In the beginning, the University Library was a repository of the works of those considered the great thinkers and creators. Accordingly, when in 1826 a young first-year student named Edgar Allan Poe walked into the Rotunda searching for the works of the eminent 18th-century philosophers, he left with a copy of Voltaire’s Histoire particulière.
We know this because the University Library, among its vast holdings, still has the register he signed when checking out his books. Preservation of the past has joined access to knowledge as part of the Library’s mission.
The Library still excels at these tasks; however, the efforts have become vastly more complex. In addition to books and journals, the Library’s collection includes the full spectrum of analog media—photographs, film, maps, manuscripts, recordings, and more. An early-20th-century catalog from the Willys-Overland Motor Company, the original manuscript of the Red Badge of Courage, and footage documenting the civil rights era from WSLS-TV in Roanoke are all objects the Library has preserved.
The Library’s collection also includes increasing amounts of “born digital” materials like Word files and websites, which are both evanescent and surprisingly fragile. The University librarians are among world leaders in developing systems to catalog, preserve, manipulate, and distribute this material.
Indeed, the Library’s mastery of digital material marks a fundamental shift in its relationship with users. U.Va. librarians are employing technology to make collections more accessible. Anyone with an Internet connection can turn to the Web to read the 150-year-old letters from the Special Collections Library that are added each month to its Civil War blog or hear William Faulkner speak to University students. Today, Poe could have downloaded Voltaire as an e-book.
But online accessibility has not dampened enthusiasm for using the University Library, which recorded more than 3 million visits last year. Thanks to their mastery of digital tools, librarians are often active collaborators with University scholars and researchers. And the Library is even more popular with students than ever. As University Librarian Karin Wittenborg says, “Most Library spaces are now abuzz with coffee and conversation, companions to quiet spaces for contemplation and research.”