Buried treasure: UVA's Special Collections get a new home



The Academical Village may stand eternal, but it's moving. The research park has gone way up north. Now part of the school is moving south across Jefferson Park Avenue.

But in the library precinct, it's gone underground. Most of UVA's newest library– a nearly 73,000 square foot structure– Harrison/Small they're calling it– lies buried under the grass along McCormick Road.

"We needed a library this large, but there was no way to get it with the Academical Village right there," explains Hoke Perkins, a key library fundraiser.

Strict architectural guidelines govern all University buildings, with tighter rules for anything built within view of the Rotunda and the Lawn. To find land to accommodate such an above-ground behemoth (about twice size of downtown's Lewis & Clark Square), planners would have had to locate the building far away from the Lawn and from the center of library action.

Instead, the idea bubbled up to put nearly 80 percent of the building underground. It came, appropriately enough, from a man named Albert Small, a member of UVA's Board of Visitors in the '90s and one of the building's two major benefactors.

It stands near the original location of a small wonder designed by Jefferson himself– and one of the few Jefferson-designed building to be demolished in the Twentieth Century.


History lesson

 Soon after Jefferson's death, a small, two-story Anatomical Theatre that he designed was built between Alderman Library and the Chapel (near where a bus stop is today). Inside, medical students peered down from a steep amphitheater to watch their professors dissect cadavers.

Restored in 1888 after a fire, the Anatomical Theatre survived into the 1930s. But by then, the university's collection of books and journals was outgrowing the University's first library– in the Rotunda. In 1931 the first president of UVA, Edwin A. Alderman, stated that the school's "supreme requirement" was a "great university building." The old Anatomical Theatre had to go.

On a famous day in 1938, hundreds of students and professors hand-carried books from the Rotunda across the bulldozed site where the Anatomical Theatre had stood to the grand new Alderman Library.

Librarian John C. Wyllie personally separated certain valuable items from the ones going into the open stacks. That bundle– including such things as John's Smith's first printed account of the Virginia colony, Jefferson's annotated copy of his Notes on the State of Virginia, and minutes of Board of Visitors meetings written in Jefferson's own hand became the nucleus of the university's special collections of rare books and manuscripts.


Miller's demise

 Alderman Library then stood almost corner-to-corner with Miller Hall. Originally built as a chemistry laboratory in 1868, Miller Hall was rebuilt in 1920 after a student stole platinum bars from it and torched the building to cover his tracks. Miller Hall served as home to the university admissions office into the 21st century.

In 1981, Clemons Library was built, adding more books, study space, and an entire floor of media collections to the university's library system. By that time, Miller Hall had lost some of its luster. Many of its features– one exit, no elevator, an open stairwell– wouldn't pass modern fire codes, and its patchwork history didn't rise to the level of other gems in UVA's architectural pantheon. So in May 2002, Miller Hall went the way of the Anatomical Theatre.

In the final days before demolition, huge cranes hoisted tall display cases– originally from Brooks Hall, built in 1876 as a natural history museum– down from the building's attic. The aviator-as-Daedalus statue was moved out of the way, and for months, the ground in front of Alderman became a massive red-dirt chasm, 35 feet deep and 160 by 180 feet around.

Passersby had to peek through a hole in the fence to see what was going on. Soon stunning architectural drawings– plans for the coming underground bibliophilic heaven– sprouted, but it was hard to connect the raw dirt, orange plastic webbing, and jutting rebar with the idealized sketches of tables, lamps, and bookshelves tacked to the fence.


Rising from the pit

 Slowly but surely, though, the new library came into being. Far beneath the formerly placid greensward, foundations were sunk, pipes laid, and structures erected.

"It really was a 40-year dream," says Perkins. "When Clifton Waller Barrett gave his collection of American literature to the University in the 1960s, he and others started talking about a facility to house that and other valuable special collections."

The needs have grown over those 40 years as the university's collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, and historical artifacts has expanded exponentially. In 2003, the most recent ranking posted, the UVA's library system ranked 25th in the U.S. and Canada, according to statistics collected by the Association of Research Libraries.

Not only have the number and value of objects owned by the university increased dramatically, but also current library technologies present new possibilities and obligations. Today's best libraries– such as the New York Public and California's Huntington– are now tourist attractions with museum-like displays. Libraries are repositories of family histories, often hosting films, talks, and meetings– even swanky parties.


Order out of chaos

 The days when a library consisted of nothing but room after room of dusty books standing in excruciatingly logical order are over. When Alderman collections burst the basement seams, it was time to redefine Special Collections.

"Here's what we always needed," says Perkins, gesturing toward the rows of moveable stacks that allow librarians room to rearrange as well as store.

First built when rare book and manuscript collections were small, Alderman Library contained a maze of secure storage spaces that grew incrementally as new acquisitions required. Expanding in fits and starts, using whatever bit of space could be turned into safe storage, Special Collections stacks were, librarians admit, chaotic and confusing.

"The A's were on one floor, the B's were in the basement, the C's, D's, and E's were in a different place," says staffer George Riser. "There were nine different places a Z book could be found in our old stacks. The Z's are the reference books. It could take a person a long time to find one– even people who had been working there a long time."

The new structure has allowed the Special Collections staff, for the first time, to organize holdings as a unified collection, creating spatial relationships among the book that mirror the logic of a sophisticated call number system, all in one space.


How it works

 "The strengths of this building are the strengths of this whole system," says Perkins. "It's a new resource for public outreach for the library and the university."

Designed to be inviting, accessible to the public, with longer hours of opening than most museums or libraries (9 -9 Monday through Thursday, 9-5 Friday and Saturday), the new building contains three galleries with permanent and circulating exhibits; offices for seminars, meetings, and visiting scholars; reading rooms and sitting nooks; and a 200-seat auditorium with cutting-edge presentation media and outfitted with a kitchen that permits its transformation into a banquet hall for 120.

The library's valuable holdings are organized on massive moving shelves, filling two underground stories. To retrieve a book, the librarian presses a button, and shelf units 8-1/2 feet tall and 33 feet long– more than 12 miles of shelving– merge or separate mechanically, making room for him to walk to the bookshelf of interest.

Furthermore, the design precludes future overcrowding: 30 years' growing room is designed into the new space. The valuable holdings are protected by a sophisticated fire suppression system of dry-pipe (water held in reservoirs outside, not in interior pipes) and targeted delivery (spraying only the threatened area).

Riser admits that the Alderman stacks look a little shabby in comparison, but for him the new stacks don't have quite the same mystique. There was something enchanting about roaming through the shelves, eyeing antique bindings. "You lose the smell of the books," he says wistfully.

As in the old arrangement– and in virtually all rare books libraries– the public does not have access to Special Collections stacks. Visitors come to a reading room and request books; librarians fetch the volumes for them to use. The new reading room is named for Barrett, as was the old, but the new one has better lighting– including some of the skylights that punctuate the plaza above– and convenient laptop connections to each researcher's seat. Glass fronts between the reading room, lobby, and staff offices complement a state-of-the-art security system.


Treasure trove

 Oddly enough, the most precious items in UVA's Special Collections are not in the bottom-floor stacks but above, adjacent to the Barrett Reading Room in what is called the "Treasure Room." A window in the lobby outside the reading room provides a glimpse of shelves containing such gems as the world's largest collection of William Faulkner manuscripts; thousands of letters, manuscripts, documents, and drawings penned by Thomas Jefferson; the only complete manuscript of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, written on 392 separate pieces of paper; Ptolemy's 1475 Cosmographia, one of the world's first printed atlases; chronicles and maps of early New World explorations; and other irreplaceable items. The window looks appropriate and elegant, belying its built-in high-tech, multi-feature security system.

The increased security was prompted by incidents worthy of America's Most Wanted. In 1996, UVA'S Special Collections was one of five libraries raided by a Florida antique dealer, Joseph Bland Jr., who surreptitiously ripped three historic maps out of 18th-century books while viewing them in the Barrett Reading Room.

Library spokesperson Charlotte Morford Scott describes the measures prompted by that theft: "Besides a state of the art electronic security system, the Small library has a larger service desk located close to the reading room. The reading room has security cameras, and photo IDs are still required as they were in Alderman."

The new library's security system allows Special Collections director Michael Plunkett and fellow librarians to continue to offer the public relatively open access to rare materials, a feature that distinguishes UVA's Special Collections from peer institutions.

"We have great manuscript and book collections, as do other repositories," says Plunkett, "but no one has the access we have. We service collections to researchers in a very short period." What he means is that a visitor to the new library can receive requested books or documents in less than half an hour.

"We have had visiting researchers tell us horror stories," says Plunkett. "At the New York public library, for instance, requested books are delivered to visitors only two times a day."


What's in a name?

 The library's name mirrors the vastness of its possibilities: the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. That mouthful has, thank goodness, been shortened to the "Harrison/Small"– and the two parts of the name tell quite a story.

The late lawyer, investment banker, UVA college and law school alumnus David A. Harrison III was the Paul Goodloe McIntire of our times. Before his death in 2002, he and his wife, Mary, supported students and faculty, research, capital improvements, and endowments across the university spectrum with gifts that totaled at least $150 million.

The football field and new law school grounds are named for him. Professorships, scholarships, teaching awards, and research funding all derive from endowments created by the Harrisons. And now an institute for American history, literature, and culture, a pulsing activity center housed in the new library, is named for him as well. Harrison's generosity, says university president John Casteen, "has made its imprint on the University in ways both profound and long-lasting."

Real estate developer and UVA engineering alumnus Albert H. Small has also left a lasting impression. Not only did he envision an expanded on-Grounds library as "a new focal point of the University," as he said in 2004, but the innovative idea to go underground was his.

He and his wife contributed $2.5 million toward the new building that houses their remarkable collection of books, documents, and artifacts related to the Declaration of Independence. Gifts from their collection began coming to the university's Special Collections as plans developed for the new building. The entire collection was officially donated to the university in 2004– to be housed in what he called "a good home" once the new library was finished.


Would Thomas Jefferson be proud? "Books constitute capital," he wrote to James Madison in 1821. "A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years," and therefore books, Jefferson believed, represent capital investment.

Jefferson let students read in his university's library at a time when no other college libraries allowed such a practice. And although Jefferson himself famously had to divest himself of his capital– selling books in 1815 to help found the Library of Congress after the British torched the Capitol during the War of 1812– at his own university, the investment in books– and their 21st-century equivalent– has endured.

For $26 million (only $10 million of the total from the state, the rest from private donations), UVA now has not only a high-tech book storage facility, but also a welcoming new plaza, a major new building, new museum exhibitions, and a "good home" for its special library collections, valued at hundreds of millions– but, in fact, priceless.

Director of Special Collections Mike Plunkett and Exhibits Coordinator Mercy Quintos study Walt Whitman's first printing of
Leaves of Grass  from 1855, one of Special Collections' 10 copies of the first edition. The library will celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the publication with an upcoming exhibition.

The new building occupies a total of 72,700 square feet, 80 percent of which is underground. A landscaped plaza with walking paths covers the underground portion. The project architect was Washington, D.C.-based Hartman-Cox. Construction began in early 2002, and the facility opened in the fall of 2004.

Bernard Frischer, director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, wants to help the Harrison/Small Collection and UVA maintain their reputation as "the premier research center in the US for digital humanities."

Hoke Perkins