November 30, 2018 By Payton Moledor, Sanjay Suchak,

An old letterboxing logbook sits on an old book

What We Found in Alderman Library

There are secrets in the stacks – and a lot of books that long to be checked out.

If you’ve ever wondered how many books are in the general collection of the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library, we have an answer: 1,675,346. This massive number is part of the findings from Alderman Library’s first comprehensive inventory in 80 years.

This inventory, conducted in anticipation of the library’s upcoming $160 million renovation, is the first time that the entire contents of the beloved behemoth have been inventoried since it opened in 1938. The extensive inventory project was necessary to prepare for the renovation.

(Curious about what Alderman Library is going to look like after the renovation? Take a look at this detailed architectural rendering of the upcoming project.)

“We could not do what we needed to do for the renovation if we had not taken this first step,” Collections Access Manager Michelle Vermillion said. “If we started moving millions of items without first taking an inventory, things would get lost.”

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Books fill floor to ceiling bookshelves
Alderman Library’s vast general collection includes nearly 1.7 million volumes, which all must be moved during renovations.

Although the inventory mostly reveals that generations of UVA librarians have kept extremely good records – no rare volumes of lost Shakespearean works were discovered – there are some interesting takeaways.

Here are three takeaways from the inventory project:

1. Barcodes? What Barcodes?

“To prepare for the upcoming renovation, when Alderman’s collections will be removed from the building, every item has to have a barcode,” Vermillion said.

Alas, many books were not yet barcoded. This doesn’t mean that these items were incorrectly processed; they simply hadn’t been checked out since barcodes were added to the collection in 1988.

“If these items sat on the shelf and never got used, they’re not going to pass our eyes at a circulation desk,” Vermillion said. “Items that we purchased 75 years ago have possibly been sitting on the shelf for a long time, and we have many materials that were purchased before we went electronic.”

Barcoding the items is also necessary for the movement of volumes in anticipation of the renovation. The first floor of Clemons Library is currently being equipped to hold a social sciences and humanities collection during the renovation, while most other books will move to temporary storage in Ivy Stacks.

These books are still in circulation, however, and can easily be delivered to library patrons.

“Patrons request items from Ivy Stacks via Virgo, the library’s online catalog,” Vermillion said. “The requested items are delivered to an on-Grounds library selected by the patron at the time of request,” where they then can be picked up.

After the renovation, most of the books moved to Ivy Stacks will come back to Grounds.

2. Secret Societies Leave Stuff in the Stacks, Too

In a building as beloved as Alderman Library, interesting items often find their way to the stacks.

For example, a journal apparently from one of the University’s many secret societies found its way from deep inside the stacks to the library’s administrative offices. In true secret society fashion, the notebook was quickly and anonymously claimed, leaving the library staff to wonder what else was hiding in the library’s dense stacks.

And what else was hiding? Tobacco pipes, bottles of cheap booze, and a “letterboxing logbook” are just a few of the unusual items discovered during the inventory. The letterboxing stamp shown above, entitled “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” is known as a rarity among the letterboxing community and holds the prestigious blue diamond status on For years this stamp has drawn searchers to the historic library.

old wooden tobacco pipes
These three tobacco pipes were found among the stacks in Alderman Library.

These items were all found on the shelves of Alderman, as the inventory process did not include opening books to see what other unexpected surprises were inside. However, another initiative has done just that; the Book Traces project explores marginalia in the UVA Library collections.

3. Inventorying Is Hard Work

The main portion of this project has taken members of library staff and 15 outside inventory experts 10 months to complete.

This massive undertaking has required far more resources than current library staff can spare, so the library hired individuals contracted through Backstage Library Works to work on- and off-site, documenting and organizing the collection.

Backstage staff barcoded all books that needed a barcode and resolved any discrepancies in the library’s database. Over the course of the inventory, staff edited thousands of legacy catalog records, including call number discrepancies, title problems and metadata issues.

What’s Next?

This project isn’t finished; government documents are still being inventoried, and the onsite work performed by Backstage Library Works is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Even after their work is done, the library will continue metadata work to complete the inventory.

The renovation will bring Alderman Library up to current safety standards while still maintaining a beloved space for students to read, study and leave behind more interesting artifacts for years to come.

Photo at top: A “letterboxing logbook” for a form of scavenger hunting is among the objects discovered during Alderman Library’s first comprehensive inventory since 1938.


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