When Santa calls, I answer.

 On this, our last day before the library closes for the holiday, we are delighted to share a post by Regina Rush, Reference Librarian and Special Collections’ resident Christmas addict (resisting all treatment with jolly glee, we should add). Regina starts counting down to next Christmas on December 26, y’all. So, without delay, here she is!

Where does space begin? Can Mars support life? Which is better, Coke or Pepsi? Questions such as these have puzzled, befuddled, and confounded us since the dawn of humankind. But of all the mind-numbing questions in life, none shares the contemplative intensity and gravitas of the question asked by eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897:

“Is there a Santa Claus?”

Is the Old Jolly Elf for real, or have parents for generations been perpetrating a SERIOUS FRAUD?!

Really, she needed to know. Not even Booker T. Santa or Langston Santa would tell her. (Photo by anonymous elf.)

If truth be told, I had my doubts. That is, until one afternoon a couple of months ago, when I answered the phone at the Public Services Desk.

Let me start at the beginning. Mid-October can be a hectic time for the The Desk, as we call it. We field questions from nervous students making their first deep dive into primary research. We provide box after box to the more seasoned researchers who have made our reading room their second home and the staff their second family. Alumni show up for football games and decide to come research their time at the university in the days leading up to the game. Genealogists pop in, often on a cross-country archives crawl to learn about their family history. The Desk, to quote the immortal sage Forrest Gump, “is like a box of Chocolates, You never know what you’re gonna get.”

This particular Wednesday afternoon, the phone rang, as it often does when six things are happening at once. “Special Collections Reading Room, May I help you?” A disembodied, but not unpleasant, voice responded, “Good Afternoon, my name is …” the researcher introduced himself and launched into the purpose of his call: obtaining a copy of an item held in our large collection of American trade catalogs.

–“Is it possible to receive a copy of this item?”

–“We would need to pull the catalog and evaluate its condition. If it looks like it can withstand scanning, I will be happy to send it to you.”

I directed him to our online reference form, and asked him to send all the pertinent information necessary to identify the item. A staff member would research his query and get back in touch with him. “In fact,” I continued, “you can include my name in your query so it can be assigned to me.” The call was quickly forgotten as I turned my attention to other researchers. But the next day, when I opened the researcher’s reference request… It. Stopped. Me. Dead. In. My. Tracks. Not only had I been assigned a reference request from the Jolly Elf himself, I had actually spoken to the big man the day before.


Old Kris Kringle himself was requesting information from one of our trade catalogs concerning a new purchase he had recently made–of what else?!– a sleigh.
See for yourself:

From R. C. at 1:02 PM on Wed Oct 11 2017
Category: Standard Reference
I would like any information on Ames Dean Sleighs.
it could be Jamie Dean out of Michigan.
I bought a Sleigh and would like to know all I can about it
Thank you for all your help.

Mr. C. aka Santa Claus
attn. Regina

Author: Small, Albert H. (Albert Harrison); Alliance Carriage Co; American Carriage Company; Ames-Dean Carriage Co; Anchor Buggy Co; Arkla Industries Inc; Barnett Carriage Co; Biddle & Smart Co; Columbia Carriage Co; Consumers Carriage and Manufacturing Co; … [more]
Format Book
Publication Date1888; 1974
Special Collections Call Number TS199.A5 C2 (54 volumes)

How I, of all people, had lucked into this reference request, I will never know. Needless to say, I did not disappoint. When Santa calls, I answer. I sent Santa scans from several trade catalogs from the Albert H. Small American Trade Catalogs collection. This collection boasts over 3,000 American manufacturer’s catalogs, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, ranging in subject from beekeepers’ and dentists’ equipment to stationery, toilets, furniture, and yes, even sleighs! This collection is one of the many amazing gifts given by alumnus Albert H. Small, the library’s namesake and donor of the phenomenal Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection.

The catalog from the Albert H. Small American Trade Catalogs collection requested by Santa. (TS199 .A5 c2 no. 3)

Images of Sleighs from the Whitney Wagon Works’ Catalogue of Carriages and Sleighs (TS 199 .A5 C2 no. 48) The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library serves researchers across the globe, including the Jolly Ole Elf from the North Pole!

Now, for those of you concerned about violating Santa’s privacy by including his request in this blog, REST ASSURED, I obtained his permission. Sheesh! Not doing so would certainly have landed me at the top of THE Naughty List.) He even let me share his picture with you:

R.C. and L. C. aka Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and their little canine elf. Photo courtney Rich Clarner. For real, you guys.

As the New York Sun allayed the fears of young Virginia in 1897, I hope by sharing my story, I have helped dispel any lingering doubts of Old St. Nicks’ existence. To all the Hoos’ in Hooville who still do not believe, I can say with 100 PERCENT certainty,

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!

Wishing all my colleagues at the University of Virginia Library and all the loyal readers of “Notes from Under Grounds” a very safe and happy holiday!

The Old Bard of Avon has been busy lately reading several books from our McGehee Miniature Book Collection. They’re just his size! Shown are Jolly St. Nick (Lindemann 05410), Yes, Virginia (Lindemann 3004), and Santa Claus By Another Name (Lindemann 6589). All other items pictured are courtesy Regina Rush. (Apologies to Will Shakespeare, we forgot to make him a Santa hat!).

Unearthing Fiction: Creative Writing Inspired by UVA’s Archive

This week we are pleased to share a guest post from Nichole LeFebvre. Nichole is a Poe/Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she teaches creative writing. Her poems can be found in Prairie Schooner and Barrelhouse and recent prose in Lit Hub, Paper Darts, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is the Nonfiction Editor of Meridian: A Semi-Annual and is at work on a memoir.

Researchers may have met Nichole at Special Collections, where she used to work as a graduate student assistant in the Reference department. Now, she’s using that experience to incorporate original materials into her creative writing instruction.

Working at Special Collections, I’d often find myself in awe. Researchers would carry diaries and ledgers to the reference desk, pointing out their surprising finds. Reading Faulkner’s grocery list, I’d wonder about his carbo-loading: “breadsticks, bread, breakfast bread.” I’d show students how to aim a black light at a seemingly blank book. One afternoon, a librarian grinned and said, “Have you seen the bone fragment from the Revolutionary War?”

When I had the chance to design a themed writing workshop, I knew exactly where to go: down the spiral staircase, under the skylights. How many stories hid, waiting latent, below our feet?

Fourth-year Halley Townsend recalls the first time she held an artifact: “There’s something immutable in the feeling of touching history that can be gleaned nowhere else.” And that’s exactly right: in fiction, we focus on creating sensory-rich scenes for the reader. Students in my class, “Unearthing Fiction,” were able to feel that texture first-hand, noticing minor details otherwise forgotten with time.

“Being an engineer, I preferred to look at objects that were manmade and complex,” says Daryn Govender, hailing all the way from New Zealand. For his stories, he studied a field compass from World War II as well as a New Tyme Edison light bulb, patented in 1881. Because these objects are catalogued without specific historical context—letters or diary entries from their owners—Govender felt “allowed to write more freely, unconstrained by a pre-existent scenario or background story.”

Of our first visit to Special Collections, second-year Caroline Bohra writes, “My mind started to race thinking of all the people who could have come in contact with these objects. I could not help but wonder what made these specific objects so special that they had been chosen to be saved and preserved? And what modern artifacts would be deemed important enough to be studied years from now?”

The travel scrapbook of Nina Withers Halsey, 1895, inspired Alexander O’Connor to write about a self-taught American teenager who meets and impresses the Shahzada Nasrulla Khan with her knowledge of tenuous British-Afghan relations (MSS 10719-b). Photograph by Alexander O’Connor.

How archives shape history was on our mind, all semester. Fiction is likewise political: whose stories are told, and therefore remembered? Third-year Hunter Wilson wondered how to write “historical women, on the one hand acknowledging that women often lacked basic rights, while on the other, respecting the character.” She decided to set her first story in 17th Century Scotland, inspired by the ballad of the Outlandish Knight. The twist? It’s the princess who uncovers the dreamy knight’s murder plot. “I wanted Isabel to act accurately in her historical context, but also give voice to the likely frustrations that came with her place in history.”

Fourth-year Matin Sharifzadeh enjoyed the depth of creative control he had over his work. “When we would go down into the library, the artifacts weren’t there for us to write about. They were there for us to create a world.” And like history itself, those worlds weren’t always pretty: the rope used in the hanging of a Charlottesville mayor inspired Sharifzadeh to write “a psychological thriller involving a mentally ill serial killer in the late 19th Century.”

Students faced, first-hand, the challenges of writing historical fiction. First-year Julia Medina found an embroidered handkerchief “depicting a group of children and a school teacher from the early 20th century.” This morphed into her story of an exploitative school for gifted children. But she couldn’t have her characters talking in today’s slang. To research the nuances of 1940s speech, Medina found “a collection of letters than an ordinary military man wrote to his wife.” These “seemingly mundane letters” allowed her to imagine “what he felt, how he talked, and where he’d been.”

Some details will remain buried with time, unless you, dear reader, can read this handwriting.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith’s diary, 1861 (MSS 38-707-a). Photograph by Veronica Sirotic.

The question of historical accuracy recurred throughout the semester. How do we earn a reader’s trust when we aren’t historians, we’re writers?

The answer? More reading, more research, and a deep personal connection to the material. Second-year Veronica Sirotic pored over radical feminist and music magazines from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, inspired by not only the articles, but the advertisements, as well. A few students returned to the feminist periodical The Monthly Extract including first-year Megan Lee, who tried to get into the mindset of both a feminist and her “tolerant husband,” digging up manuscript boxes of period photographs to build images of these characters, in her head.

Students realized when they were most curious, most personally engaged, their own fiction was at its strongest. Caroline Bohra found a children’s book from 1927 and was “struck by a sort of nostalgic happiness,” changing her initial character’s personality as she researched real-life author Christopher Morley, who “believed in the magic of childhood and instilled that in his children, specifically Louise Morley Cochrane, who went on to produce a children’s television series, following in her father’s footsteps, as well as work directly for Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Finding patterns across time was another an important way in. First-year Alexander O’Connor was struck by former Secretary of State John Hay’s life story. “Two out of the three Presidents he worked for, Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley, were assassinated while he worked for them, and the third, Theodore Roosevelt, experienced an assassination attempt but lived. Coincidence? I think not!”

The class also sought guidance from UVa’s own Jane Alison, Professor and Director of Creative Writing. Students read Alison’s Ovid translations and a section of her novel The Love-Artist, curious how she was able to write from the point of view of the ancient poet. Alison explained her range of primary and secondary sources, as well as her trip to Rome, to see and imagine how the ruins once looked. She placed herself inside the poet’s shoes, inside his head, tried to imagine how he saw and described the world around him.

Alison urged the students to recognize the overlap between historical fiction and memoir, a comment that struck Veronica Sirotic as especially true: “We have the power to shape history to our liking.” Alexander O’Connor, agreed, noting that even “memoir is a retelling of history through the author’s lens.”

“‘Unearthing’ means to dig up, to discover, to recover in an active sense,” writes Halley Townsend. “Throughout the semester, that definition has aligned more and more with my creative writing; I feel like I’m discovering or rediscovering something that was already there in my mind.”

All semester long these students uncovered and re-imagined artifacts into fiction, resulting in eighteen riveting short stories. Whether setting their work in the distant past, or today’s world, they used history to deepen the story’s emotional content and lasting impact—looking forward, while looking back.

“I took this image from a couple’s autobiography about their circumnavigation in the early 1920s,” writes student Halley Townsend. “Based on this picture, I wanted to imagine their relationship. What kind of relationship survives on a small boat during stressful circumstances?”
(G440 .V8 1923).

Thank you, Nichole, for sharing your students’
marvelous insights with us.