Best in Show

Gift provides exhibition space for library treasures.

Lionelle Elsesser ’66 LAS, MS ’67 LIS, watched as her grandchildren’s eyes grew wide. Ensconced in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library on the University of Illinois campus, the teen-agers were examining Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, as well as items in the Frank Lloyd Wright collection.

As the teens processed the stunning moment, their visceral reaction underscored for their grandmother the importance of actually seeing and (sometimes) touching the brilliance that has shaped humanity throughout the ages. That type of insight has galvanized Lionelle and husband Jim Elsesser ’66 BUS, MS ’67 BUS, longtime supporters of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) and other university efforts. The St. Louis couple’s most recent gift marks $500,000 for a significant acquisition, plus $1 million for an exhibition space to display the University Library’s treasures in the planned Archives and Special Collections Building.

Jim and Lionelle Elsesser
Library friends Jim and Lionelle Elsesser

The Elsessers’ shared interest in rare and beautiful books began, perhaps, as undergraduates, when both of them looked forward to the ever-changing presentations of Audubon’s Birds of America on the Main Library’s second floor. As an English major, Lionelle spent time in the stacks and was entranced by the idea that libraries existed for many specialties. Her sense of the “tactile essence” of a library—its muffled sound, “bookish” aroma, and the refracted light bouncing off tomes and tables—recalls for her an overall feeling of being in “a unique and comfortable space.”

After completing their undergraduate work, the couple extended their studies with the help of graduate assistantships. In addition to the monetary boost, they appreciated the significant work their assistantships entailed—Lionelle at the Illinois Project for Educational Leadership Development, and Jim at the Survey Research Lab. Believing that these experiences proved essential in garnering future opportunities, the Elsessers have supported scholarships for many years.

“We’re grateful to Illinois,” Jim said. “No. 1, we met each other there. And we had graduate assistantships, which made all the difference in our careers for both of us.” For Jim, the “Learning and Labor” motto, depicted in the Alma Mater statue, instilled a deep-rooted guidepost to building an illustrious career.

Upon leaving Illinois, he served four years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, including a year in Vietnam, where he was selected as the aide/flag lieutenant to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, the Commander of Naval Forces in Vietnam. A long business career followed, where Jim became chief financial officer of Ralston Purina and chief executive officer of Interstate Bakeries.

In 2021, he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the UI Gies College of Business. After graduation, Lionelle used her background in English and library and information science to plunge into literacy and library efforts at Norfolk State University, a historically black college. Later, she served as chief of the library service at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Minnesota, and also wrote the text for the Medical Library Association course in patient education.

That interest in how people access information— from grandchildren to students to veterans—threads throughout Lionelle’s life. “My concept of what a library is has shifted greatly because of [my] work,” she said, “how [a library] builds its collection, what it makes available, and how it makes it available. And you know, that’s a very satisfying part for me, of looking at the University Library, what it builds, and how it makes it available.”

Lionelle believes the University Library staff have deftly handled the creation and implementation of the building project, which will transform the former Undergraduate Library space into a home for RBML, University Archives, and the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections. Although strongly invested in supporting scholarships, the Elsessers became more interested in brick-and-mortar issues when both the Library and the Gies College of Business needed to expand to better serve their missions.

“There is a fine, difficult balance to be struck between preserving and sharing the treasures,” Lionelle said. “If you believe, as I do, that libraries define, maintain, and display our history and culture, then you must make as much of the collection as possible visible and accessible.” And with a new exhibition space, that will happen, stretching beyond a special grandparent moment to affect many more generations to come.

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