New U.Va. Director Seeks to Bring Special Collections to a Wider Audience

April 6, 2010 — The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia holds more than 15 million manuscripts, rare books, maps, films and photographs. Tasked with administering this vast collection of priceless pieces is Nicole Bouché, the library's new director.

Bouché, who has worked with special collections throughout her career, came to the University of Virginia four months ago from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she was Pacific Northwest curator in the Special Collections Department. Prior to that, she was manuscript unit head at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and assistant head of the Manuscripts Division at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkley.

Bouché received her MLS and MA in history at U.C.-Berkeley with a focus on the American West. While there, she worked in the Bancroft Library and became intrigued with the idea of a career working in special collections.

"There is a sense of immediacy with history and people and events of the past that one gets with direct contact with the artifact," Bouché said.

One of her goals at U.Va. is to move special collections into the center of the enterprises, starting by furthering efforts to digitize pieces of the collection to increase accessibility to students and faculty. Collaborations between the library, faculty and students, such as the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History, put special collections “out there front and center as resources,” she said.

Bouché would also like to afford students more opportunities to be exposed to the collections, specifically touting the Wolfe Undergraduate Docent Awards, which support students in developing outreach programs that promote special collections resources to the University and general public.

“A special collections library needs to be a teaching library – a learning lab, not just a repository,” she said.

Bouché plans to push lesser-known collections to the fore, by selecting strong materials to digitize and creating a systematic digitization agenda. She said she hopes to continue building the collections with pieces that bolster areas of strength.

Special Collections' documents and letters reach back to the founding of the University itself, including Thomas Jefferson's original architectural drawings and plans for the Academical Village, and its early years of operation.

The Small Special Collections Library specializes in American history and literature, with particular strengths in Virginia history; the history of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello and U.Va.; and the writings of William Faulkner and Edgar Allan Poe.  Longtime supporters of the University and the library, Albert and Shirley Small made a substantial gift toward the construction of the special collections library that bears their name and houses Small's collection of autograph documents and rare, early printings of the Declaration of Independence.

Special Collections also comprises the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, a compilation of more than 300,000 American literary books and manuscripts, which offers one of the nation's most comprehensive collections of American literature from 1775 to 1875 as well as select pieces up through the present day. It features works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost, among other prominent American writers.

As a student of 19th-century American history, one of Bouché’s favorite pieces in U.Va.'s special collections is the so-called “Firebell in the Night” letter written by Jefferson to John Holmes at the time of the Missouri Compromise. Jefferson compares hearing the news of the compromise to "a firebell in the night" and speaks of his growing concerns for the future of the union, specifically with regard to the institution of slavery. Bouché said the letter is made more meaningful to her by the fact that it is here at U.Va., only miles from where it was originally written, at Jefferson’s Monticello.

Bouché also regards the Rare Book School, an independent institute that moved to U.Va. in 1992, as a distinguishing feature of an environment in which rare and unique books, documents and manuscripts are studied and appreciated. According to Bouché, this program is the foremost teaching center for the history of the book and the profession of special collections, drawing special collections professionals from around the world every summer to courses held on Grounds.

— By Katie Andrew