The University of Virginia has long offered public access to the rare and beautiful volumes of the McGregor Library, but until 2013 they could only be studied in Charlottesville. Now, thanks to a $245,000 grant from the McGregor Fund, researchers can access the library’s valuable primary documents, which focus on the European discovery and settlement of the Americas, from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.

Over the last two years, faculty and staff have steadily digitized more than 50,000 pages of the McGregor Library and hope eventually to reach 75,000, working in chronological order.

“We started at 1475 and we’re now close to about 1640. We hope to make it to 1700 before the project ends,” said the collection’s manager, David Whitesell, a curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

The McGregor Library was established in 1938 when the McGregor Fund donated 5,000 volumes to UVA. Since then, the collection has grown to include more than 20,000 volumes. Due to the collection’s sheer size, Whitesell and his colleagues are focusing on digitizing only the oldest and most valuable volumes that are not already available in electronic form.

Many of the newly digitized volumes represent Europe’s earliest attempts to map the New World. Widely considered the first modern atlas, “Geographie” was published in Strasbourg in 1513 by Johann Schott and was the first to add 20 new maps based on the recent Spanish and Portuguese explorations. Although “America” was already in use, the cartographers instead chose to label their sketch of Florida, the Caribbean and northeast Brazil as “Terra Incognita.” This may have been an acknowledgement of all the yet-to-be mapped areas they knew were missing.

News of exploration was pouring in so quickly that at the time of publication, Scott’s world map was already outdated. Still, the book’s exquisite hand-colored maps were widely prized by the wealthier armchair travelers of the day.

In order to capture each intricate detail, UVA’s digitization team relies on high-resolution cameras that are fix-mounted above the volumes to ensure accuracy. Their goal is to recreate as closely as possible the feeling of actually seeing the book in person.

“We do every page. If it’s blank, we’ll still do it,” said Digital Production Group project manager, Lois Widmer. “We try to have the same experience you would have if you were turning the pages.”

Widmer oversees a team of four students and one part-time staff member working on the McGregor Collection. All are specially trained to handle the volumes. Here, manager of the Digital Production Group Christina Deane helps fourth-year student worker Tatiana Sokolova photograph a particularly fragile page.  

“The work up to this point has all been done by students. That’s been a real key component in this project and really all the projects that we do here,” Deane said. “We couldn’t do what we do without the students.”

Among the most delicate books are those that contain extended fold-out maps, like this second edition of Hernán Cortés’s famous “Second Letter.” It describes the Spanish expedition into the interior of Mexico in 1519. Inside, Cortés details his arrival at the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, the death of Aztec ruler Moctezuma and the Spaniard’s temporary exile from Tenochtitlan.

This is the first edition of his letter to contain a large woodcut folding map depicting a crude chart of the Gulf of Mexico and the layout of Tenochtitlan. Cortés and his men destroyed the city three years before the map was published in 1524.

While Cortés’s brutal exploits are widely known, digitizing the McGregor collection gives the world a glimpse of many different interactions between native peoples and Europeans.

“Vocabulario en Lengua Castellana y Mexicana,” by Alonso de Molina, is one of the earliest dictionaries of the Aztec’s Nahuatl language. It offered Spanish translations of common words and phrases. Printed in Mexico City in 1571, it is also one of the first volumes ever published in the Americas and was most likely intended for use by Spanish missionaries.

The collection also includes some early calls for the rights of Native Americans. Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the first Europeans to openly advocate for better treatment of Native Americans. His work, “Narratio regionum indicarum per Hispanos quosdam devastatarum verissima,” is one of many he wrote to expose the inhumane treatment of indigenous people and call for reform in the Spanish colonies.

Standing among the many scanned and dwindling rows of yet-to-be scanned McGregor volumes, Whitesell is thrilled with the progress the library has made thus far.

“We’ve digitized close to 150 volumes. That’s about two-thirds of our target,” he said.

Since its inception in 1938, the McGregor Library has continuously sought to enhance teaching and research by making rare books and manuscripts more widely accessible, so moving into the digital sphere was a natural step forward.

“The curators who’ve built the collection over time have been highly selective,” Whitesell said. “We’ve only added items that have significant research value and elevate the collection. We want to share resources that are hard to find elsewhere.

“Now we’re doing that online too.”

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications