Anatomy of a Lesson Plan: History of Art I

Historiated capital featuring Michael in a choir book, ca. 1450 (MSS 229, v. 1. Image by Petrina Jackson.)

As part of my duties as head of instruction and outreach, I am contacted each semester by many professors who wish to bring their classes to Special Collections, so that they can introduce them to original artifacts.  This fall, all 10 sections of Professor John Dobbins’s History of Art I course paid a visit to Special Collections to explore our illuminated manuscript holdings.  With 127 first-year students, four instructors, five Special Collections staff, and some of the most precious and delicate collection materials, I had a big project on my hands!

In preparation for the visit, Professor Dobbins and his teaching assistants, spearheaded by Tracy Cosgriff, arranged time in Special Collections to review our hand-decorated religious manuscripts, ranging from a fourteenth-century prayer book to a nineteenth-century Koran. From this meeting, they created a lesson plan.  The lesson, which emphasized proper handling of rare materials and identification of the elements of medieval manuscripts, turned out to be a well-balanced collaboration between Special Collections staff, the teaching assistants, and the students.

What we wanted students to take from the lesson:

  • know how to request an item in Special Collections;
  • know how to properly handle medieval manuscripts;
  • be able to identify and describe the iconography in the manuscripts and relate it to its text;
  • be able to explain some of the purposes of text in the margins of the books; and
  • be able to identify the uses of the manuscripts.

Illumination of Jesus on the cross from a French book of hours (M.Ms. P/MSS 38-728, Tracy W. McGregor Library. Image by Petrina Jackson)

TA Tracy Cosgriff helps a student examine a small medieval prayer book. (Image by Petrina Jackson.)

Tools we used:

  • nine manuscripts, including several French books of hours (prayer book), a large Italian choir book, an English Bible, and a Koran
  • a worksheet with questions about the Special Collections policies and the examination of religious manuscripts
  • pencils

What we did:

  1. Set manuscripts stations around the classroom.
  2. Special Collections staff gave a 10-minute overview of Special Collections, including how to request and handle materials.
  3. Teaching Assistant gave students assignment worksheets and explained them.
  4. Students went to a station and filled in the worksheet as it related to each manuscript.  This step was repeated for each station.
  5. Special Collections staff assisted in the handling of the manuscripts and with questions.
  6. Teaching Assistants collected the completed worksheets and reviewed them for discussion in their next section meeting.

TA Alicia Dissinger and a student discuss the iconography in a book of hours. (Image by Petrina Jackson.)

Students produce detailed descriptions of the physical characteristics of their assigned manuscripts. (Image by Petrina Jackson.)

Considering the number of people involved with the History of Art I section visits to Special Collections, it went extraordinarily smoothly and was a lot of fun.  After the visits, I received an email from TA Tracy Cosgriff, which stated “[t]he students really enjoyed their lesson in Special Collections, and many are still talking about it. Thank you so much again for making our visit such a pleasure!” Although that was not a stated learning outcome, I am always happy to hear that students are talking about their time with us long after it has ended.

Koran, 1859 from the Homer S. Cummings Papers (M.Ms. AB/MSS. 9973)




This Just In: Translations by Jorge Luis Borges

Virginia Woolf, Orlando. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1945. (PQ7797 .B635 O73 1945, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

The celebrated Argentinian author (and sometime librarian) Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was famous for his fictional account of the universal library which, because it contains all information, is useless.  Since 1977 the U.Va. Library has built one of the world’s great collections on Borges, encompassing significant manuscripts as well as writings by and about Borges in multiple editions and languages.  Our modest aim has been to form the universal library of Borges, a collection we have found to be far from useless!  Housed under Grounds in Special Collections, the Borges collection was initially described in 1993 by its first curator, C. Jared Lowenstein, in A descriptive catalogue of the Jorge Luis Borges collection at the University of Virginia Library.  Then numbering 979 entries, the collection has since grown to nearly 1,200 entries.  (To see them, search Virgo for “Jorge Luis Borges” and limit to Special Collections.)

Franz Kafka, La metamorphosis. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1943. (PQ7797 .B635 V4718 1943, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

Through the good offices of a Buenos Aires bookseller, Special Collections recently added thirty more titles to the collection.  Of particular note are several works Borges translated into Spanish, a lesser-known aspect of his literary career. Indeed, Borges’s earliest publication, at the age of 11, was a Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, published in a Buenos Aires newspaper. Translation also figures prominently in several of Borges’s most celebrated stories.

Proficient in English, French, German, Italian, and later Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, Borges read widely in world literature.  By publishing Spanish translations of numerous works in his newspaper columns and in book form, Borges was instrumental in introducing many contemporary writers to a Latin American audience.  Special Collections already owned Borges’s translations of such authors as William Faulkner, André Gide, and Walt Whitman.  Newly added translations, some with illuminating prefaces by Borges, include Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (a copy signed by Borges); Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener (“Preferiría no hacerlo”); Henri Michaux’s A Barbarian in Asia; and the first part of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.  For the last Borges teamed with his wife, Maria Kodama.  During the 1930s and 1940s, as he went blind, Borges was often assisted by his mother, who published several Spanish translations of her own, including a collection of short stories by D.H. Lawrence.

Herman Melville, Bartleby. Buenos Aires: EDICOM, 1969. (PQ7797 .B635 B38 1969, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

Borges’s translations provide valuable insights into his literary art.  Many of the works Borges selected for translation directly influenced specific elements of his own writing.  Of special interest is Borges’s theory of translation for, as one critic has wryly noted, Borges held that “an original can be unfaithful to a translation.”  Rather than offer readers a literal translation, Borges did not hesitate to “improve” the original as he saw fit, believing that the work was ultimately more important than its creator.  And because Borges frequently revised his own works—including the translations—from edition to edition, it is critical for scholarship that all lifetime editions of Borges’ writings be collected in one place and made available for textual comparison.  That place—the Aleph, if you will—is under Grounds, in Special Collections.

Henri Michaux, Un bárbaro en Asia. Buenos Aires: Sur, 1941. (PQ7797 .B635 B3718 1941, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

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Postscript:  Acquisitions are the lifeblood of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  Our holdings of books, manuscripts, archives, ephemera, maps, photographs, digital media, and other formats grow constantly by design and serendipity, singly and in bulk, through gift, purchase, and transfer from individuals, publishers, book and manuscript dealers, auction houses, other libraries, and U.Va. departments.  Hardly a day passes without at least one significant acquisition arriving under Grounds.  Curious about what relevant materials this acquisitions flood is bringing your way?  Finding out is easy: simply do a Virgo search for “2012/2013” and limit it to Special Collections in order to see what we’ve added since the fiscal year began on July 1.  New acquisitions will also appear, as appropriate, in any Virgo search you make.

“This Just In” will sample the acquisitions stream, periodically showcasing one or more new and noteworthy items.  Our goal is not only to inform you of interesting acquisitions but to demystify the process through which we build our collections: how we select new acquisitions, where we find them, how these broaden and strengthen our existing holdings, and how these enhance research and instruction on, and under, Grounds.  Please come visit!

D. H. Lawrence, La mujer que se fué a caballo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1946. (PQ7797 .B635 Z999 .A25 M8 1946, Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund, image by U.Va. Library Digitization Services)

Welcome to our new blog!

We are pleased to announce the launch of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library’s blog. With contributions from staff, faculty, students, and visiting researchers, “Notes from Under Grounds” will offer glimpses into all aspects of Special Collections here at the University of Virginia: new acquisitions, instruction, little-known collections, staff projects, exhibitions, special events, and more. This project joins two other blogs directly associated with our collections: manuscript cataloger Ann Southwell’s real-time Civil War blog “150 Years Ago Today,” and conservator Eliza Gilligan’s “At the Bench.”

Our title was chosen with care: you can expect these posts to be variously informal, personal, and maybe even a little “underground” sometimes. They will bring to the surface activities and artifacts from the lower levels of the Harrison-Small building just next to Alderman Library: from our main floor, where public spaces, staff offices, and our vault are located, and our lower stack level, where the vast majority of the collections are housed.

Posts will be managed by three staff members: curator David Whitesell will share fresh acquisitions, head of instruction and outreach Petrina Jackson will cover visiting courses and student engagement, and curator Molly Schwartzburg will fill in the gaps with posts on just about everything else. We encourage you to contact us if you would like to write a post or if there’s a subject you want us to cover.

So look for a new post every Thursday, and be sure to come visit us under Grounds!