Nov. 9-15, 2001
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Newcomb director eager to build on student’s learning experience
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Behind the history: Retrofitting the Academical Village
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Behind the history: Retrofitting the Academical Village
Academical Village
Trisha Morrow

By Scott Crittenden

Early on a cool September morning, my laptop and I are perched atop the stairs of one of the most photographed landmarks in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda. The vista down the Lawn is remarkably unspoiled by the trappings of modernity; yet I know that behind the patrician veneer of those neoclassical facades, running like blood vessels through the walls and floors — even underneath the green grass — lurk complex skeins of data network, voice lines, electric power and other services.

U.Va. is one of the most technically well-endowed schools in the world, ranked ninth this year in Yahoo’s annual list of the country’s 100 most-wired universities.

Manifestations of that technological bounty are easy to find on Grounds, in everything from state-of-the-art computer labs and classrooms, to rich online library resources, to the Jumbotron scoreboard dwarfing the cheap seats at Scott Stadium. There are some not-so-obvious ways, however, that technology has left its mark on the physical spaces of the University.

“The Academical Village is not a museum,” says Murray Howard, curator of the University’s historic buildings. Jefferson intended that the University he laid out, encompassing the Rotunda, the Lawn residences and the pavilions, should be a hub of social activity and scholarly intercourse. Today, although preserving the authenticity of this world-class historic site is a paramount consideration, it still remains, in Howard’s words, “a village full of living people that have to live in the modern day.”

Some basic ground rules for retooling technological systems apply, starting with not detracting visually from the architectural setting. One trick, says Howard, is to install a new wall plane a few inches inboard from an existing one, then run the new infrastructure in the hidden space between. If the system must later be accessed, the new wall can be torn down while the historic fabric behind remains untouched.

A day in the life of tomorrow’s library

Students and faculty commune with laptops in Greenberry’s coffee shop, occupying the west end of the lobby of Alderman Library, where until a few years ago, the floor groaned under the weight of monolithic card catalog cabinets.

The cards are gone, replaced by ranks of network-connected PCs on the other side of the lobby. Call numbers and information about books, periodicals and other resources are served up by VIRGO, an industrial-strength database with a Web interface that researchers can access from just about anywhere on the planet.
In the late 1980s, a handful of people, led by associate librarian Kendon Stubbs, woke up and smelled the silicon: the future of libraries was digital. They began blazing a trail other research universities would soon follow — digitizing books and other content, forming technology partnerships with faculty, exploring new information tools, like geographic information systems, and tapping the potential of the Web.

Eventually, these efforts were incorporated into an overall vision of “the Library of Tomorrow”: a place where one day students will meet with faculty and librarians in teaching spaces called “collaboratories,” and assemble Web-accessible digital archives of searchable texts, photos, video clips and other resources.

A modern Rip Van Winkle falling asleep in a first-floor carrel in 1990 could wake up today and hardly notice any changes. A trip to the third floor, though, would leave him agog. The newspaper reading room, once a sprawling, Sunday afternoon kind of place with shelves and tabletops full of recent newspapers, and the Taylor Room, an executive meeting space of glassed cabinets, ponderous furniture and marble busts, are no longer there in 2001. The wing is now occupied by the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, the Electronic Text Center, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and the Virginia Center for Digital History.

Probably the biggest change to the library space is so big it’s hard to see: the walls have come down. Many people rarely make a trip to the library anymore; they visit online. Since users can access an increasing variety of library resources from their homes or residence halls, more on-site services are being geared toward needs other than simple browsing — like electronic classrooms, materials scanning facilities, and those collaboratories.

Despite the avalanche of new technologies, the demise of printed media has been exaggerated, says Martha Blodgett, associate librarian for information technology. For the foreseeable future, digital and paper materials will coexist within the walls of the library.

Jefferson’s revenge

Back on the Rotunda steps, I’m enjoying the golden afternoon sunlight on the Lawn. Through the magic of wireless technology, I can save this text file to my home directory server. It took a while to figure out where to locate the wireless antennas so they wouldn’t detract from the buildings. Ultimately, they were placed in pavilion attics, well back from the pretty semicircular windows where you can’t see them.

Ironically, after generations of figuring out ingenious methods for retrofitting historic spaces, technology is changing in ways that make such methods less necessary. The ongoing miniaturization of devices, along with the emergence of wireless data and voice communications, mean that much of the bulky infrastructure will no longer have to be accommodated. Two centuries after its founding, the Academical Village arcs back to its original vision.

Jefferson would smile.

This article was condensed from a longer version that appears in the current edition of To read more, visit


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