One Isn't the Loneliest Number: The Process of Merging a Departmental Library into a New Library

by Harriett Green

When I began my job just over one year ago, the first major task set before me was to dismantle my library, the English Library. But why?

The nature and structure of research services in an academic library are critically shaped by the needs of its patrons and the evolution of the disciplines that they study. In particular, subject bibliographers build and carefully curate discipline-specific collections that address those research needs. But with the dominance of interdisciplinary work in modern scholarship, subject collections have far more porous parameters—collection development is more collaborative, and research services can easily incorporate the expertise of multiple subject specialists on one patron's project.

In response, the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been consolidating its 30+ subject-based departmental libraries into multi-disciplinary library units through its New Service Models Program. The most recent merger in this program occurred this past December and January when the English Library was merged with the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library to create the new Literatures and Languages Library.

My task was to oversee the preparation of English Library for the merger. To do this, I had to consider every aspect of the library's functions and consider how I could integrate the English Library's collection and research services into a new library and still maintain the intellectual rigor and integrity of the collection and services. I was not alone in my attempts to devise a solution to this question: the Library established a Literatures and Languages Implementation Team that organized and facilitated the merger of the two libraries. As a member of this team, I collaborated with library colleagues in determining and implementing the steps needed for the merger to succeed. But within these steps were many tasks that I had to carry out to prepare the English Library for the merger. These tasks focused on three main issues: collections, facilities, and services.


The English Library's on-site collection primarily consisted of research materials on British literature, American Literature, literary criticism and theory, theatre history, and cinema studies. This 38,000 volume collection would be merged with the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library's collection on linguistics and Western European languages and literatures, a collection of nearly comparable size. The amount of linear feet in the new library, however, would not allow for both collections to be transferred and merged in full. Thus, the collection revision involved reducing the number of English collection materials by approximately twenty percent to about 25,000 volumes. This provided an opportunity to weed out excess and unused material to create leaner and more focused English research collection.

The first step was to develop a new collection development policy which reflected the tenets of the new core English collection. The key principle in this step, as well as throughout the whole process, was transparency. The collection development policy was drafted in collaboration with my colleagues in the English Library, the cinema studies subject specialist, and the administrative head. Then it was distributed to the English department faculty and the Literatures and Languages Implementation Team. After receiving feedback and revising accordingly, we had a policy that served as a clear and open map for revising the English collection.

The approaches we undertook to revise the English collection incorporated both statistics and subject expertise. The statistics focused on circulation numbers and duplicates, and we generated a mountain of reports from Voyager ILS to get the numbers. We first identified the materials in our collection that were duplicated in other library units. Some materials were retained due to factors such as their essential role in a literary research collection, while others were selectively transferred to our off-site storage facility. We then generated reports on the circulation numbers for materials in the collection and focused on those that had circulated zero or only once during seven or more years. A selective transfer process again took place: I retained a selection of materials due to reasons such as their essential status for research and the uncertainty of their holding status in other locations. But many other materials were transferred to the Library's main stacks, off-site storage, and even to other departmental libraries whose collections were better suited for the materials.

This selection and transfer process began in May 2010 after the final linear feet measurements in the new library were determined and lasted throughout the remainder of the year. This process centered around transparency as well: at designated times during the selection and transfer process, campus faculty members were invited to come into the Library to review the books for selected for transfer. If they identified titles that were too essential to be transferred to another location, they notified me. But at the same time, they were cautioned that if one title was retained, another one had to go instead. The selection and transfer process was challenging and quite involved, but by mid-December 2010, we had successfully reduced the collection to 25,000 volumes.


The new Literatures and Languages Library was designated to occupy a newly renovated space within our Main Library. The primary planning for the renovation was carried out by the Implementation Team and the Facilities department in the Library. But I wanted to ensure that the key elements that patrons valued in the physical layout of English Library would be present in the new library.

In preparation, I attended an ACRL pre-conference workshop at ALA Annual 2010 titled " Creating a 21st Century Learning Environment". This workshop was led by librarians from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who discussed the process of planning and building their brand new library. In particular, we worked through a series of useful planning exercises for determining the types of facilities and learning environments that an effective academic library should have. From this workshop, I gained a new perspective on how modern patrons utilize the library for multiple purposes and how to develop plans for structuring a library to accommodate diverse needs and learning environments.

And from that point forward, I conducted closer observations of how library staff, students and faculty used the English Library: While the English Library's predominant use was by students needing a quiet study space, there were also study groups and my attempts to reconfigure the library into a rather constrained instruction classroom. I also tried to gather comments from students and faculty, and I also held a meeting with the English department's Library committee to review the new library's blueprint plans. I drew upon all of these observations and anecdotes to contribute my opinions during the renovation planning process, and my colleagues similarly drew upon their interactions with patrons to decide how the new library would be laid out. After the final decisions, the renovation of the space for the new library was carried out from November 2010 through early January 2011.


The integration of English Library's services into the new Literatures and Languages Library primarily consisted of two aspects: the work of the individual subject specialist and the library-wide services provided by collaborative work of the library staff. The latter was addressed primarily through the planning of the Implementation Team: we discussed the ways in which the five subject specialists in the new Literatures and Languages Library--three specialists from the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library and two of us from the English Library--would collaborate on reference and research services. We also planned to provide a slate of unique research tools in the new unit, such as a seminar room equipped with digital media tools. We also envisioned establishing a program of events and exhibits in the new library, and building the new library's website to create connections with users through social networking applications in addition to promoting the library's services.

As a subject specialist, I considered ways in which my specialized services to users could be enhanced in this new unit. Possibilities included conducting more in-depth reference and research consultations with the added subject expertise of my new colleagues; teaching instruction sessions in the new library's more expansive space; and pursuing additional strategies for embedded librarianship in the departments and centers to which I serve as a liaison.

Given that the Literatures and Languages Library only opened a month ago, the integration of services is still occurring and services will continue to evolve as the new library establishes itself.


The process of closing the English Library and merging its collections and services into a new unit was a challenging but instructive experience. I learned years' worth of knowledge about the library's collections, services, and day-to-day functions over those first eleven months. And in a way, I finally got to know the English Library just as I locked its door for the last time. But the future of library services for the humanities is very bright in the Literatures and Languages Library, and my work already has gained fascinating new tasks and challenges that I look forward to pursuing in the coming years.

Harriett Green is the English and Digital Humanities Librarian and assistant professor of library administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bibliography & Recommended Readings
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  • Council on Library and Information Resources. The Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005.
  • Davenport, Nancy. “Digital Libraries and Librarians of the 21st Century.” Journal of Library Administration 46, 1 (2007): 89-97.
  • Grafton, Anthony. “Future Reading.” The New Yorker 83 (Nov 5, 2007): 50.
  • Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg. “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age.” Project Information Literacy Progress Report. Seattle, WA: Project Information Literacy Project, December 1, 2009.
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  • JISC and British Library. Information Behavior of the Researcher of the Future. London: JISC, 2008. Retrieved online at
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