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In subzero weather, students lug 130,000 volumes of books to new Monmouth College library on Jan. 21, 1970.

Fifty years ago today, Monmouth College students moved an entire library in sub-zero temperatures

Monday, January 20, marked the fifth straight year that Monmouth College has cancelled afternoon classes to allow students to participate in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

A dozen community agencies benefited and dozens of Monmouth students walked away with warm feelings after their volunteer efforts, but it’s doubtful that any service project will ever match the intensity of a Monmouth College volunteer effort that happened 50 years ago today.

Classes were also cancelled on Jan. 21, 1970 — a day when the temperature never rose above zero.

Beginning at 9 a.m., the entire 130,000 volume collection of the old Carnegie Library was carried through wind and snow by students and employees down the hill to the new Hewes Library. The human conveyor belt not only had to battle frigid temperatures, but also maneuver through a construction zone in the quad, where the future Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center was being erected. Overseeing the project were 35 members of the Blue Key men’s service honorary society, who had extensively planned the event beginning the previous fall, along with Tau Pi senior women’s honorary and Tomahawk, an honorary for unaffiliated students.

A week before the move, the Oracle student newspaper had announced that the only thing that might delay the move would be the weather, and that should the temperature fall below zero, it would be rescheduled for the following week. Perhaps in honor of their organization’s name, however, the men of Blue Key decided that a little blue skin wouldn’t hurt anyone and decided against the postponement.

Volunteers, who had signed up in December, were divided into shifts, with faculty and fraternity members first on the job. At 9:30 a.m., sororities joined in the effort — with one enterprising coed bringing a sled to ease muscle strain. At 10 a.m., independent students and late sleepers arrived, bringing the total number of troops to approximately 800 — almost 200 more than had initially signed up. Throughout the day, President Duncan Wimpress inspired the volunteers by personally transporting books.

A mid-morning coffee break in the basement of the new library, served by the women of Tau Pi, brought welcome relief to the masses, who were weary from trudging back up the hill numerous times. As the day wore on, students began improvising new means of transport, using carts and wagons. An estimated 200,000 pounds of books were transported, and when Carnegie Library was emptied there would be a 6-inch gap above the Lally columns that had been installed in the basement to support the growing weight of books.

Fortunately, the new library would be capable of accommodating 300,000 volumes, although the top floor would not be finished until 2002 and would be used primarily for government document storage.

Despite the vastness of volumes and volunteers, the transfer was surprisingly orderly, thanks to head librarian Harris Hauge, who had devised a color-coding system, in which books were marked with slips of pink, green, red, white, blue, aqua and orange paper, corresponding to the area where they would be shelved in the new library. While the planned ending time was 4 p.m., volunteers continued working until 5:30. It was estimated that each person made more than 20 round trips during the day, each lasting about 15 minutes, and in all, approximately 10,000 round trips were made over nine hours.

During the day, volunteers consumed 49 gallons of coffee and 3,000 cookies, prepared by Saga Food Service.

The volunteer effort saved the College an estimated $3,000.

In celebration, Saga served a special buffet dinner that included a 28” x 30” Jell-O mold in the shape of a book, created by Chef Dale Buckert. After dinner, students danced to a live band in the newly vacant Carnegie Library.

Jeff Rankin is Monmouth College’s campus historian.

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Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter.

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