Memorial Library turns 50

September 9, 2003

Memorial library opened to patrons for the first time 50 years ago on Sept. 17. The opening closed a long chapter during which the university sought a separate building that would be large enough to hold the main University Library collections.

By 1950, the University Library, housed in cramped quarters in the northern wing of the State Historical Society, was facing a student enrollment 10 times larger than it was designed to serve. Months of prodding by President E.B. Fred and the university had persuaded the governor and the Legislature to make the largest investment in the city of Madison since the building of the Capitol.

On a sunny Monday in July 1950, hundreds of students, faculty and Madison residents joined Gov. Oscar Rennebohm and President Fred in breaking ground near what is now Library Mall. The construction project included building an elevator outside the Historical Society so that workers could move the University Library’s 600,000 volumes onto trucks on Park Street.

Memorial Library was dedicated “to the men and women who served in the armed forces of the United States in World War II.” Subsequent dedications honor those who served in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The original building stood five stories high, filled with long marble corridors and oak-paneled reading rooms, and faced in pink North Carolina granite. It could house 1.5 million volumes and seat as many as 1,800 people. And it included what then were considered state-of-the-art features: a spacious periodical room, soundproofed cubicles, a TV-radio experimental workshop and vaults for rare books.

Sealed in a time capsule at the library’s cornerstone are the pen Rennebohm used to allocate funding for the project, good-luck coins from the construction crew and a toy red shovel used by a 2-year-old girl at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Today Memorial Library — following renovations in 1974 and 1990 — holds more than 3.5 million volumes, the largest single library collection in the state. More than 1 million patrons visit annually.

Black and white photo of students studying in a large reading room in 1953.

Students study in room 124, one of four large reading rooms, in 1953 — a time when Memorial Library also offered typewriters that students could rent. Historical photos courtesty UW–Madison Archives.

Black and white photo of the card catalog at Memorial Library in 1954.

Above: A student uses the card catalog in 1954. Below: Today, rather than looking through hundreds of cards, patrons can go online to review the catalog, borrow a book or request an article — or to use Live Help, a service that allows faculty, staff and students to chat or do instant messaging with reference librarians in real time on the Web. Contemporary photos: Michael Forster Rothbart

Photo of a student using today's online catalog.

Photo of one of Memorial Library's state of the art lecture halls.

The large reading room of earlier times has been remodeled into two spaces, including this state-of-the-art lecture hall supported by the UW Foundation’s Parents Enrichment Fund. Here reference librarian Helene Androski trains sociology teaching assistants so they, in turn, can help undergraduates to use the library’s social science databases and other electronic resources.