When students were asked what they’d  like to see more of at Milner Library, the answer was surprising.

Outlets. No one said books, and a wander through the six floors tells you why.

Students lean over laptops clicking away, occasionally stopping to highlight in a textbook, answer a text, or take a sip from a Red Bull. One scribbled a formula on a white board. Math education majors worked a geometry proof on a laptop they shared at a pub-height table for four.

Milner Library still smells like books, but there isn’t much else to remind graduates of the hours they spent studying there. There’s not a blonde oak card catalog with those narrow sliding drawers to be found. Microfiche machines on the second floor have been replaced by 21 flat screens with DVDs and shelves of titles. There are vending machines on the first floor. And since Milner is open 24 hours during finals, students have sleepovers among the stacks, ordering pizzas and subs that arrive on the third floor.

The flash mob that kicks off finals week would never have been contemplated and certainly not allowed in the stacks decades ago. The 10-minute choreographed scene attracts hundreds of chanting students. Other days they might be rehearsing dance steps in a corner, curling up in an upholstered wing chair with a borrowed Milner iPad, or creating a YouTube clip holding a Bluetooth wireless microphone in a podcast and video room. The rooms with acoustical panels are designed for digital media artists, who can use the space without advance reservation.

Milner provides the technology students expect and need, including collaboration stations for team projects.

While undoubtedly still the place with a quiet reference room where research is serious business, the library has become so much more that the building is now known as “Club Milner.” The name was chalked on the sidewalk one day and quickly embraced by staff and students.

That’s fine with Dean of University Libraries Sohair Wastawy, who is encouraged by the affinity students have for Milner—especially at a time when some may wonder why anybody goes to a library with so many resources available online.

Wastawy spends part of each day circulating among the students, quietly observing throughout the building. Each floor has its own personality, from the social atmosphere on the third floor to the maximum-quiet fifth floor, where the only sound is of pages turning and air moving through the ducts. She notes that maybe one out of 100 students is looking at a library book, yet the building’s jammed during peak periods.

On a typical day, more than 2,000 students are plugged into Milner’s wireless network. Reference questions arrive as texts or through instant messages, giving students personalized and immediate access to librarians. More than 100,000 e-books are available, and iPads and laptops can be checked out for three-hour intervals.

“People have not stopped coming to this space,” Wastawy said. “They just use the library in different ways, as a study space where they are able to access information. It is a quiet place, a place that facilitates learning and where they can get help.”

A Fulbright Scholar and internationally recognized librarian, Wastawy has been at Milner’s helm since June of 2010. She arrived at Illinois State after serving as chief librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina/Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Wastawy came to campus with the goal of “creating innovative and emergent services for the ever-changing information environment.” Her vision for the library is a crossroads for intellectual, social, and cultural learning. She notes that it is no longer unusual for university libraries to incorporate fine arts galleries, theaters, lecture space, and interactive exhibits.

“We cannot keep libraries the same exact way. We cannot hope that our students will use the old technology. Hope is not a strategy for us,” she said. “We need to change; we need to transform; we need to find new ways to deliver information. And we are after the whole person, not just the brain.”

While some may be initially surprised by the paradigm shift, students appreciate a library that meets their techno-savvy generation’s needs. Math education major Dave Irsay said he can’t study in his apartment, so he heads to the third floor where students meet at tables where they can plug in their laptops and wheel around chairs.

“An hour spent here is like three hours at home,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d study without Milner.”

He worked through the geometry proof with Jessica Ronnau of the same major, who pulled the problem up on her laptop, which was linked to a flat screen at their table. “Our teacher does this in class, so now it’s like we’re in his seat,” she said. “It’s a nice sense of community here. We mingle. I like the third floor because you can talk.”

On Friday nights, when traffic is down, Club Milner offers far more than a place to collaborate. It’s then students come to the library to check out entertainment in an alcohol-free atmosphere.

Performances range from stand-up comedians to poetry readings and music nights, with students invited to bring instruments. During election season, they’re offered political soapboxes. “It is really giving the building back to the students,” Wastawy said. “It belongs to them and they learn by doing, by hearing, by interacting.”

Nighttime library specialist Heather Kosur ’07 has seen some of the more humorous of these interactions during her shift, which stretches until 1 a.m. Students have tried to smuggle in small dogs. A group dressed as ninjas made the rounds twice a night during finals week, striking silent ninja poses on each floor.

Students lounge in Milner Library.

“It was a fun and harmless way to let off some steam during a rather stressful time of the semester,” she said. “Those of us at the desk were cracking up laughing.”

That’s a far different environment than remembered by Chris Burke ’92, who recalled being overly tired studying for finals one night. He leaned a little too far back his chair and fell over, knocking a pile of books off the table. While it got a big laugh, he was quickly kicked out of the library.

Atmosphere isn’t all that’s changed at Milner, which underwent a significant physical makeover last summer. Because students needed more work space, books that hadn’t circulated in three to 10 years were moved to storage. The stacks were replaced with tables and “collaboration stations,” which allow students to plug in their electronic devices and see their work on flat screens.

Another of Wastawy’s priorities has been to add seating, as students had been parked on the floor or lining the steps during peak times. Now there’s seating for 1,500, including bean bag chairs students move around. The concrete walls in the stairwell have been painted and the 37-year-old carpet was replaced—revealing underneath more than 500 pounds of dirt that was sucked away.

And yet there are reminders of the Milner alumni remember. While the card catalogs have disappeared, 209 cards were pulled for a commissioned piece of art in the stairwell. Other art installed includes scrolls of the DNA helix and the Emancipation Proclamation. Pieces on loan from the University Galleries are displayed throughout the library.

“We wanted to give students a sense of renewal,” said Wastawy, who expresses an urgency in the library’s evolution because of the brief time students are on campus. “Every year you are losing 5,000 people. You have a window of opportunity between two and four years. If you wait, you miss a whole generation, and that is too much to lose.”

Assistant Dean Tom Peters agrees. He joined Milner last year with the realization that his role as librarian will continue to change in tandem with the services students expect and need. It used to be that once librarians helped a student find a book and checked it out, their job was done.

“The social contract was, ‘you know how to read, there’s natural light, go to it. You don’t need us anymore.’

Now people need help getting the most out of the information they’ve found,” Peters said.

Changes made by Dean of University Libraries Sohair Wastawy include the addition of art and a DVD viewing area, above, where the microfiche machines once stood.

He and Wastawy have no qualms that libraries will become extinct, even as they acknowledge that facts and figures are accessible within seconds of a person putting fingertips to a smartphone. Instead of feeling threatened, they see an opportunity to maximize technology with even better customer service, both for those from afar and within the building.

“We still see a lot of people coming to the library because we’re human beings. We need to congregate. You want to go someplace where there are others like you,” said Peters, who is convinced “the future for libraries is to design an information system and let users finish it.”

And they do. For example, users add value to what they find by posting their comments or tagging photos in the virtual world. It’s a radical and welcomed shift from the past, when patrons would be in serious trouble for suggesting another book on a topic by writing on a card in a catalog drawer.

Today, in what Wastawy calls “the new library,” ideas are encouraged and voices amplified—beginning with a white board at the entrance that asks students to respond to posted questions such as what they want to do before they die to where they were when they lost their cell phone. It’s just one of many ways Wastawy has created a vibrant library at the University’s core.

“We need to continue reinventing because this is the one place that all the students have in common, more than the cafeteria or the dorms or any other social place on campus,” she said. “It’s where they learn. It’s an extension of the classroom.”


One of the best ways to demonstrate how much Milner Library has changed from the days of housing nothing but books in Old Main, and later Old Union, is to take a look at some fun facts. The data below reflects usage from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

1.6 million Books in the collection— only 8 percent circulate

590,143 Website visitors

354,327 Visitors through the doors

100,000 E-books, with the count growing almost daily

68,294 Electronic journals

36,741 Visitors asked a question at the reference desk

3,461 Instant message questions received, along with 1,322 email questions

3,390 Electronic devices were connected to the wireless network in a single day

3,000 Doughnuts were consumed during finals week study breaks, along with 1,080 cups of coffee, 850 cups of hot chocolate, and 200 cups of tea

1,500 Seats available

3 Hours is the time you can borrow an iPad or laptop

3 Flash mobs have gathered


Alumni and current students shared their favorite Milner moments on Illinois State’s Facebook page. Their comments reflect how crucial the library always has been and remains a core element of campus life.

Alyssa Palumbo, freshman

“First time I walked into Milner, I was so amazed by how big it is and was overwhelmed by all the books. I was exploring and climbing up the stairs. I turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘I swear this place is like Hogwarts. The stairs are going to change any second now.’”

Craig Bertsche ’92

“I was a night supervisor in ’91 and ’92. We spent several nights chasing the Milner Flasher. Sadly, we never caught him.”

Lokender Reddy, master’s student

“When I walked into Milner to attend a meeting for our group project, I was early so I had to wait for awhile. It was a new feeling—a good feeling—the smell of paper, quiet rustling of pages at the desks, and students doing relaxing stretches.”

Amie Szymanski Zander ’99

“Makes me feel kind of old, but I loved the microfiche machines.”

Renee Brown, sophomore

“The instant message on the Milner Library website is the best thing ever invented. I was sick one time last year and still had to work on my English paper and I was having problems finding one last article. I went on the chat with the librarians and they helped me so much!”

Russ Goerlitz, former student

“It was my sanctuary to get away from the noise of my apartment complex. Really the only place I could work uninterrupted.”

Shelly Tarling-Wallace ’85, M.S. ’97

“I remember how nice it was to sit in the comfy chairs upstairs by the big windows and watch the sunset as I crammed for several finals.”


7 thoughts on “Changing student needs lead to new chapter at Milner

  1. Marlys Stern says:

    Dean Sohair Wastawy has brought the Milner Library into the 21st century ! She is a treasure and ISU is fortunate to have her leadership. I look forward to continuing to work on projects together. Milner Library is now the cultural center of Illinois State University because of her.

  2. Melissa says:

    The changes that have been brought to Milner Library has been AMAZING. Sohair Wastawy has brought ISU to a new level and the students are so grateful!! She is Definatley an asset!

  3. Carolyn Ewrin says:

    Making the library relavent in this new tecky world is just what Milner needed. Keep up the good work Ms Wastawy.

  4. Mike says:

    What a great, insightful article! To see the students reaction to the changes just shows how long overdue these changes are. Dr. Wastawy is just the breath of fresh air that Milner needed after being stagnant for so long. Thank you, Dr. Wastawy!!

  5. Noelle says:

    I am a 2010 ISU graduate and am now finishing my Master’s in Library and Information Science. I really want to visit the library and see these new changes. I loved it before though but I am glad to see the library embracing a more social role and becoming more student friendly.

  6. Beautiful post, and beautiful use of the library! I’m all about this way of thinking as the future for libraries. I see about 100-150 teens per day at my public library. They’re here to hang out and connect.

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