Preserving the Library’s Record of Itself

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2020. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more!

Neal Curtis and Samuel Lemley pose next to wooden cabinets of the card catalog in the empty stacks. In the foreground, several drawers of cards have been pulled out where volunteers have been working on them.

Doctoral students Neal Curtis (left) and Samuel Lemley, and two of the 40 cabinets containing the Library’s card catalog, retired when the catalog went online in 1989. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.

To doctoral students Neal Curtis and Samuel Lemley, the millions of index cards housed in 40 massive wooden cabinets on the main library’s fifth floor (comprising the Library catalog before it went online in 1989), served as a valuable resource in their Rotunda Library Online project. The old catalog was “the Library’s record of itself,” a connection with “how the University created and represented knowledge at a given moment in its
history.” Faced with the possibility of losing this piece of University history to the renovation, they began a volunteer project to have all the cards boxed and preserved for future generations of researchers, and are seeking funds to have information from the cards made available eventually through Virgo, the Library’s online catalog.

View of an open card catalog drawer with one card pulled up, showing information (call number, author, title).

Example of a card referring to a book in the “SciTech” Library. Cards would sometimes have notes on which professor recommended the book’s purchase. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.

One reason for preserving this physical record of the Library’s holdings is that not all information survived the transfer to digital form. Since the beginning of the card catalog in 1939, librarians and Library workers sometimes included handwritten notes on the front and back of cards about the provenance of certain volumes — where they came from, who donated them, or the names of professors and the titles they recommended for purchase. President Emeritus John T. Casteen III, who had filed cards in the Library as a student worker, remembers notes in the card catalog about books that came from the collections of Thomas Jefferson and others, some donated to make up for Library losses in the Rotunda fire of 1895.

One of the first drawers examined by Curtis contained a card for an 1804 edition of Benjamin Smith Barton’s “Elements of Botany” signed by Joseph C. Cabell, an early backer and influential promoter of Jefferson’s University. When Curtis found no record of the book in Virgo, he inquired if it were on the shelf in Special Collections. It was. Other than the book itself, the entry in the card catalog was the only remaining record that this piece of Library history existed.

The project received full backing from the Library, which offered expertise in vetting and improving the process by which about 40 student and faculty volunteers packed the cards for storage. University Librarian and Dean of Libraries, John Unsworth, praised the volunteer effort: “The University of Virginia was built around its library, and it has a long and distinguished history of bibliographic scholarship … The fact that this effort to preserve the final state of our (1989) card catalog is being led and organized by raduate students testifies to the continued vitality of that tradition.”

The front of one of the wooden cabinets, showing rows of drawers with metal handles and slots for drawer labels.

Cabinet containing drawers of cards comprising “the Library’s record of itself”. Photo by Sanjay Suchak.


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