Library walkway spans years of NIU history

By Chris Nelson

Just about everyone has dreams about visiting an exotic location.

It could be standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, climbing atop Mt. Everest, or looking out across Paris from the Eiffel Tower. Whatever the dream might be, it surely seems millions of miles away from DeKalb, Ill.

Yet, there is a place not too far from any one of us that has sparked the interest of many people coming to the area. People aspire to arrive at this destination, but few, if any, can say they have.

The “place” in question here is the pedestrian walkway that joins Founders Memorial Library and Swen Parson Hall, stretching across Normal Road.

The story begins all the way back in 1972, when the university decided to build Founders Memorial Library to accommodate upper class and graduate student course work. Initial plans retained the original Swen Parson Library, consequently making the idea of a walkway feasible. In fact, almost all descriptions of the proposed library construction noted the walkway.

Founders was completed in 1976, was fully stocked and open to student use in 1977. A university press release from April of 1977 stated that a group of 50 students spent a month carting books from Parson Library to Founders using the walkway.

Later in the same press release, then-NIU President William R. Monat stated that the new library was “the heart of the university’s purpose.” Little did anyone know that the university was about to close off one of the library’s ventricles just a short time later.

The beginning of the end for the walkway came in February of 1979 when the university installed an electronic book detection system in Founders. An audit of library materials showed that 10,800 volumes of library materials were missing. At an average cost of $15 per volume, the library was forced to spend $162,000 to replace stolen materials.

The detection devices used at other schools at the time reportedly cut losses 70-85 percent. With such reductions in thefts, the library also would save money in the area administration. The staff would be able to save time trying to track down long-gone materials. Also, as one university spokesperson said at the time, the system would “eliminate the need for guards.”

This prediction, however, proved to be idealistic. When an alarm goes off, it is necessary to have library personnel in the area to make the necessary checks. To staff the secondary exit—the walkway—would be an economic strain.

Contributing to the walkway’s demise was the establishment of NIU’s College of Law. The new department was given Swen Parson as its home, and Founders then became the university’s central library. The two buildings became independent of one another, precluding the need for a common walkway.

So on Aug. 27, 1980, the walkway was officially closed to traffic.

The next question is then, now that it’s almost 13 years after the fact, is there any chance that the walkway might be reopened?

Well, yes, but only if the library is on fire.

According to Elizabeth Titus, associate director of the University Libraries, the walkway is designated as an exit in the event of an emergency. Otherwise, the walkway is seldom used.

“The walkway goes into a non-public area of the Law School,” said Titus.

“In addition, it is not wise to have more than one common exit for a library,” Titus said, alluding to the walkway’s security risk.

Titus also mentioned that the years have begun to catch up with the structure.

“When it rains, the walkway’s roof leaks,” Titus said. “It’s just another variable in the decision to keep the path closed.”