Local History Index Reveals University’s Past

June 17, 2024 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

A set of filing cabinets in a nondescript office in the University of Virginia’s Shannon Library contains more than a half-century’s worth of work.

Between the 1930s and the 1990s, reference librarians and other library staff at the University carefully clipped newspaper articles from the Charlottesville Daily Progress and other local papers, as well as some UVA publications. What they created was a wealth of knowledge about the University and the Charlottesville area.

This May, a group of UVA graduate students parsed thousands of clippings, covering everything from the University’s Dean of Women (a position that was eliminated after UVA became fully coeducational in 1970) to its dog mascots.

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In a little over a month, seven graduate students sorted through about 12,000 clippings out of an estimated 60,000 items, categorizing them by date, subject and people mentioned. Their goal is to create a list of the clippings, organized by subject, so that researchers everywhere – be they historians or curious community members – can access the information.

“There’s a lot of people whose accomplishments are hiding in those files, just waiting for someone to discover them,” reference librarian Mandy Rizki said.

Creating this index of the clippings will help preserve the work of those past librarians, since newspapers weren’t ever intended to last a long time.

For Rizki, looking through the clippings was nostalgic. For one graduate student, it was a window into the less commonly known aspects of what life at the University was like.

“You get a lot of interesting things about UVA, things like, for instance, about the anti-apartheid protests in the ’80s,” Mackenzie Haight, a doctoral student in religious studies, said.

Students working on the indexing project were able to choose their subjects. Haight chose the files under “G” and was indexing information on George Mason University, which was a branch of UVA from 1949 until 1972, when he learned about a faculty protest of George Mason College’s dean. He also learned of Roberta Hollingsworth Gwathmey, the Dean of Women who overlapped with former UVA president Edgar Shannon.

“You just get this broader sense of parts of the University history that aren’t present in the standard narrative,” Haight said.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Marvin in front of a window of the library
Elizabeth Marvin encountered a dog funeral as she indexed the local news clippings. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

There’s also information about the library itself in the files, like the fact it was common for library staff to smoke cigarettes in the building – even at the reference desk. 

“There’s some odd containers in Memorial Hall that are used to store umbrellas currently, and we had no idea what they were,” Trillian Hosticka, a reference librarian at UVA, said. “Now we know that they were ashtrays.”

Bethany McGlyn, who is earning her doctoral degree in history at UVA, dove into the folders about early efforts to racially integrate the University and make it coeducational. Her work on the coeducation clippings overlapped with the first fully coeducational class’s Reunions Weekend.

“I teach undergrads, and something that stuck out to me as I’ve been doing a lot of this is what a great teaching resource a lot of these clippings are and hopefully will be once they’re easier to access,” McGlyn said.

She’s also looked into UVA’s anti-war protests and the creation of the Department of Student Health and Wellness.

“Any subject you could ever imagine is covered in these files in some capacity,” McGlyn said.

That includes the slightly wacky, like a file on UVA’s mascots that led religious studies graduate student Elizabeth Marvin to a dog funeral.

“There was an article that was talking about the funeral for one of the dog mascots,” Marvin said. 

When she learned that 1,000 people were expected to attend the funeral for a dog named Seal, she went down the rabbit hole of UVA mascot history – from dogs raised by fraternity houses to a “Muppet-looking creature” called the Wahoo to Cavman.

And there’s still more information to be uncovered and indexed.

“There’s really amazing stuff in here,” Hosticka said. “There are things that you never would have known existed.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications