Memory Lane: An Underground Lair

The Undergraduate Library was a second home for Illinois students

Why was the Undergraduate Library built underground? “Cause you can’t throw shade on the corn,” as the popular student a cappella group The Other Guys sing in their “Morrow Plots Song,” about the University’s world-famous experimental fields to the east of UGL. (Image courtesy of Illini Media)
The Undergraduate Library was a second home for Illinois students

As the proverb says, all good things must come to an end. And of all the good things at Illinois, few were as beloved as the Undergraduate Library (UGL), the underground icon that was as representative of the U of I as anything this side of the Alma Mater.

This past May, the UGL permanently closed, as part of a years-long plan by the University Library to renovate the building. One day, it will house the U of I’s Archives and Special Collections.

But for generations of Illinois alumni, the building will forever remain the Undergraduate Library. Since 1969, it had served as a second home on campus for thousands upon thousands of students—a place where they “felt a sense of community,” says Gregg Homerding, ’85 LAS.

On any given day, in any given semester, a stroll through the UGL’s subterranean rooms would display a microcosm of the college experience: students writing research papers, hanging out with friends, working on group projects, cramming for midterms or making a date with a new crush—all the mundane and majestic things that make up a student’s life.

Any observer could tell that the UGL was not just a study space. It was also a social organism, with a unique vibe that led to its very non-academic nickname: “Club UGL.” It was a place where students came to see and be seen, to study or not to study, and for many, it became a small, but important part, of their personal history.

For some, such as Jeanne Kron Bellezzo, ’86 BUS, it was the place where they drank their first-ever cup of coffee, beginning a lifelong love for that beautiful bean. For others, like Nicholaus Gamsby, ’17 LAS, and Jill Braun Gamsby, ’17 ACES, it was the meeting place for their first date, on the eventual road to marriage.

Dedicated in 1969, the facility served for more than 50 years as a familiar space for learning and socializing. (Image courtesy of UI Public Affairs)

Alumni from the 20th century fondly remember the UGL in an analog age of hard copies and hi-fis. Out-of-state students, such as Tammy Hart Fales, ’84 LAS, went there on weekends to read their hometown newspapers. Music fans, like Joseph McInerney, ’85 BUS, spent some of the best hours of their lives in the Audio Center, listening to LPs. And information seekers, such as Elaine Caveny Stone, ’91 ACES, and Pam Swan Lovett, ’94 AHS, tacked handwritten queries on the UGL Question Board several times a week. (It was “the original Illini Google,” Stone says.)

For students from the 21st century, like Marissa Finley, ’20 LAS, the UGL was a more digital experience, the place where they pulled all-nighters for final exams, punctuated by video game breaks in the Media Center or smartphone breaks at Espresso Royale.

Others remember the myriad ways that one could procrastinate in the tunnel between UGL and the Main Library: by catching up over an iced latte, getting Combos from the vending machines, engaging in the time-honored tradition of people-watching or weathering a springtime tornado with 200 of their newest friends.

These are only a fraction of the stories alumni could tell about the UGL—what they did there and what it means to them, and how they feel about its closing.

An undergraduate studies in UGL during the pandemic, 2021. (Image courtesy of UI Public Affairs)

As they enter a world in which the UGL does not exist, let them continue to remember it in the years ahead—to recall the distinctive smell of books and earth; those almost-impossible-to-open doors; the enormous windows, giving the gift of natural light from the center courtyard; that bathroom graffiti, which was surely the best on campus; and the scores of other qualities that made the UGL a one-of-a-kind destination that can never be replaced.

Above all, let them be thankful for the sense of community they felt within its walls and for the opportunities it gave them, day after day, to live and work and play in a building that was for them and them alone: undergrads at the Undergrad, U of I, 1969–2022.