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Wilson Library set to close for years amid safety renovations

The exterior of Wilson Library fills the frame. It is a classical building with a big staircase, tall columns, and a dome. A student on a scooter passes by the front walkway.
Jon Gardiner
University Libraries, UNC-Chapel Hill
Wilson Library is centrally located on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus. It opened in 1929, with the east and west wings added in 1952.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library will undergo an approximately three-year renovation project, closing the campus landmark for years.

Significant impacts from the Wilson Library Improvement Project will tentatively begin next summer, with the building expected to fully close to the public from 2025 through 2027.

University officials said the $31 million project will bring Wilson Library up to modern safety codes by adding emergency egress stairs, extending sprinkler coverage, and updating the fire alarm system.

The building has not been renovated since the 1980s, when it reopened as the home of the library's special collections. These collections contain millions of archival materials, thousands of rare and special books, and other items meant to aid students and researchers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

A library room is lit with natural light and chandeliers. The room has several long wood tables. Three students sit at tables, looking at books or other materials from the special collections.
Ken A. Huth
University Libraries, UNC-Chapel Hill
In Wilson Library's research room, students and researchers can access materials from the special collections, like centuries-old rare books.

University librarian María Estorino said the collections attract researchers from across the country and world, and more than half of the researchers who use the collections are unaffiliated with UNC.

Beginning August 2024, the library's special collections will be unavailable. During renovations, the collections will be moved off-site and placed in storage. Estorino said there is concern for how the renovation project will impact researchers.

"We've announced this project at this time precisely because of that," she said. "We want to give people enough time to make plans, and to let us know what it is that they're working on, what it is that they're gonna need, so that we can help people prepare."

While the collections won't be accessible in person, Estorino added that library staff have been digitizing content from the collections for almost 30 years.

A view of the main reading room in Wilson Library. Wooden tables sit in rows on a black and white checkered floor. Green columns act as a gateway into the room, lit by arched windows and chandeliers hanging from a decorative ceiling.
Mark Perry
University Libraries, UNC-Chapel Hill
The Fearrington Reading Room is a common destination for students seeking to study in silence. The room is expected to remain open during the library's improvement project until the spring of 2025.

"That doesn't mean that everything is digitized,” she said. “But, we have very robust digital collections that will allow us to continue to support some level of research, and also some level of instruction.”

In a November meeting, Estorino said that the state Department of Insurance told the library in 2008 that no construction was allowed on Wilson Library until the building was brought up to code, particularly in regards to fire safety. The library could continue to operate, but with regulations on things like the library’s hours.

She said the goals of the renovations are to create a safer environment and lift building restrictions.

"This is a disruption to the library, to our communities that we serve, but it is also an investment," Estorino said. "Without doing this project, there's no other real construction project that we can undertake. If we get this done, and if we get it done right, I like to call this project the key that will unlock the future of Wilson Library."

The project's preliminary timeline indicates that areas like the Fearrington Reading Room – a common study spot – will remain open until spring of 2025. At that time, the library will close to the public and reopen in 2027, ahead of the library’s 100th anniversary in 2029.

Estorino said last fiscal year, Wilson Library had more than 54,000 visitors. Of that total, she estimated that fewer than 10% were researchers using the special collections.

"A lot of other people are visiting the building without necessarily accessing our collections," Estorino said. "We value both of these kinds of users. We want Wilson Library to remain a campus and state treasure, and a trusted repository for the kinds of collections that we steward in it for many more years to come."

The university launched a webpage for updates regarding the project. Questions can be emailed to wilsonproject@office.unc.edu.

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.