Library Graffiti: Drawing Without an Eraser

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Most of the 1.7 million print titles that were taken out of the main library to make way for renovation will come back when the library reopens. And thanks to the students in anthropology professor Lise Dobrin’s “Literacy and Orality” course, a “devalued form” of writing that was literally part of the building will continue to be available after the stacks have been demolished and rebuilt. In spring and summer of 2019, Dobrin’s class
documented graffiti that over the years had been anonymously scribbled on and scratched into the building’s 176 study carrels. With Library support, the students photographed, organized, and cataloged the accumulated writings and donated them to Special Collections where they will be preserved for posterity.

According to Dobrin, the writings represent moments when students, studying in the isolation of the carrels, felt liberated enough to communicate their deepest personal thoughts to other individuals coming to the same space, on topics as varied as academics, politics, poetry, film, music, or just what they were feeling at a given moment — in one carrel it became a sort of tradition to note the date, time, and weather with a comment on the writer’s state of mind.

Scrawling messages on carrels is not unlike writing posts on an anonymous internet forum. And because of the writers’ anonymity, their candid and personal observations provide valuable context for examining University culture. An overtly sexist comment directed toward members of a particular sorority, for instance, might offer insight into gendered bias in the University.

Other writers showed interest in the act of writing itself. One writer, for example, offered a quote from Derek Walcott’s poem “Winding Up”: “Now I require nothing from poetry but true feeling … We can sit watching grey water and in a life awash with mediocrity and trash Live rock-like.” Another statement attributed to American political reformer John W. Gardner, “Life is the art of drawing without an eraser,” appears in a somewhat truncated form in both German and English: “Leben ist zeichnen ohne Radiergummi |
life is drawing w/o an eraser.”

The project has enjoyed enthusiastic support from University Librarian John Unsworth, whose interest was deepened by the work of a former student classifying subgenres of graffiti in the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, and by the Pompeii Forum Project led by UVA professor emeritus John Dobbins. To Unsworth, graffiti in the Library is no less a threatened text than graffiti which did not survive volcanic eruption in Pompeii. And now, because of these students’ efforts, the student who wrote, “I’m gonna come back in 10 years & show this to my kids! pls don’t paint over,” need not go away disappointed.

A printed note in ink on a wooden support asks, "And many years down the road, looking back you will ask yourself was it really worth it?" with an bent arrow pointing to a reply, "Was what worth it?"

Example of a note from a student in one generation to students in other future generations — and a reply .

View of study carrel above which are two shelves, the first with many origami figures folded into various shapes.

Origami figures made from study and lecture notes.

Lines in ink, in cursive script, written in brief, slanted lines on the outer edges of a carrel bookshelf.

Quote from poet Derek Walcott’s “Winding Up”: ““Now I require nothing from poetry but true feeling … We can sit watching grey water and in a life awash with mediocrity and trash. Live rock-like.”

Tibetan text written in ink on the outer edge of a carrel bookshelf.

In Tibetan: the date (2017-09-13), name of the work (“The Elegant Sayings of Sakya Paṇḍita”), author (Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen), and the saying: “Even if one is to die the next morning, today one must study. Though one may not become a sage in this life, Knowledge is safely deposited for future lives, Just as riches safely deposited can later be reclaimed.”

German text printed in ink on the outer edge of a carrel bookshelf: "Leben ist zeichnen ohne Radiergummi", followed by the English equivalent, "life is drawing w/o an eraser".

Text in German of a statement attributed to American political reformer John W. Gardner: “life is drawing w/o an eraser.”

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