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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008 10:02 pm

Bookworms

Historians criticize plan to scatter Illinois-history collection

Untitled Document If you’ve ever gone to the library in search of a certain book, only to stumble upon an even better one on the next shelf, then you will understand the battle brewing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where history buffs are in a huff over a proposal to disperse the school’s 25,000-volume Illinois-history collection.
Known as the Lincoln Room, the collection includes the Illinois Historical Survey — a treasure trove of manuscripts, maps, prints, photographs, artifacts, and ephemera dating back to 1909 — as well as a load of Lincoln lore donated to the school in 1951 by UIUC graduates Harlan Hoyt Horner and Henrietta Calhoun Horner. The collection is currently housed on the third and fourth floors of the main library, but if a proposal under consideration by library administrators goes forward the collection will be broken up and distributed to various library locations. To some, this proposal sounds like no big deal. To serious scholars, however, it’s bad news. “For people who are researchers, it’s a horrible thing,” says William Furry, assistant director of the Illinois State Historical Society and a former editor of Illinois Times. Breaking up the collection, he says, would deprive history hounds of the proximity premium — the happy accident of discovering a document they didn’t know existed. John Hoffman, curator of the Illinois and Lincoln collection, says such “Aha!” moments are what historical inquiry is all about. “A large amount of research is done by this serendipitous association,” he says. “You discover something you didn’t even know about.”
Hoffman orchestrated a polite protest against the proposed dispersal, sending an
e-mail with a signable petition in mid-December to a couple dozen historians who have used the collection in their work. He says he received “well over 100” responses, most from library patrons. Just before Christmas, he delivered a compilation of responses to Dean of Libraries Paula Kaufman, who chaired the committee that authored the proposal.
Although Hoffman was pleasantly shocked by the response to his petition, Kaufman was not. “It doesn’t surprise me,” she says. Another proposal — to consolidate UIUC’s classics library with its English and modern-languages libraries — also met with resistance. “I’ve heard from people from all over the world,” she says. The proposal to disband the Lincoln and Illinois collection is one of about 25 ideas created by a committee of library executives to revamp UIUC’s library system, using “new service models” based on “hubs” that foster interdisciplinary research. The proposals promise that many materials will be digitized, making them handy for students who expect to search the entire spectrum of resources in “one easy Google-like swoop,” Kaufman says. “We’re trying to make improvements. We’re trying to extend and expand access, and make the best use of financial resources,” she says. Old-school scholars like Furry aren’t persuaded. Calling the idea “really short-sighted,” Furry notes that digital images can’t entirely replicate originals. “Nothing will ever replace the hard copy,” he says. Kaufman will discuss this and other proposals with students, faculty, and staff at 3:30-5 p.m. Jan. 24 in Grainger Commons, in the UIUC campus’ Grainger Library.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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