A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

grad_student_borges_2A few days before the semester begins, our reading room generally gets pretty quiet, since summer visitors have headed home and our own faculty are busily preparing for the semester. So I was delighted to find this trio poring over materials together at the front table this afternoon, looking extremely excited and even a bit giddy. Some quick investigating revealed that they are (left to right) Tommy Antorino, Rebekah Coble, and Maggie Czerwien. They are brand new Ph.D. students in the Spanish Department. They met at their department orientation on Monday and learned about Special Collections at a Graduate Student Resources panel yesterday.  Finding themselves with a bit of free time on their hands this afternoon, they headed down Under Grounds, and after learning the ropes from our reading room staff, found themselves in front of a Jorge Luis Borges manuscript. Hence, the giddiness.

I didn’t want to interrupt them for too long, so I asked if I could take their picture, and if they would share with me an adjective about their experience:



“Ecstatic to learn of the resources here at U.Va.”

Tommy, Rebekah, and Maggie, welcome to U.Va.!! We are so excited to have you and all your fellow new graduate students here on grounds. Here’s to a fantastic new academic year.

Goodbye, Special Collections!: Two graduating student assistants reflect

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post by two graduating students: Christina Balangue and Alex Valdez. Christina and Alex are long-time student assistants in Special Collections and have generously agreed to tell the blog a bit about their work down in the stacks. We will be so sad to see them go!

CHRISTINA: I’m a fourth year at U.Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, concentrating in accounting. I started working at Special Collections the summer of my first year. After graduation, I will be joining PwC as a tax associate in the private company services group, preparing entity and partnership returns for clients in the greater Washington Metro area.

ALEX: I’ve been working at Special Collections since February 2012. I am also a fourth year but I am majoring in sociology and economics. My plans for after graduation remain fuzzy, but I’m hoping to get involved in social policy research and consulting.

CHRISTINA: The first thing that students realize about the stacks is it’s cold. Not plain cold—parka cold. So we often start our shifts with as much hustle and bustle as possible in order to warm up and acclimate. This means shelving new books, re-shelving pulled books, and pulling patron requests. Re-shelving books and pulling patron requests is one of the first things that students learn in the stacks. Every day, the ding of the dumbwaiter echoes in the stacks, signaling to students that items need to be retrieved from the shelves and sent to the reference desk. After the patrons find what they’re looking for (or not), the items get sent down to be re-shelved.

Christina gets ready to send a book up to the reading room in the dumb waiter.

Christina gets ready to put a patron request in the dumb waiter to be sent up to the reading room.


Brendan Fox, Stacks Supervisor, and Christina with a truckful of books and boxes to be reshelved.

CHRISTINA: New shelving is a task most of us learned on our first day on the job. It’s simple enough: take a cart of newly acquired materials and place them on the shelf accompanied by a colored flag. This allows our supervisor, Brendan, to check and ensure the book is shelved accurately. Most students, including myself, dread new shelving. While I can’t pinpoint an exact reason for my dislike, the fact remains that every time I see a cart of new books, I turn around and dash to find another task, leaving the new books for the next unsuspecting stacks student to discover.


Christina flagging a new book so that her supervisor can double-check the location.

ALEX: If we’re not putting something away or wandering through the aisles trying to find something, then we’re probably in the preservation area. Here, we carry out tasks meant to protect Special Collection treasures from the many destructive elements threatening an item’s long-term survival (and yes, we are as dramatic about this job as I make it sound). The first task we learn is how to mylar. We create specialized plastic wraps for books with fragile paper dust jackets or fading front covers to prevent the paper from being torn or the covers from fading further.


Christina prepares a mylar cover for a book with a paper dust jacket.

ALEX: The second preservation duty we take on is the construction of phase boxes. These are acid-free cardboard boxes custom-designed to fit each individual book. Their job is to hold together books that are falling apart. In our experience, this task appears particularly daunting to the newbie student employee because of its many steps. You get the hang of it eventually, though, and it has actually become my favorite Special Collections job!


Alex working on a phase box.

CHRISTINA: Special Collections also collects lots of serial publications from the New Yorker to the obscure Crime Times.  We’re responsible for housing and shelving these materials. What’s my favorite part of shelving serials? Sneaking a peek at this week’s New Yorker Caption Contest winner.


Student assistant Ashlyn Walker with the special serials truck, preparing to put new issues of serial publications into the stacks.

ALEX: Whenever we come into contact with an item that requires unusual housing or has a call number that can’t be found in Virgo, we reach out to our fellow student employees for help. We also often work together to barcode items and make sure the records we have on file are correct.


Alex and Ashlyn work together to determine why the call number of a phaseboxed book isn’t showing up in U.Va.’s online catalog, Virgo


Alex and Christina barcode a truck of books that have just been through the preservation process

CHRISTINA: There are many reasons I love working at Special Collections. Being surrounded by rare materials published hundreds of years ago, and protecting these items, are just the tip of the iceberg. What I will miss the most when I graduate are the people working here.  The smiles, care, and trust that I have received from both student and library employees are incomparable and this is why coming to work is always such a pleasure. Special Collections, thank you for a wonderful four years.

ALEX: I enjoy working here because I love U.Va.’s collections. From the miniature books that are no bigger than my thumb to the elephant folios that weigh a ton, I’m fascinated by them all and honored to be able to help with their preservation. Like Christina said, the people we get to work with here are also amazing. Their passion for the materials inspires me and they’re actually all just fun to be around. It’ll be a difficult goodbye, but I am grateful to have been surrounded by such wonderful company over these last few years.


Here’s the timesheet where we record the hours we have worked…it’s our favorite thing.

Thank you, Alex and Christina, for all your wonderful work over the years. We can’t say enough about how much we appreciate your dedication. And congratulations on your upcoming graduations! WAHOOWA!

On View Now: The Journeys of Vachel Lindsay

We are proud to announce the opening of our new First Floor exhibit, Troubadour, Vagabond, Visionary: The Journeys of Vachel Lindsay, curated by English graduate Student and Special Collections curatorial assistant Elizabeth Ott. Today on the blog, Elizabeth offers some reflections on the curatorial process in the following guest post. Thanks, Liz, and congratulations on your beautiful exhibition!

Poster design by Jeff Hill, U.Va. Library.

Poster design by Jeff Hill, U.Va. Library.

If there were a single collection in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections library that could represent all of the reasons special collections libraries exist, I think it would have to be the Vachel Lindsay Collection. Lindsay was an American poet of the early 20th century known for his tramping excursions of hundreds of miles across many states, when he traded poetry pamphlets and performances for food and lodging. He spent much of his life walking the lines between poet, painter, preacher, and philosopher. He’s exactly the kind of writer whose value to the history of literature is most easily lost in the ascetic pages of a Norton Anthology, where his booming vaudevillian voice, syncopated jazz rhythms, and elaborate tongue-in-cheek illustrations are reduced down to plain black ink on a white page.

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Ott and her supervisor, curator Molly Schwartzburg, installing Lindsay's bibles in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Ott and her supervisor, curator Molly Schwartzburg, installing Lindsay’s Bibles in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

To understand Vachel Lindsay, you need to see all his stuff. To understand Vachel Lindsay, you need to visit Special Collections. This is because the manuscripts, printed books, and other materials in the stacks of the Small Library tell a vibrant story, one that casts Lindsay in a kaleidoscopic light of colors and shades, speaking of a rich artistic career. Enterprising, energetic, and prolific, Lindsay traveled America as a self-styled troubadour, distributed art and ideas with an earnest faith in the twin powers of Beauty and Art, and made a name for himself reclaiming poetry as the province of performance. The Vachel Lindsay Collection is wildly eclectic, encompassing everything from oil paintings and cherished slippers to folksy illustrated pamphlets and the blocks used to print them.

One of Vachel Lindsay's Bibles, inscribed with his elegant script, ready to be installed in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

One of Vachel Lindsay’s Bibles, inscribed with his elegant script, ready to be installed in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Because of Lindsay’s broad interests and the great scope of the collection, deciding what aspect of Lindsay’s career to exhibit was no small task. I wanted to showcase the range of his work while at the same time giving a sense of just how much he dovetailed with the intellectual and artistic concerns of his day. To me, Lindsay seemed so much a part of the American landscape—an America still in the process of building an identity. Lindsay, like many American poets, looked back to create something unique and new, breaking from tradition by invoking an almost transcendental link to a mythic and stylized past.

The exhibition installation process continues. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The exhibition installation process continues. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The decision to focus the exhibition on Lindsay’s journeys, both literal and figurative, grew out of two maps that now hang in the first case of the exhibition. Both maps are fairly ordinary, save that Lindsay has embellished both, labeling them with paint and pen. The first records his tramping journeys between 1904 and 1916. The second divides the country into regions of Lindsay’s devising, with his characteristic penchant for the symbolic over the literal. I wanted to tell the story of these two maps, of Lindsay’s actual treks across the United States, but also of his visions of the journey America, as a country, was to undertake.

Elizabeth supervises Molly as she levels one of Lindsay's maps. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Elizabeth supervises Molly as she levels one of Lindsay’s maps. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The resulting exhibition thus tells two stories. The first is the story of what Vachel Lindsay means to America—how his tramping journeys presaged the hobo culture of the 1920s and 30s and influenced generations of poets who drew inspiration from folk culture. The second is the story of what America meant to Vachel Lindsay, his mythopoeic universe with Springfield, Illinois (his hometown) at the center. Though this exhibition barely scratches the surface of his fascinating life and work, it samples a great range of the materials that survive in the Vachel Lindsay Collection, testifying to the life and works of this now obscure but enduringly influential American poet.

Elizabeth puts the finishing touches on her exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Elizabeth puts the finishing touches on her exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)