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The Back Story: Critters Invade the Library

Not all library visitors have been two-legged humans. In the "Tumbleweed Tech" days, patrons sometimes slithered their way in or slurped from the fountain.
UNLV History  |  Sep 19, 2013  |  By Su Kim Chung
In January 1963, the UNLV campus played host to a variety of desert dwelling creatures. The library was the round building in the middle. (UNLV Special Collections)

With the Book and Bean Caf?, group meeting rooms, and quiet crannies for studying, Lied Library is one of UNLV's most welcoming spaces. Back in the earliest days of the campus, however, UNLV's library attracted some unwelcome visitors.

Alice Brown, former documents librarian, recounted in her history of the Libraries (held in UNLV Special Collections) that a number of "desert dwellers, both plant and animal, wandered or were blown in, lending credence to the nickname 'Tumbleweed Tech'" that was often attached to the university in its first decade. One day, a desert tortoise wandered into the library, which was then located in UNLV's first building, Frazier Hall. "Sneaky Sam," a lizard who once took up residence, repeatedly evaded capture.

After the library moved to Grant Hall in 1959, the four-, six-, eight- and leg-less desert visitors continued to make their presence known, Brown noted. Billie Mae Polson, who was the second professional librarian to be hired at UNLV in 1959, once recalled looking down to find a snake slithering between the heel and the sole of her shoe. The cool-headed Polson quickly asked someone to call the biology department (now known as the School of Life Sciences) to retrieve a new specimen.

By January 1963 the library had its own building at last, an elegant round structure designed by architect Jim McDaniel. It featured a blue-tiled pool with a bubbling fountain at its entrance. Still the nonhuman visitors kept coming. As Brown noted, "The campus was still 'country.' People would use the space to walk their dogs and ride horses. The pool by the door was an attractive place for watering animals."

Another downside: With minimal surrounding landscaping, Las Vegas' high winds made the fountain an eyesore full of sand and debris. By the early 1970s, it was removed and replaced with plantings so the library was no longer used as a watering stop for domestic and wild animals. The loss of the fountain was felt most keenly by UNLV biologists who had used it as a habitat for the desert pupfish native to the southern Nevada area.

Today the only lizards, snakes, and tortoises in the University Libraries can be found in the appropriate sections of the 5th floor, which house monographs on reptiles, or in the textbooks of students studying throughout the building.

About Special Collections

The University Archives within Special Collections in Lied Library documents the history of UNLV -- its people, places, and events. Do you have photographs or other materials from your time as a student, staff member or faculty at UNLV? Contact Special Collections to help document the rich history of the campus.