Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of working on a project researching the history and origins of the Sloane Art Library. While rummaging through the Art Department’s old letters and administrative files might not sound like a fascinating way to spend time to everyone, my time in the University Archives at Wilson Library has revealed a surprisingly gripping narrative. Though many side stories attracted my attention, the main tale of the Art Library’s founding seems to be one of constant, dogged perseverance in the face of a troubled economy and an intransigent government.
The Sloane Art Library’s early history is inextricable from the history of the Ackland Art Museum. The first evidence in the archives of discussion of either the Art Library or the Ackland is in a 1951 report to Chancellor R.B. House from the “Committee on the Ackland Memorial,” in which the members discuss their plans to build an arts center in the “Fine Arts Area” of campus.
Envisioned as a combination gallery and art department in which teaching would be facilitated by the presence of art, the plan was to include “the development of the Art Reference Library, housing books, prints, photographs and slides, for research and the teaching of art.” Later documents from 1953 detail more specific plans for this library, including:
- A main reading room, office space for a librarian, and a “typing room”
- Smaller reading rooms for classes
- Shelving for 5000 books
- An accessible “back stack”
- A slide room and a file room for photos and prints
- A vault for small valuable objects
- Offices for the library’s art historian staff
- Adequate table space for 30 readers
- Spaces for 12-15 graduate students
- 4 individual study rooms for faculty and researchers
- An open-air reading room
At first, the path seemed smooth for the Art Library. Grounds work was in progress on the Ackland complex by 1958, and the Ackland had an opening ceremony the same year. However, it seems that some problems were already beginning to surface just a year later, in 1959:
“The enclosed sketch shows why the [roof] canopy leaks. The rain water fills the channels faster than the water runs off so that drops hitting it splash up around the edge of the trough and drop below in quantity. I do not know if the design is defective or the installation, but in either case, the thing leaks like a sieve.”
In 1966, plans were beginning for what would eventually become the Hanes Art Center. A “Defense of an Appropriation for an Art Building at UNC Chapel Hill” complained that the current library space was completely full (in terms of both books and people), had inadequate work space for librarians, and not enough study space. Unfortunately, in 1967 the art building was excised from the governor’s budget, prompting Joseph Sloane (then Director of the Ackland Art Museum, including the Art Library) to write to Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson: “Sadly enough, we all know that sweet reason is not what the Legislature is most likely to listen to.”
These hard times, described in another letter from Sloane as “the Art Department’s wanderjahre,” lasted for another twelve years, with a total blackout on new construction in 1969 and another ignored request for funding in 1970. At long last, in 1978, discussion of the new building resumed, and in 1979 building plans were once more being reviewed, this time with a new architectural firm.
I have many more files to go through, and more questions to answer: when was the library finally completed? What was the turning point for getting construction done? When did the Art Library go from being part of the Ackland to become part of the University Library system?
I’ll return to you with some of these answers in a later installment!
– Eva Sclippa