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Graduate students prepare to lose access to research materials amid Wilson Library construction

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James Bryan, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Environment, poses for a portrait in front of Wilson Library on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Graduate students are preparing for the impacts that the upcoming closure of Wilson Library for renovations may have on the completion of their academic research and theses. 

While the library will close in the spring of 2025, beginning in August, the library’s special collections — any library and archival materials that are rare or unique — will be moved off-site for protection.

Digital collections can be accessed on the library’s catalog, but non-digitized collections will be inaccessible until the project’s completion in 2027.

James Bryan, a Ph.D student in the department of geography and environment, said Wilson Library’s amount of archival materials was a significant part of his decision to attend UNC.

Two months into his first semester, he learned of the library’s construction and had to adjust the timeline for his research, he said.

“I won't be able to go home this summer, like I had originally planned,” Bryan said. “I will have to sprint through the eight to 10 different collections that have been highlighted to me, as fast as possible, and so we'll see how that goes.”

Instead of spending his first year familiarizing himself with the collections sparingly, Bryan said he now has until the end of July to access in-person materials for his research.

He also said that he expects to face competition for access to the collections he wants to engage with, because other graduate students may have also sped up their research timelines due to the construction.

There are five units of special collections at Wilson Library containing university, state or Southern historical materials.

Elizabeth Ott, the interim associate University librarian for special collections and director of Wilson Library, said in an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel that graduate students and researchers can notify library officials of any materials they will need to access during the construction period through a form on the library’s website.

“In some cases, we may be able to point individuals to existing digital collections, or to similar or related collections at another library that can help with research,” she said. “Depending on individual needs, we may even be able to digitize an item or small collection. The more we know about your work, the better we can plan and help individuals plan."

Jennifer Standish, a Ph.D candidate in the history department, works with the Southern Historical Collection. Shesaid she benefited from being able to take her time to look closely through the archives for her master’s thesis. 

“I think that not having access to the SHC is definitely going to be a loss for graduate researchers because they won't be able to have that luxury,” Standish said. “Especially because the SHC is just so extensive and so valuable for someone studying the South.”

Graduate students who do archival research for their theses typically have to travel for weeks, or even months, to view the materials they need, she said

There is the possibility for graduate students to share their research with the next classes of students post-closure, Standish said. However, Bryan said there may be limitations to this as the nature of graduate research is based on individual studies and different interests.

Fellow students have also taken the time to organize collaborative digitization efforts, but because of the extensive materials Wilson Library holds, it is difficult to digitize everything, Bryan said

So far, the library has acquired three million scans of special collection items, Ott said. In total, the library’s collections include about four million archival materials such as photographs, artifacts and artwork.

“The special collections at Wilson Library are a unique resource that we hold in trust,” Ott said. “We have a responsibility to make sure they remain safe and are preserved for generations to come.”

Bryan said he understands the need for renovations and has received support from archivists and other students at the University, but would have appreciated earlier communication. 

“I would have ended up here regardless,” Bryan said. “I will say, though, that I would have absolutely appreciated being informed of this ahead of time. I would have known that last semester, I need to start getting into this now.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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