Reference Services at the University of Illinois Library: 1951-1975 (Growth and Improvements of the Reference Department)

Twenty-five years after the construction of the new library building, the use of space in the Reading Room continued to change with the library. A Periodicals Section opened at the south end of the Reading Room on November 22, 1954. This brought together both bound and unbound periodicals that had previously been housed in three different locations. Later in this school year, the Bibliography Room was relocated to the north end of the Reading Room. In addition, in March 1955 a microfilm reader was installed in the Reading Room to make microfilms of the New York Times starting in 1916 available. This service was initiated as the Newspaper Library was only open to graduate students and faculty at the time. In the first three months, 1,175 reels of microfilm circulated.

The coming years brought several physical improvements to the reference areas. Between the summer and fall semester of 1956, fluorescent lights were installed in the Reading Room, a change that was welcomed at the time for making it the “only sufficiently lighted public service area in the entire building to avoid eye strain” (1). Ten years later, during the 1965-66 school year, air conditioning was installed as part of a facilities improvement project throughout most of the main library building.

Along with continuing to answer reference questions in person, over the phone, and through correspondence, the librarians in the reference department contributed to creating materials for library instruction. In the fall of 1952, the library first offered a “Handbook for Graduate Students and Members of the Faculty” to complement the “Library Handbook for Undergraduate Students” that was already available. In 1972-73, new brochures that were developed included “How to find a book,” “How to find a periodical,” and “How catalog cards are filed.” The “Introduction to Library Use” course also saw increased enrollment throughout the 1950s, more than doubling to two sections each semester in 1954-55 and then increasing to four sections each semester by 1957-58.

The reference department maintained its popular summer vacation collection throughout much of this period, offering travel folders that patrons could take with them and maps with locations of Illinois state parks. These folders often featured themes such as “Traveling Abroad” and “Touring America and Canada.”

The Catalog Information Desk also continued to be a service provided to users during this period, although the hours of the desk varied due to staffing levels. A reference department staff shortage from November 1959-January 1960 led to the desk being closed most of the time, and it was closed again in the fall of 1972, with reduced hours over the next few years until a shift in staffing responsibilities occured in spring 1975. Yet between these periods, the desk recorded record numbers of questions, with a peak in 1967-68 of 12,945 questions. In 1969, the reference librarian noted that “as [the Information Desk] becomes increasingly obscured by the surrounding catalog, its effectiveness diminishes” (2). However, even with this obstacle and the opening of the new Undergraduate Library building during the 1969-70 year, there was no decline in the use of the Information Desk, indicating that it still fulfilled an important role in providing services to library patrons.


Students studying in the Reading Room, circa 1952 Several students and patrons using the Reading Room at the University of Illinois. Source: University of Illinois Archives:, copyright holder unknown Date: circa 1952



Sarah Hoover and Caitlin Crane, “Reference Services at the University of Illinois Library: 1951-1975 (Growth and Improvements of the Reference Department),” ExploreCU, accessed June 30, 2022,