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University commemorates 50th Anniversary of Hesburgh Library

Christian Myers | Monday, September 23, 2013


The NBC broadcast of Saturday’s football game inevitably scanned the familiar image of the Hesburgh Library’s iconic “touchdown Jesus” mural, but this building has offered the Notre Dame community much more than a picturesque backdrop over the past 50 years.

The University will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hesburgh Library throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, and this celebration began with a kick-off event in the Library’s main concourse on Friday.

University Librarian Diane Parr Walker said an important goal of the year-long 50th anniversary celebration is to reconnect with both University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s initial vision for the Library and the meaning of the famous “Word of Life” mural.

Walker said when Hesburgh was initially planning the Library, which was the Memorial Library from its founding in 1963 until it was renamed the Theodore Hesburgh Library in 1987, he insisted that it be big enough to hold at least three million volumes.

She said the Hesburgh Library now holds four million volumes, but Hesburgh’s demand was ambitious because the University collection was only a quarter million volumes at the time.

“It was a really grand vision for the time, when this was still just a small liberal arts college,” she said.

In an interview with author Bill Schmitt for the book, “Words of Life: Celebrating 50 Years of Hesburgh Library’s Message, Mural, and Meaning,” Hesburgh said his vision for the Library was one of making Notre Dame intellectually vibrant so that it may serve the world.

“I wanted in 1963, and still desire today, for the Memorial Library literally to stand for the future of Notre Dame as a place of unmatched intellectual achievement, free inquiry and providential contributions to mankind,” Hesburgh said. “Let the Library be a place on this campus where that hunger for truth will keep getting stronger, supporting freedom and justice around the world, inspiring excellence and prodding us to bigger dreams.”

Walker said reconnecting with the meaning of the mural is also important because people recognize it, but few realize its purpose or recognize it’s the library. She said the “Word of Life” mural is about handing-down knowledge and thus illustrates the Library’s efforts.

“We like that, in addition to Christ the teacher, [the mural] depicts scholars and thinkers and the transmission of knowledge across time and space,” she said. “The mission of the Library we’re honoring is to connect people with knowledge across time and space.”




Friday’s event featured free commemorative bead necklaces, a giant “birthday” card, the opportunity to praise the Library in a video message, a book signing by Schmitt, live music from the Oblates of Blues and short speeches by Walker, Provost Tom Burish and University President Fr. John Jenkins. Au Bon Pain provided free cookies, cupcakes and bottled water as well.

Walker said the 50th anniversary is an “important milestone” and a chance to reflect on Hesburgh’s desire for Notre Dame to have “the best Catholic university library in the world.”

She said it is important to consider how far the Library has come. She said what was once a physical card catalog is now fully digital and what was once a small private collections is now a large and diverse collection accessible to academics worldwide.

“Scholars from around the world can benefit from our unique treasures without leaving the comfort of their own offices,” she said.

Next to speak, University Provost Tom Burish said he spent a good deal of time in the library as an undergraduate at Notre Dame and even carved his name into a library desk while studying for his final psychology exam at the University.

Burish said the celebration was about thanking Hesburgh and remembering the past, but also about committing to prepare the Library for the next 50 years.

“We’re not only here to remember the past,” Burish said. “We’re here to talk about the library of the 21st century and to commit on this 50th anniversary to create that library right here.”

Burish said this commitment entails continually evaluating and reevaluating the Library’s offerings to understand which services would benefit from change and which would not.

“We’ve got to know what to change and what not to change,” he said.

The success of this commitment will be determined by the experiences of students and faculty 50 years from now, he said.

“I hope that a student in 2073 that decides to carve, or lase, their name into a desk finds that it is the same wonderful library it was for students and faculty before,” Burish said.

University President Fr. John Jenkins, following Burish, said he also spent a lot of time in the library during his undergraduate years and liked to study at a specific fourth floor desk, but did not carve his name into the desk.

Jenkins said the purpose of the day’s event was to simultaneously celebrate the past and future of the Hesburgh Library.

“We honor a great, great past and a great, great vision, but we also celebrate a great, great future,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins also blessed the Library on its 50th anniversary, blessing the “search for truth” which he said the Library represented.

Roger Huang, dean of the Mendoza college of business, was in attendance for the 50th anniversary celebration.

Huang said he attended the event because of the importance of the Library to the University community and personal friendship with Walker.

“The Library is an integral part of our Notre Dame life and Diane is a great friend,” Huang said. “I want to wish the Library a very big ‘happy birthday,’ and I hope for 50 years of great things to come.”




Bill Schmitt signed copies of his book “Words of Life: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hesburgh Library’s Message, Mural, and Meaning” during the event on Friday.

Schmitt said he wrote the book as a means of commemorating the Library’s anniversary and what the anniversary means for the University.

“The goal of the book is to celebrate Notre Dame through the celebration of the building and its history as well as its future,” he said. “It’s a reminder that libraries are about people as much as they are about books and information in general.”

Schmitt said the idea for the book came from the Office of the University Librarian and other University administrators.

“They realized what a lot of people don’t realize: There are a lot of stories that are representative of Notre Dame in the Library’s history,” he said. “The Library tells a lot of those stories not just as a building but as a crossroads of the campus.”

Schmitt said he was asked to write the book because he has worked in communications at the University for about 10 years and had worked with the Library before in that capacity. He said he was then given autonomy and support in creating the concept, conducting interviews, choosing photos and editing the work.

The entire process took more than three years, and most of Schmitt’s work was done while also working his regular full-time communications job, he said. Schmitt said it was a challenging but enlightening experience.

“It was interesting to go through the process from beginning to end,” he said. “There is a wonderfully complex process behind producing a book … I learned just how valuable books are.”

Schmitt said he most enjoyed learning about the “Word of Life” mural and interviewing Hesburgh.

“I had several favorite parts,” he said. “One of them was learning about the tremendous talent and time that went into making the mural.

“One of the honors and pleasures was getting to know Fr. Ted [Hesburgh] better. He just loves the Library and everything it stands for, in terms of Notre Dame and in terms of the search for truth.”




University Librarian Diane Parr Walker said the library opened in Sept. 1963 and the “Word of Life” mural, also known as “touchdown Jesus,” was finished and the Library dedicated in May 1964. She said these two important dates will book-end the academic year as well as the 50th anniversary celebration.

Tara O’Leary, program director of communications and marketing for the Office of the University Librarian, said for the event on Friday, approximately 200 library employees, who were distinguished by their 50th anniversary t-shirts, assembled 10,000 necklaces and then worked to both distribute the necklaces and facilitate the card-signing and video messages during the event.

O’Leary said the event was followed up on game day with a booth in front of the Library offering the same necklaces and other hand-outs. She said this same booth will be set up for next three football home games.

The planning process for this extended anniversary celebration began over a year ago and the specific events were determined and organized over the course of the past six months, Walker said.

Walker said the 50th anniversary commemoration will also continue with academic lectures and other events throughout the year. This will include promotion of the new Center for Digital Scholarship, which opened on the first day of classes in August, she said.

The Center is an example of the Library’s continuing efforts to meet the changing needs of faculty and students, which is one of the biggest achievements of the Library’s 50 years, she said.

“Most significant is how the Library has evolved and adapted with the rise of digital information and technology,” Walker said. “I’m proud of how this Library has handled the change.”

Walker said such advancements will continue so that the Library remains a place of inspiration for students and faculty.

“[The Library] will continue to inspire intellectual inquiry and academic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond,” she said.