Behind the history: Retrofitting
the Academical Village
on a cool September morning, my laptop and I are perched atop
the stairs of one of the most photographed landmarks in Virginia,
Thomas Jeffersons 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.
is one of the most technically well-endowed schools in the world,
ranked ninth this year in Yahoos annual list of the countrys
100 most-wired universities.
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
Village is not a museum, says Murray Howard, curator
of the Universitys 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 Howards words, a village full
of living people that have to live in the modern day.
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
day in the life of tomorrows library
and faculty commune with laptops in Greenberrys 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.
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.
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.
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.
the biggest change to the library space is so big its 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.
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.
on the Rotunda steps, Im 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 wouldnt
detract from the buildings. Ultimately, they were placed in pavilion
attics, well back from the pretty semicircular windows where you
cant see them.
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.
article was condensed from a longer version that appears in the
current edition of virginia.edu. To read more, visit http://www.itc.virginia.edu/virginia.edu/fall01/retrofit/home.html.