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Grant Awarded to U.Va. Library Will Make Unique Collection Available Online

The University of Virginia’s McGregor Library of American History includes some of the most historically significant works on the European exploration of the New World.

Printed in 1495, Giuliano Dati’s account, in Italian verse, of Christopher Columbus’ official report of his first voyage to the New World is one of only six surviving copies of the pamphlet’s five known editions. Another of the collection’s most prized books, a first-edition, 1530 account of Spain’s royal chronicler of the Indies, includes some of the first detailed depictions of Native Americans and New World plants.

For decades, the only way to study these rare books was to visit the library in person. A new grant, however, will allow the University of Virginia Library to digitize many of the most historically significant works, works that have not been digitized by any other collections around the world. The three-year project will open up this cornerstone of U.Va.’s Special Collections to students, academics and researchers around the world, broadening access to an important slice of American history.

The McGregor Fund’s 1938 donation of the collection of its founder, Detroit philanthropist Tracy W. McGregor, to U.Va. established the University as the holder of one of the world’s finest collections of rare books related to the European discovery, exploration and history of North America and the United States, and of rare books and manuscripts relating to English literature.

Now, 75 years after that gift, the McGregor Fund has awarded U.Va. a $245,000 grant to support a three-year effort to digitize a significant portion of the McGregor Library. The project will improve access to the University’s collection of some of the oldest and most significant works about the discovery and settlement of the New World, expanding its world-class reputation as a prized resource for students and researchers.

“Given the opportunities afforded by present technology, we realize how important it is to digitize our collections so that they can be used more widely by people basically anywhere in the world,” said David Whitesell, a curator in U.Va.’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. “With the McGregor Fund’s support, we can take a key group of some of the most significant books in the collection and digitize them and make them available through the library’s online catalog.”

The announcement of the award coincides with a major new U.Va. Library exhibition commemorating the University’s 75-year partnership with the McGregor Fund. “Collecting American Histories: The Tracy W. McGregor Library at 75,” which opened last month. The exhibition features more than 125 rare books, broadsides, manuscripts, maps and prints from the McGregor Library and will remain on display until July in the main floor gallery of the Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library.

The McGregor Fund’s board is scheduled to visit the library Wednesday and will meet with University President Teresa A. Sullivan, as well as the student-run U.Va. Library Council, an advisory group that works with the University Library.

“We have been very impressed with the University’s wonderful stewardship of the collection,” McGregor Fund President David Campbell said. “One of the things that really impressed us with the University of Virginia’s proposal is its plan to digitize the most historically significant works in the collection, works that have not been digitized by any other collections around the world. It’s going to open up an important slice of American history, and frankly, it’s characteristic of the way U.Va. has done everything with this collection: in a top-quality manner.”

Whitesell said the library has identified about 300 volumes from the McGregor Library, about 75,000 pages in all, to digitize and make available for study online with high-resolution images. The selected works are primarily books and documents printed in Europe in languages other than English.

The prized works to be digitized include a 1613 etching, from explorer Samuel de Champlain’s original sketch, depicting a July 30, 1609 battle where Champlain and a band of Huron Indians defeated a superior Mohawk force. As shown in the etching, Champlain hid behind his Huron allies until the last moment. His emergence on the battlefield marked the Mohawks’ first meeting with a European, and with firearms.

In addition to making many of the McGregor Library’s rarest works available online, the grant will allow the University to enhance the collection’s “metadata.” A more extensive description of each item’s physical features and their content − fuller and more accurate title transcriptions, the number of pages or leaves, the number and kinds of illustrations and key copy-specific information, such as descriptions of the bookbinding, stamps, inscriptions or other significant marks of provenance − will empower researchers to refine their searches and make discoveries before even setting foot within the library.

Many of the McGregor Library’s works on the discovery and exploration of the New World are used by U.Va. classes already. S. Max Edelson, an associate professor in the Corcoran Department of History who researches the history of colonial British America, said he has only scratched the surface of the library’s vast holdings.

In his research and teaching of early American history, he has used digitized maps developed by U.Va. Library’s Scholars’ Lab. Digitizing more of the McGregor Library’s unique holdings will support an even broader range of digital humanities research and instruction, initiatives in which U.Va. and its library have taken the lead nationally for two decades now.

“What we do at U.Va., perhaps better than anyone else, is integrate all the maps that have been digitized and loaded into our electronic catalog,” Edelson said. “Virginia is leading the way in digitizing maps and other documents and making them available to researchers. This is certainly the future of scholarship. If Virginia can take this unique collection of books, maps and manuscripts and put it online, this is a great asset.

“Because the library has invested in digital research and scholarship through the Scholars’ Lab, these valuable manuscript and printed resources will become the test cases for advanced geospatial visualizations and experiments in data-mining. The library is not only digitizing a unique research collection to better preserve and disseminate it, it also is building tools that can help faculty and students − here and all over the world − make sense of them in new ways.”

In addition to the exhibit commemorating the 75th anniversary of the McGregor Fund’s gift and the fund’s board visit, the Tracy W. and Katherine W. McGregor Distinguished Lecture Series will hold its seventh presentation Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library auditorium.

Peter S. Onuf, history professor emeritus, will deliver a lecture titled “Books, Letters and Prayers: Thomas Jefferson in his Sanctum Sanctorum.”

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