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Exploring Alderman Library
Technology melds past with future

UVA ALUMNI NEWS, (Fall 2001).

When I was eighteen, Anne Freudenberg hired me to work in the Alderman Library's Manuscripts Room--a section of the second floor known simply as "Manuscripts." In those days, the library was acquiring Clifton Waller Barrett's great collection of Americana, and our special collections were beginning to be what they are today--the Special Collections Library.

Working in Manuscripts (as I did off and on until I finished graduate school nine years later), I experienced a special, wonderful kind of education. Authorial hands, earlier times conveyed in yellowed paper, papers that themselves spoke volumes about the people who made and used them, ancient typeset, exquisite bygone script, aged ink, and occasionally bindings worn smooth by many different hands over eight or ten generations--these and daily contact with Anne Freudenberg and John Wyllie and Kendon Stubbs and a dozen other women and men who built and preserved the great collections were the materials of this less formal but somehow more vivid part of my own education.

In those days before the digital revolution, pen and ink and typewriters were our record keeping tools. So important were pen and ink, that a requirement for a student assistant in the special collections was excellent penmanship. People who need to read my handwriting nowadays might wonder how I met that particular standard of employment. Both the library and I were different then. I was young and I printed clearly, and the library was old and venerable. When I worked in Manuscripts, the past really lived there. Now, alongside the past, the future as well lives there and throughout the library. Visiting the library these days, I am struck by an increase in human activity, by a sense of dust being stirred, by a connecting current that links the past to the future, and people here on the Grounds to people around the world.

Today, one sees the future at work in Alderman Library. No other academic library speaks both knowledge and technology as clearly as Alderman does. When we were a quiet place in a quiet part of the country, when we had 5,000 or 8,000 (male) students enrolled, and one million books housed in our library, when records were kept with pen and ink by boys with good handwriting, few saw the library as a way to the future. Now, with 18,000 students and 4.5 million books in the library, digital technology extends the library beyond the bounds of time and space.

Librarians and scholars and students, modern-day Lewises and Clarks and Sacagaweas, explore cyber space. And they take with them the treasures of Alderman Library and of the world's literature. Our Special Collections Library now has 281,007 volumes. With support from a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Electronic Text Center, our electronic library, is in the process of posting on the Web the Clifton Waller Barrett collection that our library was just beginning to assimilate when I was a student assistant. This collection of manuscripts and rare books, formerly accessible only to scholars on Grounds or those with the time and resources to ravel to Charlottesville, is becoming easily available to people across the globe. And it is now as it was then the finest of its kind in the world.

Here are the figures:

  • The E-text Center has 51,000 texts digitized in HTML and XML for downloading via the Internet.
  • Of these texts, 5,000 are currently available to the general public.
  • Sixteen hundred of them are available in Microsoft Reader format--otherwise known as e-books, and have been downloaded by readers from 190 countries.
  • Every day, there are around 30,000 visits to our virtual library with 130,000 pages accessed from 20,000 different hosts.
  • By contrast, 5,930 was the March 2001 daily average of visits to the actual or bricks-and-mortar library. Over the nine months from August 2000 to April 2001, somewhat over 840,000 print texts circulated, while almost two and a half million e-books were downloaded.

What are visitors to the University's virtual library reading? The Jefferson papers, of course, but also the papers of Mark Twain, Civil War and Salem Witch Trials documents, Chinese classical literature and Apache language materials, and much more. The Webbased collections grow constantly, and the materials in these collections become each year more vast in number, more complex, and more essential to people everywhere.

Alderman still has student assistants, incidentally. They do much of the basic processing that makes materials available on the Web. Without student assistants, the shelves of documents digitized for the online library would not be. As our library benefits from their work, they benefit from the work they do, gaining valuable technological and bibliographic experience. In this work, their intellectual horizons are vastly expanded as mine were almost forty years ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same-in a way.

What is different is the capability of our library to provide many more human and textual connections. The University's Library today is the purest expression of Jeffersonian notions about freedom and the dissemination of knowledge to the people. Thanks to new technologies, any one of us has access to more human minds and products of the human mind than at any time in history. This nation and this University, these experiments in democracy, contribute substance to a world community based on shared intellectual experience. Our library provides tools for freedom and empowerment on a scale unimagined in the past.


John T. Casteen.