Lost & found: Renovation unearths unexpected discovery

For one final week, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2020. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more. This week’s theme centers around looking inward as we move onward. Happy New Year, all! 

Early in February of 2020, UVA police officer Tewdros Aftae phoned Lisa Swales to inform her that workmen prepping for the library renovation had discovered her handbag stuffed inside the duct work in the stacks. The purse had been stolen when Swales stepped away from a favorite carrel on floor 1M while researching Civil War history for the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. The incident was not unprecedented — it was the second time Swales had had a purse stolen — but she had reported this theft more than a quarter century ago.

A leather purse with stamps, stickers, notes, and photographs

Image courtesy Lisa Swales.

The purse, unchanged for 27 years, had belonged not to the person Swales is now but the person she had been in 1993, before three presidencies and the fall of the twin towers, before remarriage and the birth of her three children.

Swales isn’t sure if there had been money inside the purse, but the well- preserved leather bag held a treasure of ordinary things from a life and place captured in time: a wallet containing photos of her cousins’ young children who are now having babies of their own; an Easter card and Winnie the Pooh stickers she intended to send to them; and a letter from her grandmother after a visit, thanking Swales for the cookies she had baked.

Other artifacts included a UVA Library user’s card with Social Security number as ID; ticket stubs from “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Aladdin” at the Carmike 6 (which was a new theater then but doesn’t exist today); a 1990 Kennedy Center ticket to the musical “Grand Hotel,” and a ticket to Old Cabell Hall to hear the neo-modern jazz ensemble Either/Orchestra in the WTJU jazz concert series. There were receipts for purchases she made on a recent trip to England, an ACAC fitness club membership, and an appointment reminder from a dentist who had been recommended by the late Armstead Robinson, founding director of the Woodson Institute, for whom Swales was doing research when her bag was taken. Robinson’s recommendation had been a good one — Swales still goes to the same dentist today!

Raffle tickets and two movie ticket stubs from 1992 and 1993.

Image courtesy Lisa Swales.

After her bag was stolen, Swales resumed life as a student, continuing to do research in the library, unaware of how close she was to the purse that would remain untouched for 27 years. She graduated in 1995 with an M.A. in History and continued working at the Woodson Institute until just before her first child was born in 1998. She volunteered and held part-time jobs while raising her kids and continues to teach an exercise class she started teaching in 1991 before attending graduate school.

Swales never expected to see her handbag again and isn’t sure what she’ll do with it. But this unexpected discovery from the library’s forthcoming transformation serves as a wonderful reminder of the fact that moving forward sometimes allows us to connect with our past — occasionally with more clarity than ever.

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