19 Treasures From UVA’s Special Collections Library

Your Neighborhood Library Is Cooler Than You Think

Original Rotunda drawings and miniature books are just a few of the rare treasures to be found in UVA’s Special Collections Library.

Underground and behind many protective barriers lie some of the world’s rarest artifacts.

The University of Virginia’s subterannean Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is not only home to many archived documents penned by Thomas Jefferson or important to University history. The vaults also hold many pieces craved by collectors and museums, and rare artifacts from around the world.

Throughout the year, the Special Collections Library sees many UVA students enrolled in introductory courses, as well as courses that deeply integrate the library’s holdings into students’ research and thesis-writing. For instance, students in “Gender and the Gothic,”  a literature course, often come in seeking rare books and documents such as a contract between Gothic writer Anne Radcliffe and her publisher.

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Ann Radcliffe and her husband William Radcliffe’s signatures on a contract that ensured Ann would retain all rights to her work.
Ann Radcliffe and her husband William Radcliffe’s signatures on a contract that ensured Ann would retain all rights to her work.

“I think it’s really empowering for students to dive into things, and for them to realize that they don’t necessarily have to [rely on] conclusions and analyses that they’re reading in books, but they can actually examine the materials themselves and analyze them and come to their own conclusions,” said Krystal Appiah, instruction librarian for Special Collections.

The impact of this expansive library doesn’t stop with undergrad research projects. Special Collections opens its doors to University faculty members, K-12 teachers and students of all ages.

Before 2004, when the collection moved into the lower levels of the Harrison-Small building, the library would host classes using its materials about once or twice a year. Now, the Special Collections Library has grown to host around 250 presentations for more than 4,000 participants each year.

From left to right, a Babylonian clay tablet dating back to 2450 B.C., a piece of Egyptian papyrus from 100 A.D., and the revolutionary Paris pocket bible, circa 1270 A.D., handwritten on animal skin.
From left to right, a Babylonian clay tablet dating back to 2450 B.C., a piece of Egyptian papyrus from 100 A.D., and the revolutionary Paris pocket bible, circa 1270 A.D., handwritten on animal skin.

“There’s so much about our collection that can support so many different types of learning,” Appiah said.

Everyone from University Guides to an elementary school group from Georgia return to the library year after year to engage with its treasures.

“Often this building is such a mystery to students,” Appiah said. “They think it’s a place that they can’t come into, and having the University Guide Service be our partner to tell parents and students, ‘This is Special Collections; this is where anyone can come in and use materials,’ is really important.”

The greater Charlottesville community can get in on the fun, too. There are three permanent exhibits in Harrison-Small, plus three rotating spaces that are open to the public. Anyone can register to use the reading room and request items from the collection, whether it’s a Bible translated into Algonquian, a 15th-century French devotional, or some other rare object.

Appiah and George Riser, a Special Collections staff member, took us into the vault to see a few of the treasures the Small Special Collections Library has to offer.

A Peek Into Jefferson’s Mind

Probably some of the best-known holdings in the Special Collections Library are those related to the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. The library has an extensive collection of Jefferson’s personal writings and drawings, and documents dating back to the University’s founding.

Appiah is always excited to show students something in Jefferson’s own handwriting. “They find this other connection to the University just looking at something that the founder wrote,” she said.

One volume that contains a plethora of Jefferson’s handwriting is his personal annotated copy of his “Notes on the State of Virginia.” The additions are written in seven different languages in both the margins and on inserted paper, and include hand-drawn illustrations.

After Jefferson’s death, a grandson compiled the notes made in this copy and printed a second edition of the book.

The collection also features many sketches by Jefferson, including this drawing of the Rotunda. Most notably, the back side of the drawing includes his calculations of how many bricks would be needed to build this historic Lawn building. His conclusion: 1,112,675 bricks.

Documenting Slavery at the University

More recently, the University community has relied on the library to explore records of enslaved people who worked for Jefferson and at UVA. Work done by the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, and many interested faculty and students is helping to create a more complete, more accurate picture of UVA, from the laying of the cornerstone to today.

The Cornerstone Institute is a summer program run by the President’s Commission on Slavery that allows local high school students to engage in hands-on experiences related to UVA’s history regarding enslaved laborers. During the program, the students make a stop at the Special Collections Library to see some of the primary sources used to develop a more comprehensive look at the University.

The students study a variety of topics, including “the shortcomings of Jefferson regarding his ideas of liberty and freedom in relation to certain populations,” Appiah said. “They also look at the University post-Jefferson and its use of enslaved labor to function, as well as the University’s support of segregation in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.”

These faculty meeting minutes from 1850 recount the sexual assault of a young African American girl by three UVA students. Although it was reported that other UVA students stepped in to prevent any further harm, the perpetrators fled town and never faced any consequences.

Riser noted that, even if the perpetrators had been caught, they would have been charged with damaging someone’s property, not harming a person.

Both Appiah and Riser believe primary sources like this one have opened the eyes of those at the University to a more complete and honest portrayal of Jefferson and his institution. Riser recalled that when he first arrived at UVA in 1985, many people had a sanitized perception of the University and its founder, a slaveholder whose ideals about liberty helped establish the nation but excluded many.

“Now [nuanced critiques are] much more prevalent,” he said. “It’s good. They have so many classes bringing out architectural drawings saying, ‘Oh, there were no windows for the enslaved people in the first building,’ and many other things that show a more accurate idea of the University.”

The documentation continues in the present day. After the violent, white nationalist “Unite the Right” rallies of August 2017, Special Collections curators proactively collected donated materials to chronicle the events of those days in the University’s archives – preserving a full picture of the University for present and future scholars.

In addition to University records on slavery, the collection holds some of the earliest documentation of enslaved people and their personal writings.

This is a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems, titled “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral,” published in 1773. Separated from her family in Senegal when she was a child, Phillis grew up in the Wheatley household in Boston as a slave; however, she was given the opportunity to learn how to read and write. The portrait on the inside cover is one of the earliest depictions of an enslaved person.

In order to publish, Wheatley first had to testify before a group of 12 men to prove she had written the poems, Appiah said.

Diverse Global Holdings

In addition to its extensive collections from Virginia and the United States, the library is home to a growing number of diverse objects and books that span the globe.

One recent addition to the collection is this Buddhist manuscript from the 1890s that tells the tale of a monk who went to heaven and hell and returned to tell the story. This style of accordion book was very common in 19th-century Thailand and would be read by flipping through the panels.

The library is always trying to increase its holdings from non-Western cultures in order to acknowledge the other traditions that were happening at the same time as better-known European events, Appiah said.

This eye-catching piece is a choir prompt book that dates back to approximately 1475 in southern Italy. There are 80 pages contained between two oak wood covers, with vellum for the pages made from the hides of 40 cows. Many pages are ornately illustrated and decorated with real gold.

This book has served library visitors in many different capacities, from UVA faculty conducting DNA tests on the pages to young children at a choir camp attempting to sing a few lines in Latin.

Some of the books in the collection fill very specific niches, such as Eastern European pop-up books. This unique holding is actually one of about 850 pop-up books in the library's collections. This particular book is a brand-new edition of a centuries-old Persian legend about a serpent king.

Interested in getting your hands on some of these treasures?

Although it’s great to read about these items, both Appiah and Riser agree that digitized images don’t do the actual objects justice. The library is constantly reaching out to the community through exhibits such as “Encompassing Multitudes: The Song of Walt Whitman,” running now through July 27. Library staff are also engaging with UVA student organizations to create more complete archives of the many clubs on Grounds.

Adults at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, fourth-graders learning Latin and visitors from around the world flock to Special Collections to get a glimpse of the treasures it holds. Plan your visit here or submit an online request form here.

Or simply drop by during exhibition hours:

  • Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
  • Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
  • Saturday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m.

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications