In its earliest stages, the University of Michigan Library was a small collection kept in the home of one of the University’s professors. In 1841, the Library moved into the University’s Main Building. It later grew to inhabit larger spaces in the North University Building and the Law Building. The Library first received its own building in 1883, with the completion of the Old General Library.

The following pages give a brief history of how University Library buildings have changed and grown.


Old General Library

The Old General Library opened in 1883. The completion of this library building marked the first time the University of Michigan had a building dedicated to its Library, which was necessary to accommodate the growing collection and rising University population. 

Before the Old General Library was built, the University Library was kept in the Law Building. In that space, only 6% of the University’s students could fit in the library at a time. A lecture hall sat above the reading room, causing noise and other disturbances several times a day. Furthermore, the Library was not in a fireproof building, which was dangerous for the 30,000-volume collection.

“If our library were destroyed, small as it is, it would be difficult, indeed almost impossible, to replace it,” wrote a group of University administrators to the Board of Regents, when making their case for a new Library building.

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Exterior view of the Old General Library


Exterior of the Old General Library

Once completed, the Old General Library had a round reading room with a dome-shaped ceiling. Though this room could fit more students than the previous library configuration, men and women were required to sit on opposite sides. 


Reading Room of the Old General Library


Reading Room of the Old General Library

New General Library

In the early 20th century, the University Library was once again outgrowing its space. In the Old General Library, “the Reading Rooms were crowded and noisy, the staff rooms were so small…people literally rubbed elbows, two at a single desk. [Many] aisles were almost impassable. The case was literally desperate,” wrote William Warner Bishop, University Librarian, about the Old General Library.

In 1916, the original library building was demolished to make way for a larger library, known today as the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. This new building had seats for one thousand students and space for one million volumes.

In his dedication of the New General Library, Librarian Bishop wrote:

“What does this new building mean to the University? Of course, an ample, quiet, comfortable place in which to read and study. But much more. It is an outward and visible expression of two things of the spirit which go far toward making true scholarship: service and learning.”


Construction of the new General Library

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Construction of the new General Library


Construction of the new General Library

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Exterior of the new General Library

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Circulation Desk at the new General Library

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Study hall at the new General Library

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Library staff on the steps of the General Library

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Exterior of the new General Library

Undergraduate Library

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Construction begins on the Undergraduate Library


The Undergraduate Library opened in 1958. At the time, it was “the second library of its kind in this country.” The only other University to have its undergraduate library in a separate building was Harvard.

The original Undergraduate Library had a plain exterior, with brightly colored décor on the inside, earning it the nickname “the UGLi.” Nearly 40 years later, the building was renovated. It reopened as the Shapiro Undergraduate Library in 1995.


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Exterior View

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Study Area

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Study Area

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Multi-Purpose Room