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Mergers and Makeovers: Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Mergers and Makeovers: Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


by Mary Elmquist and Nancy P. O’Brien


Libraries, generally, are constantly in states of change. Building standards change to create more accessible, more ecologically friendly spaces. Reference services are adapted to keep up with effective service practices and advances in technology. Even books evolve in materials or in format, but all of these transformations happen (hopefully) in service to a library’s patrons. In the last decade, the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library (SSHEL) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has undergone major changes—most notably, its creation via the merger of several departmental libraries and collections on campus. These changes are still ongoing, and with each one this library hopes to become better for its patrons, with better services, better spaces, and better resources than ever before.


The facade of a large, four-story, red brick buliding. Three entry doors are framed on either side and above by large windows, and prominent chimneys, spaced between dormer windows, rise from the roof into a clear sky.


The University of Illinois Main Library building. SSHEL is on the first floor in two rooms on either side of the entrance pictured here.


SSHEL Yesterday


In 2012, the Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officially opened a merged library that brought together materials from the former Applied Health Sciences Library, Education and Social Science Library, and Library and Information Science Library, along with a variety of other collections in order to create the new Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library. Plans for the new library had begun several years earlier with the goal of creating a central hub for social and applied health science topics in the Main Library building to provide efficient and effective services to patrons interested in those areas.


During this reorganization, SSHEL would take over the physical spaces occupied by the Business and Economics Library (which was itself undergoing some organizational changes) and the Education and Social Science Library. These spaces would be adapted to be open and collaborative, with new group study rooms and new technologies, while still retaining important access to collections and traditional materials. The balance struck during this extensive project has shaped the way SSHEL has evolved and the services and materials it offers today.


A mostly bare room with stripped floors and plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling is clearly in the process of significant renovations. A few buckets and some carts and tools are scattered around the room.


SSHEL North under construction during the renovation and merger.




Currently, SSHEL collects resources for students, faculty, and community members in nineteen major subject areas. Covering almost 20 thousand square feet and with seating for more than 250 students, SSHEL is split across two spaces on either side of the entrance to the University’s Main Library building. SSHEL employs six subject librarians, five civil service staff, four reference graduate assistants, and around twenty undergraduate circulation assistants to aid patrons and manage the Library’s collections.


SSHEL’s rooms on the north side of the building (known as SSHEL North) are home to the information desk, reference collections, and the Library’s extensive collection of children’s and young adult books and educational materials. This side of the library also includes two collaboration rooms for group study along with individual and large study tables scattered throughout the room. SSHEL South, the entrance to which is directly opposite the north room, contains the majority of the main circulating collection and a designated quiet study area.


Because SSHEL also serves a wide variety of online students through its specialty areas, the SSHEL website features extensive subject resource guides to bring its services to students who may rarely have the opportunity to walk through the doors of the building. SSHEL also offers virtual reference services to distance patrons via email, phone, and chat services.


A sign above an interior doorway announces the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library, while light pours in from an adjacent exterior glass door.


The entrance to SSHEL North, with the exterior building entrance directly beside it.


SSHEL is home to some unique collections that supplement the subject areas that it covers. The Curriculum Collection contains a wide variety of textbooks, curriculum guides, publisher catalogs, and multimedia materials and kits meant to aid students in education courses at the University. SSHEL also keeps copies of assessment instruments for study by students and researchers, especially in the Speech and Hearing Science department. More recently, the Library has acquired a variety of anatomical models which are available for check-out by students in applied health sciences programs who need a closer look at particular parts of the human body related to speech. Perhaps the most extraordinary collection in SSHEL, however, is the Merten J. Mandeville Collection in the Occult Sciences. Through a 1966 gift from Mandeville, a professor of management at the University of Illinois, SSHEL collects scholarly materials on paranormal topics such as astrology, divination, spiritualism, and witchcraft.


A variety of books on topics such as UFOs, spiritualism, and psychic phenomena are displayed in a library exhibit case.


A display case in SSHEL South features books from the Mandeville Collection in the Occult Sciences.


SSHEL Tomorrow


Change may be inevitable, but it is certainly not all negative. In the past decade, SSHEL has been able to change and adapt in major ways and still continue to provide the services and resources that its patrons want and need. By bringing the same level of thought and dedication to the Library’s patrons and the field of librarianship into the next ten years, SSHEL intends to continuously improve, no matter what the future brings.


A statue of an ammonite-like shell sits on a sunny windowsill


The statue of a shell that sits on a windowsill in the library is a symbol for the library and a play on its name.


To keep up with future changes and updates from SSHEL, follow the SSHEL Facebook page!


Copyright 2019 by Mary Elmquist and Nancy P. O’Brien.


About the Authors:


Mary Elmquist is a Graduate Assistant in the Social Sciences, Health and Education Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MSLIS candidate (May ’19) in the School of Information Sciences. She is interested in open access and scholarly communications topics, the use of comics in scholarship, and library services to LGBTQ+ patrons.


Nancy P. O'Brien is Professor and Head of the Social Sciences, Health, and Education Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She is the 1997 Distinguished Education and Behavioral Sciences Librarian (Association of College and Research Libraries).  Her publications focus on the history, organization, and preservation of education resources in libraries.