On View Now: UVA Health System: 200 Years of Learning, Research, and Care

Over the next five months, the Harrison/Small main gallery is home to the exhibition “UVA Health System: 200 Years of Learning, Research, and Care.” This exhibition explores how trends in U.S. history and the history of the health sciences have shaped the development of the UVA Health System, while examining some of the events and personalities that make UVA’s story unique.

Visitors will view collection highlights from the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Among the many items featured are an iron lung used in the UVA Hospital during the mid-20th century. There are bloodletting instruments from the 19th century and a nursing student’s uniform from the 1950s. Visitors can view a digital model of Thomas Jefferson’s Anatomical Theatre and a short film of a surgery being performed at the hospital in 1927.

These and other items help to tell the story of how the Health System grew from a school with a single professor into a world-class academic medical center and regional health-care network. The exhibition also takes a closer look at some specific topics in this 200-year history including medical and nursing education, patient care, biomedical research, wartime service, and racial inequality.

“UVA Health System: 200 Years of Learning, Research, and Care” will be on display in the Main Gallery of Harrison/Small from July 26, 2018 to January 4, 2019. For more information about the exhibition and related programs contact Dan Cavanaugh, Alvin V. and Nancy Baird Curator of Historical Collections at dmc7be@virginia.edu. Learn more, view images, and book class and group tours on the exhibition website.

This exhibition was produced with the support of the University of Virginia Bicentennial with funding provided by the Alumni Board of Trustees.


Now on View: “Eminent Miniatures”

If you come by Special Collections this summer, you are in for a bibliographical and visual feast! Our new exhibition, “Eminent Miniatures: from the McGehee Miniature Book Collection” features tiny books and huge photographs.

The exhibition is in the First Floor Gallery of Harrison/Small, just outside the Special Collections reading room.

Collector Caroline Brandt has spent most of her life building a collection of 15,000 miniature books, which now resides in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. From these, she has chosen volumes that reveal the little-known forays of prominent book producers into the realm of the miniature. In this exhibition, you will see that when great printers, binders, and publishers decide to make miniature books, the results are stunning. These are works of exquisite craft, structural diversity, and outsized beauty. The exhibition has been mounted in conjunction with the upcoming Grand Conclave of the Miniature Book Society, which will be held in Charlottesville in August. The exhibition runs through August 26. Don’t miss it!

The exhibition opens with some of our greatest miniature treasures from early presses such as Plantin and Jannon.

In this section dedicated to Publishers, large images of landmark nineteenth-century Italian miniatures loom over a selection of Oxford University Press publications, including religious volumes and children’s books.

The exhibition features the miniature output of a number of small presses, some of which are on view in this case.

Miniature books require that fine binders exercise their skills in new ways to ensure that small volumes open and close smoothly. Despite the additional challenges, some art binders have embraced the miniature.

Miniature books come in a dazzling array of structures. In many cases, the diminutive size and light weight of the books means that it is possible to display accordions and other formats open.

Oversized images are near the books they represent, allowing visitors to view and appreciate their artistry with rare immediacy.

Overview of the first half of the exhibition.

Overview of the second half of the exhibition.

Thanks to the talented Shane Lin for his elegant photographs of miniature books, which form the backdrop of the exhibition cases shown here.

Please share!



How Borges Wrote: Symposium on the Creative Process of Jorge Luis Borges

Please join us on Tuesday, April 24, 2018, at 4:00 pm in the auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library for a special event marking the publication of an important new book on the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The event is free and open to the public.

Cover of Daniel Balderston’s “How Borges Wrote” (University of Virginia Press, 2018)

This month the University of Virginia Press is publishing How Borges Wrote, a monograph by Daniel Balderston, Director of the Borges Center and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Languages at the University of Pittsburgh. Drawing on nearly four decades of research into Borges’s life and writings, and having examined nearly 200 of Borges’s surviving literary manuscripts, Balderston carefully explicates the complex process by which Borges composed and revised the short stories, essays, and poems that brought him worldwide fame.

Daniel Balderston

“How Borges Wrote” will feature presentations by Balderston and three other Borges scholars: Jared Loewenstein (founding curator of U.Va.’s Borges Collection), Nora Benedict (Princeton University), and María Laura Bocaz (University of Mary Washington).

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds one of the world’s best collections relating to Jorge Luis Borges, numbering over 1,100 printed works and including the largest holding of Borges manuscripts outside of Argentina. The collection was a major resource for Balderston while researching his book. Highlights from U.Va.’s Borges manuscript holdings will be on display during the event.

52nd U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest Winners

First prize winner Samuel V. Lemley with selections (top shelf) from his collection of Sicilian printing.

Winners of the 52nd U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest were announced at the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia’s annual meeting on Friday, March 23, 2018 in the Auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The competition, sponsored by the Bibliographical Society, is a tradition dating back to 1948. It offers all U.Va. students a chance to showcase their personal book collections, and to win substantial cash prizes as well. Highlights from the winners’ collections were exhibited in our first floor exhibition gallery.

A closeup of two mid-19th century Sicilian imprints.

First prize was awarded to Samuel V. Lemley, a Ph.D candidate in the Dept.of English, for “Biblioteca Genealogica: Sicilian Printing, 1704-1893.”  Lemley’s collection “offers a representative sample of Sicilian printing and ephemera from the 18th and 19th centuries, a period in which my maternal ancestors lived in the Sicilian provinces of Palermo and Agrigento. The chronological limits, 1704 to 1893, reflect the years for which genealogical records (births, baptisms, and deaths) for the Militello and Marchese families survive: Gabriele Militello, my earliest documented ancestor, was born in Bivona in 1704; my great-grandfather, Pietro Marchese, was born in Pollina in 1893. These are the genetic bookends of my Sicilian family tree and the figurative bookends of this collection.” Lemley will represent U.Va. in this year’s National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest.

James P. Ascher, second prize winner, with selections (bottom shelf) from his collection of annotated editions of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras.

Second prize went to James P. Ascher, a Ph.D candidate in the Dept. of English, for “Annotations to Samuel Butler’s Hudibras 1678-1858.”  Ascher notes: “Samuel Butler rose to international notice when he published the first part of Hudibras in 1662. Set during the Civil War of the 1640s, the poem weaves together his years spent in libraries transcribing into his commonplace books, with satires on hypocrites, Romances, and pointless conflict. This topic must have appealed to readers during the Restoration, but thirty years after the Civil War, the allusions to current events were no longer current, so Butler added annotations to a new edition of 1674. These annotations explained topical references, demonstrated the learned depth of his commonplace reading, and—in many cases—added to the joke. The annotated poem invited future editors to add comments that explain, enhance, and enchant. This is a collection of the available primary evidence for the publishing of these annotations: the books themselves.”

The 1684 and 1744 annotated editions of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras.

Honorable mention was awarded to Philip M. Tan, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Dept. of Biomedical Engineering, for “Singing Through 500 Years of Reformed and Presbyterian Psalters.”  Tan comments: “Unlike most books, meant to be merely read and contemplated, psalters are the gear for an intense athletic activity—singing! In a tradition extending over three millennia, Jews and Christians have united mind, body, and soul to sing these ancient Hebrew compositions, a practice my friends and I continue today. I grew up in small reformed Presbyterian congregations where the 150 psalms were sung from the 1973 RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing, but we were always discovering new arrangements and adding them to our repertoire. Eventually I began purchasing other psalters, or begging the more obscure ones off of church music directors in the course of travels. Although the collection primarily comprises reformed Presbyterian metrical psalters originating from the Scottish and Dutch traditions, I am eager to expand its scope to encompass the rich heritage of psalm chanting within the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions.”

Philip M. Tan with selections from his collection of psalters.

Researcher Alert: Flat Files Will Close for Move in April

Some large, flat special collections materials will be UNAVAILABLE beginning April 2, 2018 for the installation of new flat file storage. We do not have a set end-date for the project, but researchers should expect that items stored in our flat files will remain unavailable through the summer.

Q: Why is this happening?

A: We are replacing our old flat file storage with moveable carriages that will allow us to double capacity. Because our building has no onsite swing space, existing files need to be moved offsite so we can install the new system.

Stacks manager Joseph Azizi standing near some of our current flat files. Notice that behind Joseph is a black strip in the concrete. This is a rail for a moveable flat file carriage. These rails were installed when the building was built in 2004 with the expectation that we would eventually get moveable flat file storage. Needless to say, we are ready!

This is a moveable file system similar to the one we are installing. The only difference is that ours will move automatically, rather than manually. Not only does the compact structure allow more rows, but we can store additional collection materials above the flat files. Double efficiency!

Q: What collection items are impacted?

A: Flat files are used to store many of our largest items, including some maps, posters, large broadsides, genealogical charts, galleys, panoramic photographs, and architectural drawings.

Q. Can I request items to be retrieved from their temporary location during this process?

A. Unfortunately, no. All items will be stored offsite in a manner that renders them impossible to access until they are placed in the new drawers.

Q: How do I know whether the item I need is stored in the flat files?

A: If you are planning a visit to study items that you believe may be stored in flat files, we can help you determine whether that is the case. Please submit a reference request with a list of the items, and a staff member will inform you of the status of the materials you are hoping to view. Due to legacy metadata formats used for many items stored in the flat files, we are unable to show the status of most flat file materials in Virgo.

Q: Are the items digitized? Can I see images in place of originals?

A. Some items are digitized and their images are visible in the item’s Virgo record. Many items are not yet digitized. If you are unable to come back to visit the library in person after the flat files are reopened, please submit a digitization request. As soon as we have access to the flat files again, we can begin filling these requests.

Q: Why can’t you provide an exact end date for this project?

A: This is a once-in-a-lifetime project, so we are expecting the unexpected. If all goes smoothly, we hope to announce in mid-July that the new flat files are open to researchers. But just in case, researchers should not expect materials to be available until late August.

We thank you in advance for your understanding as we undertake this crucial collection-maintenance project. It will allow us to continue to add to our oversize collections. And it will also allow us to continue to provide you with one of our proudest services: delivering the flat items you request within just a few minutes of your request!

If you have any questions about the flat file project, please submit a reference request.

A book for this moment and for this library: Bethany Collins’s “America: A Hymnal”

Artists’ books are an important collecting focus here at Special Collections, and the biggest challenge I face in acquiring them is simply, how do I select from the large number of exciting works I see each year? I am always amazed at how many artists find new ways to interrogate the nature and limits of the book and other forms of mass communication, such as newspapers and magazines.

I am always particularly excited when I see an artist’s book that engages with a topic, historical event, or material type in which we have strong holdings and a large research community. Recently, my curiosity was piqued when I heard about artist Bethany Collins’s 2017 book, America: A Hymnal, published by Chicago’s Patron Gallery. Once I learned more, I knew that a copy needed to come here to UVA.

“America: A Hymnal” open to the second page.

On her website, Collins describes the book as follows:

America: A Hymnal is made up of 100 versions of My Country ‘Tis of Thee written from the 18th-20th c. Each re-writing in support of a passionately held cause—from temperance and suffrage to abolition and even the Confederacy— articulates a version of what it means to be American. While the differing lyrics remain legible, the hymnal’s unifying tune has been burned and etched away. Bound and executed in the likeness of a shape note hymnal, in its many lyrical variations, “America: A Hymnal” is a chronological retelling of American history, politics and culture through one song.

An 1854 “shape note” hymnal from our large collection of such volumes, paired with “America: A Hymnal”. They are about the same size and thickness. (M2117 .W18 S5 1854)

The two books open. A close look reveals that the ink in our 1854 volume has burned lightly into the page, leaving marks somewhat similar to those that Collins achieves with a laser.

One of the things I look for in an artist’s book is a harmony between concept and object. Collins is interested in how the song she represents has changed over time, beginning with its non-American origins as “God Save the King/Queen,” and following with its appropriation in support of the not just the idea of America, but American troops at war, the anti-slavery cause, the temperance movement, women’s rights, and more. The versions are set into the book in chronological order, the date of each appearing at the top right corner of the page. The first time I paged through the book–at the reference desk, so I could share the experience with other Special Collections staff–we all watched with a mix of horror and fascination as the book itself changed over the course of even this first reading.

A line of paper rises from the page, popped off the contour of the open book.

Just as different generations experienced the tune in the book differently, each reader of this book encounters a different artifact, one changed inherently by the very fact of the encounter. Like a tune, the book is transformed by each “performance.”

And it is here that the book’s terrifying premise becomes clear. The book–a limited edition of 25, all to be acquired by collectors, museums, and rare books libraries–is very likely be experienced in a rarified environment where preservation of the artifact is paramount. The innocent reader of this book, likely dedicated to these high principles, turns a page only to discover that in doing so, he has caused a bit of singed paper to fall, altering the artifact. To experience the book is to transform the book. Not only is it impossible to preserve this book, its destruction is built in, and the reader becomes accountable for taking it one step further towards an unknowable future condition. And how far does that future go? Will the book eventually become an empty shell, the music gone entirely and only the words remaining?

It is here that the interpretive implications explode outward, providing the opportunities for reflection and a new kind of self-awareness. If the book is a metaphor for America, as its title implies, how does the performance of the book carry out that metaphor? I find myself inclined to a dark interpretation, considering our current political climate: I ask, does this book say we are all implicated in our nation’s destruction, in the hollowing out of our country’s identity, the replacement of our national history with a loss of memory, a collapse of coherence? Even if we do not intend destruction, we each have enacted violence on our national future: we transform it, we rip it apart, the chance weaknesses in the nation’s material responding to our gestures in ways we cannot anticipate. Over time, if the music literally falls away, and all that is left is a set of heavy-handed lyrics, could one extrapolate to say that our nation, over time, is losing its soul, leaving only ideology?

Small lines of paper are about to fall from the page. They are the bits of paper between lasered lines of musical notation.

While destruction is inevitable in the future of this entire book as an object, my bleak interpretation is contradicted by the book’s narrative structure, which does not support the idea of a forward movement towards destruction through history. The pages are not all destroyed through the laser-burning. They have been lasered a group at a time, each stack bound in as a group, showing the weakening of the laser’s burn as it burrows through they layers of paper. The video below shows this progression: each page that follows the first is less damaged, eventually leading to a page that looks almost “normal.” There tune is readable, and in many cases, the laser has only left a light burn on the surface of the paper, leaving what almost looks like a printed text.

The verso of this page spread has been burned through, while the recto is intact, though singed.

If the story of the object is that it will deteriorate over time, the story told in its pages is one of repeated rebirth. What begins as violence on the page transforms bit by bit into substance, into clarity, into a song with notes and lyrics. Taking the opening pages as an example (as seen in the video), we see a potent shift. “God Save the King” (1745) has no recognizable music and the page is a landscape littered with damaged bits of paper, the gutter holding scraps that have fallen each time the page is turned. From there, the damage lessens as the laser burn weakens, as follows, tracking the revolution in song:

“A new song to the tune of God Save the King (1777)
Fame let thy trumpet sound (1777)
God Save the Thirteen States (1780)
Washington’s Birthday (1784)

The violence begins anew with a fresh lasering on the next page:

“Ode Second” (1789)

A series of messages appear to emerge through book’s rhythmic sets of pages, from destruction to rebirth over and again, beginning pointedly in this first lasered set with the move from the burned-out king to “Washington’s Birthday.” Whether Collins selected the groupings in order to create small narratives of this kind, or whether they occurred by chance in the combination of the laser’s strength and the musical versions available to Collins, we do not know, and she does not include an explanation for the ordering of the pages beyond their chronology. The reader is left to go back over and again, destroying the pages a bit more each time as she tries to find meaning in the pages’ order, in what is destroyed and what still communicates a complete song.

Inevitable destruction, and a cycle of perpetual rebirth, the music of the nation printed, not with ink, but with the heat and light of a very modern piece of technology. Collins’s book leaves the reader breathless–or holding her breath a bit, afraid both to send fragments flying and to sniff too much of the book’s acrid odor.

A light dust of ash coats the paper and is offset onto the verso of the previous page. Bits of fallen paper rest in the gutter and will be joined by more over time.

For me, this book’s significance is personal as much as it is intellectual. As a child born too late to know the violence and fear of Vietnam, the cynicism of Watergate, I am stunned by the new world we live in today, the unprecedented (for me) state of corruption in our political environment, and corrosion of our national discourse. Yet I am also stunned by the power of activism over the last year. A year ago, I marched in the Women’s March in Atlanta and was buoyed when marchers began singing “This Land is Our Land,” its lyrics botched and then replaced as marchers sought to revive the power of our communal voice. On August 15, 2017, I stood with thousands of members of Charlottesville’s community, who gathered on UVA’s lawn on a sultry night and sang together, quietly, gently, over and over again, “We shall overcome.” We held candles as we sang, thousands of tiny, lovely fairy lights, where days earlier, nasty, ugly, tacky torches had burned, accompanied by chants with no melody. I suppose that one of the things that drew me towards Collins’s book, and one of the reasons that I knew we needed it here in this library, is that we are ourselves in need of art that interprets our current condition, and that urges us to work through it, especially in the moments when we truly feel our nation is falling apart.

As this book falls apart, it opens the reader’s mind to new ways of thinking about its contents and its form. I will end my own reflections there, and hope that other readers–especially musicians, musicologists, and scholars of American religion–will come to the library to page gingerly through this remarkable book, and to reflect on its implications. And I’m looking forward to seeing what America: A Hymnal looks like a year from today, after these readers have transformed it, and when our nation is in a state we cannot yet know.

Calling All U.Va. Student Book Collectors!

Since 1948 the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia has been pleased to sponsor a book collecting contest open to all U.Va. students. Originally held annually, and now biennially, the contest offers all students a chance to showcase their personal book collections, and to win substantial cash prizes as well. Entries are now being accepted for the 52nd U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest. The deadline for submissions is February 12, 2018. Winners will be announced at the BSUVA’s annual meeting on Friday, March 23, 2018 n the Auditorium of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

To enter, students submit a list of items in their collection along with a short essay describing its contents and their objectives in forming the collection. Judges evaluate entries on the basis of the collection’s coherence of focus, method of collecting, progress made in forming the collection, and the quality of the descriptive essay. Collections are not judged on dollar value or size.

The first place winner receives a $1,000 cash prize and a $1,395 scholarship covering the full tuition for a Rare Book School course; the winner is also eligible to enter this year’s National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. Prizes of $600 and $300 are awarded for second and third place respectively. In addition, eight local booksellers have generously contributed gift certificates to be distributed among the contest winners.

Winners of the 51st U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest: Nora Benedict (at left) and Isaac May (at front), with contest judge David Whitesell. (Photo courtesy of David Vander Meulen)

Winners of the 51st U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest: Nora Benedict (at left) and Isaac May (at front), with one of the contest judges David Whitesell. (Photo courtesy of David Vander Meulen)

The previous U.Va. Student Book Collecting Contest — the 51st — was held in 2016. First prize was awarded to Nora Benedict, doctoral candidate in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, for her entry, “Argentine Publishing and the Many Faces of Jorge Luis Borges.”

Selections from Nora Benedict's winning entry, "Argentine Publishing and the Many Faces of Jorge Luis Borges."

Selections from Nora Benedict’s winning entry, “Argentine Publishing and the Many Faces of Jorge Luis Borges.”

Isaac May, a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies, was awarded second prize for his entry, “Collecting and Preserving Anglo-American Quaker Publications.”

Highlights from Isaac May's entry, "Collecting and Preserving Anglo-American Quaker Publications"

Highlights from Isaac May’s entry, “Collecting and Preserving Anglo-American Quaker Publications”

In conjunction with each biennial contest, the Small Special Collections Library is pleased to host an exhibition of highlights from the winners’ collections. This year’s exhibition will be on view in the first floor hallway leading to the Special Collections reading room from March 23 through April 13.

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.

Lumos Maxima: Illuminating the magical presence of Harry Potter at UVa

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post by Penny White, Reference Librarian and Hufflepuff. Thanks, Penny, for braving our enchanted stacks and sharing these treasures with wizards and muggles alike. Happy Halloween, everyone!
Lovingly referred to as the “Harry Potter” room, the McGregor Room in Alderman Library, with its cozy chairs and caged books, is sure to make any Potter fan feel as though they have apparated right into Hogwarts. The affection for this association is clear in a clever entry from one ickle firstie who visited the room in 2012.

Although Frenchman Nicolas Flamel perished in 1417, myths surrounding his work to decipher an alchemical text that would reveal the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone live on. “Guest Book for the McGregor Room” (RG-12/36/1.141).

Now, what if I said the magic does not stop at the McGregor Room gates? What if I told you that deep under Grounds in the bowels of Archives & Special Collections, fantastic beasts hide, spells are cast, and mischief is made?

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584 by Englishman Reginald Scot.

With a tone reminiscent of Vernon Dursley, Scot set out to prove that there was no such thing as magic. And while his text was central to debates about the implausibility of witchcraft, it also proved to be a useful if not always accurate source on supernatural beliefs and practices

Pages from “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” addressing the disposition and aspects of the planets (M 1584 .S36).



Magical botanicals

While you are unlikely to encounter the mandrake in modern medical texts, Hermione’s definition of the root as “restorative” is historically accurate. Both early Greek and Latin texts, as well as medieval naturalists document the root as being a cure for all diseases, barring death. Ground up the root could even be used in wine, which when drunk could numb patients enough for amputation.

The human-like appearance of the Mandrake in Harry Potter is rooted in first-century Greek physician, Dioscurides’ description of the root as resembling the human form. This belief was reinforced by the medieval doctrine of signatures, which claimed that when eaten, plants that looked like certain body parts could cure what ails those body parts. “The Clutius Botanical Watercolors…” (QK98 .S93 1998).


On the subject of magical beasts, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner authored one of the most widely read natural histories of the Renaissance. Historiae Animalium published from 1551-1558 is a zoological inventory and depicts everything from the mythical to the factual.  I have no doubt that this four volume set would have found a place on the shelves in Magizoologist, Newt Scamander’s library.

“Merfolk” from Gessner’s “Historiae Animalium” (QL41 .G37 1551 v.2)

A book that bites–literally

I know for a fact that we could find this uniquely bound copy of Fantasy & Nonsense: Poems gracing the shelves of our favorite “mad and harry” Professor’s library. This striking book of poetry is the embodiment of what Hagrid considered funny and Malfoy considered hand severing.

Leather bound, edged with shark teeth, and filled with literary references to fantastic beasts, James Whitcomb Riley’s “Fantasy & Nonsense: Poems” is the quintessential “Monster Book of Monsters” (PS2702 .T77 2001). Binder Gabby Cooksey dreamed up this gorgeously executed volume, which actually bites you a little bit every time you turn a page. Come check it out and feel the pain yourself!

Peevish phantoms

He may have been fond of mischief and caused all sorts of trouble, but it was hard not to love Peeves the Poltergeist. Besides, according to Lewis Carroll’s longest poem, Phantasmagoria, ghosts simply have one job to do and that job is to haunt.

Here the ghost from Carroll’s second canto “Hys Fyve Rules” shows his host just how he feels about being treated so rudely (PR4611 .P6 1869).

Horcrux or just an old cup?  

You do not need to use the Imperio curse on any of our staff to get your hands on this goblet given to Dr. Gessner Harrison by UVa students attending the 1858-59 class session. Visit the reference desk and we will happily pull it for use in the Reading Room. While we do require you to wear gloves when handling this goblet, I can assure you that it is not because it could be one of Lord Voldemort’s horcruxes.

One of two goblets presented to Dr. Gessner Harrison by UVa students attending the 1858-59 session (MSS 12762).

Weapons against the dark wizard

Harry Minor Wilson, Grand Commander of the Knights Templar of Virginia may not have used his regalia sword to help defeat the most powerful dark wizard of all time, but it would make a fine stand-in for the sword of Gryffindor. The sword will appear to anyone who asks for it. We cannot, however guarantee that when requested, the sword will be delivered in a magical hat by Faux the phoenix.

Harry Minor Wilson’s ceremonial sword as Grand Commander of the Knights Templar of Virginia (MSS 8977-a).



“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

– Albus Dumbledore

Like Hogwarts end of the year exams, college can be frightful. Not all of us possess Hermione’s zeal for learning, or her time-turner, which would no doubt help with the overwhelming workload. Thankfully, The Order at UVA, the University’s only Harry Potter secret society, established The Patronus Project, which seeks to educate and change the way people talk about metal illness and wellness.

Started by a group of University students who love Harry Potter, The Patronus Project’s mission is to illuminate and banish the stigma surrounding mental illness like Expecto Patronum expels Dementors (Broadside 2015 .O73 no.01).


These are only a few of the many Harry Potter-esque collection items at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Want to uncover more magical materials? Ask a staff member how! No invisibility cloak required.