storage, repairs, and viewing of the relics are necessary for the collection’s survival. There must also be room for proactive safety precautions, like vaults for locking more valuable pieces, alarm systems, motion detectors, and fire-suppression systems.

The aging Main Library building restricts not only the upkeep of the collection, but also its accumulation and growth.

“It won’t surprise Iowa students to learn that our current library was built in bursts at different periods and is a quirky building,” Ensley wrote. “Some floors can’t support bookshelves in some places, for example.”

While the department prioritizes expanding its collection, each addition poses a literal threat to the safety of the preexisting artifacts. The Main Library’s floors cannot support the weight of an increased number of pieces or else it might cave in. Therefore, the university’s weak infrastructure is limiting educational growth.

The UI needs to remodel the Main Library to showcase the impressive accumulated works of the Department of Special Collections and Artifacts, as well as provide a safe space that encourages growth and enjoyment of the collection’s resources long into the future.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.


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