Profile: Memorial Library at UW-Madison

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The principal research facility on campus for the humanities and social sciences, Memorial has the largest single library collection in the state—more than 3.5 million volumes that fill 77 miles of shelving. In addition to the book collection, the library also houses a myriad of other components and institutions, including an extensive collection of microform items, University Archives, the Department of Special Collections, Mills Music Library, Silver Buckle Press, and the headquarters for the university’s General Library System.

Memorial Library opened in 1953 at a cost of $5 million, which was the most expensive investment the state had made in Madison since the capitol was constructed. But it was sorely needed because the university’s main library had been located in a wing of the state Historical Society Building since 1900. With enrollment surging toward nearly 20,000 students—ten times more than could comfortably be served in the space in the historical society, the university began a relentless campaign to get the Legislature to finance a separate building for the library.

“It took an incredibly long time before the university managed to build a genuine main library,” UW-Madison Library Director Ken Frazier said during the library’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2003. “All of our sister institutions by that time had a trophy library. The situation was an embarrassment to the state.”

But embarrassment soon gave way to boasting. When Memorial opened it featured amenities such as sunny reading rooms, a state-of-the-art rare books vault, a current periodicals room, and soundproofed typing rooms. It was also one of the few buildings around at the time to have air conditioning, which made the library an extremely popular hangout spot during hot summer days in the 1950s.

Memorial has added on over the years, first horizontally in 1974 with the addition of a south wing (the north and west wings are the original library), and then vertically in 1990, when four additional floors brought the building to its present nine floors. A planned tenth floor was not added over fears the view of the capitol building from the university’s famed Bascom Hill would be obstructed.

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One of the greatest gifts my brother and I received from my mother was her love of literature and language. With their boundless energy, libraries open the door to these worlds and so many others. I urge young and old alike to embrace all that libraries have to offer.

Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (1957- )

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation

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