The Virtual Library
U.Va. brings information into the digital age
UVA Alumni News, (Spring, 2001).
"The new electronic interdependence re-creates the world in the image of a global village."
- Marshall McLuhan,
The Medium Is the Message, 1967
Deep within the labyrinth behind the public section of Alderman Library's Special Collections, Edward Gaynor leads the way through stacks filled with fabulous old hooks, maps and manuscripts. Here are stored, among thousands of other items, Jefferson's architectural drawings of the University of Virginia and letters written by Edgar Allan Poe. In one dimly lit hallway, ancient tomes sit behind glass in floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Thin slips of paper tucked into each denote their respective catalog numbers.
For the past five years the -11-year-old Gaynor-a native of Greenville, S.C., and a recipient of a master of library of science degree-has served as Alderman's associate director of Special Collections, lie also oversees the Special Collections Digital Center. Suddenly Gaynor turns an unexpected corner and strides into a gorgeous cream-and-putty-colored room. With its elaborately carved molding and built-in bookshelves, the 20by-15-foot chamber is a wonderful vision of the past.
"'This is the Mount Vernon Room," says Gaynor. "It's a perfect reconstruction of George Washington's library at Mount Vernon. Pretty nice, huh?" With a smile Gaynor explains his amazement when he discovered that a portrait of Washington that normally hangs in the room-it's currently out on loan-actually turned out to he an original Gilbert Stuart. Today a photocopy of a one-dollar bill is taped in its place: "Just to remind everybody," he says.
Just below the tiny image of our first president, however-in stark contrast to tile room's Venerable nature-a graduate student sits working at a consputer. To his left, on a digital scanner, a beautiful old hook lies open, perfectly illuminated by non-heat-producing lamps. Fixed two feet above it, the digital camera is capturing, or digitizing, an image of the handsomely printed two-page spread. Once this digital "picture" is posted to a University of Virginia-sponsored Web site, along with the images of the rest of the volume, the knowledge contained in this long-out-of-print book will he available to anyone with access to the Internet.
Currently ranked 22nd among North America's top 111 university libraries, the University of Virginia ibrary-at its 14 various sites - holds more than 4,500,000 volumes and 14,000,000 manuscripts. For the University's first 165 years, this wealth of information was only available to students, faculty and visitors-people sitting clown with and poring over printed pages or hand-inscribed vellum. Since the early 1990s and the advent of the Internet, however, U.Va.'s many electronic centers have been converting their fascinating collections into a global library. "Pulses of electricity," writes Gene Block, the University's vice president for research, "turn out to be a much More effective medium for ideas than paper."
The Special Collections Digital Center is physically located in Alderman Library, on the Second Floor East: on the Web it can he found at wvw.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/scdc/scdc.html. The center's primary function, explains Gaynor, is serving U.Va. faculty and students. Since 1996 he and Felicia Johnson, coordinator of digital services, have diligently responded to the requests of their patrons, as well as supervised the graduate students who each provide 30 hours a week of work.
"We have a digital camera that we got in 1995," says Gaynor, "a number of Macintosh desktop machines, and a couple of CD writers." He estimates that in the past few years their equipment and labor have helped build close to 30 major Web sites and contributed to literally hundreds more. "Really our first big project in 1996," he says, "was the Holsinger Studio Web site." Rufus W. Holsinger operated a photography business at 719-720 West Main. named the "University Studio," from the late 1880s until his death in 1930. In his glass-plate negatives are wonderfully preserved the places and faces of turn-of-the-century Charlottesville (This enthralling Web site, accessible to anyone on the Internet, is located at www•.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/holsinger/.)
"We digitized most of the 10,000 glass-plate negatives that are here in Special Collections," says Gaynor. "We decided there were four categories that people would he most interested in seeing: those with African-American content; images of Charlottesville: photographs of the University, including the fabulous 1895 Rotunda fire photos; and all the World War I-era photos."
Visitors can search this site using these classifications, or by keyword. Here are found photographic treasures such as 100-year-old pictures of U.Va. football players, the IMP Society, hunt clubs, the first Armistice Day celebration in 1918, and Charlottesville and Albemarle County people posing with their dogs.
"You can blow up a spot on a glass-plate negative tremendously," explains Gaynor. "Mr. Holsinger took shots of lots of stores tin downtown Charlottesville]. He'd stand at the front and take a photo of the inside. Well, you can zoom in with a digital camera, capture a portion and blow it up, and you can read the labels on the boxes at the back of the store."
Another fantastic Web site that Gaynor's team worked on is titled "Mark Twain in His Times" (located at etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/). According to its credits, it was "written and directed by Stephen Railton, Department of English, University of Virginia," and was "filmed almost entirely on location at Special Collections." It contains, writes Professor Railton, "dozens of texts and manuscripts, scores of contemporary reviews and articles, hundreds of images, and many different kinds of interactive exhibits."
With a few mouse clicks, visitors can see how the illustrations of Twain's famous black character, the slave Jim, changed and matured as our society began to shed its racist trappings. They can view all the different ways Samuel Clemens, and his alter ego Twain, signed their names and learn why Twain wore white suits in his latter years.
"Students around the world," writes Railton, "can flip through the sales prospectus of Huck Finn and see for themselves how this classic American novel was described and sold to its original readers in 1885-and since the copy they are using is a virtual one, the real prospectus isn't being worn out." Fans of Twain's work will find that it's quite easy to spend hours browsing through this one Web site alone.
Upstairs and on the opposite wing of Aldermanon the Third Floor West-34-year-old Mike Furlough is interim director of the Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, or the Geostat Center. (Electronically it can be visited at fisher.lib.virginia.edu/.) Also from South Carolina. Furlough holds a master's degree in English and American literature. He's been working at Alderman since 1997, and at the Geostat Center since 1998.
"It sounds like a satellite but it's not," says Furlough with a grin. In existence for about seven years, the Geostat Center, he explains, was developed in response to need. at the University regarding U.S. government products. "The University of Virginia Library is a depository library for the U.S. government," he says, sitting in the middle of a large room virtually surrounded by 25 computer workstations. Behind those, the walls are covered by stacks of gray metal flat files, the kind of container designed to hold maps. "We receive almost everything that is published by the Government Printing Office (GPO)-copies of the Senate and House Committee Hearings, for example, the Congressional Records, Army manuals ... The most significant items in the print collection would he the maps published by agencies like the Geological Survey or the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Transportation or the Census Bureau."
"After the last census," he continues, "the government starting delivering more information electronically, on floppy disks and CD-ROMs, including extensive digital maps of the nation. The first incarnation of the Geostat Center was formed to help faculty take advantage of all this digital data."
Over the years the Geostat Center has taken some of that data, and other nongovernmental information, and spun it into captivating Web sites. One of the most interesting (at fisher.lib.virginia.edu/sanborn/) features the 1920 Sanborn fire insurance maps of Charlottesville. Created in the 1880s to provide maps for insurance companies, the huge Sanborn Map Company employed surveyors who, by the 1930s. illustrated by hand close to 13,000 towns all across the United States. The maps are beautifully drawn and incredibly detailed, often showing a home's internal rooms, and its outside porches and sheds. For insurance purposes the buildings were color-coded in brown, red, and yellow according to their makeup and, consequently, the varying levels of risk involved in insuring them. On the 1920 Sanhorn map of Charlottesville, for example, Mr. Jefferson's gorgeous Rotunda, which had been gutted by fire only 25 years before, was colored in brown, meaning it was fireproof. This Web site includes approximately 40 maps of the Charlottesville area, all completely indexed by street and building names.
Another intriguing Geostat Center-created Web site (located at fisher.lib.virginia.edu/census) is the United States Historical Census Data Browser. It includes data from every enumeration from 1790, when marshals were assigned the task of visiting every household, up to the census of 1960. That first U.S. counting in 1790 listed, among other things, the number of persons in each household-and whether they were free white males or females, their ages, and their original nationality. It also counted slaves, even though they could not vote, and "free colored slaveholding families."
The nation's population in 1790, for example, was only 3,893,874: Virginia's was 747,550. At the same time Charlottesville and Albemarle County contained 12,585 non-slaves and 5,579 slaves. With its many census listings, and seemingly endless ways of searching and sorting its data, this site has a multitude of uses for both researchers and teachers. And that's what the Geostat Center is all about. "It's pretty easy to put the files on the server and point people to them," says Furlough, "but what we really pride ourselves on here is being able to offer a space where people can come in and work on that data."
Down the hallway from Geostat, is the Electronic Text (or E-text) Center, located digitally at etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks/. Thanks to their efforts, the world's barriers to the global dissemination of literature are collapsing at a phenomenal rate. In charge is England native David Seaman, a University of Connecticut-educated Ph.D. in medieval studies who simply oozes enthusiasm. In his office, filled with old texts and old furniture, the 38-year-old sits at his computer talking and typing simultaneously. He's anxious to tell the world and, by all accounts, the world is anxious to listen.
How is it that a medievalist is the director of the world's largest e-book library? "When we were beginning to form our digital library [in the early 1990s]," he explains, "the library was talking to various people who were potential users, and I had done some computer-aided editing work as a graduate student. It was one those situations where a couple casual conversations turned into: 'Come and do it.'"
The E-text Center opened for business in August of 1992. Since then the department has been at the forefront of the digital library explosion. "We like to say that we build collections, and we build user communities." lie says. "The University of Virginia model, which is now being replicated elsewhere, is ... part of the library's operations. We don't pretend that this is somehow different just because there's a computer involved."
By the steady, day-to-day, digitizing of texts and classics of literature, the E-text Center created a digital library of more than 50,000 volumes. 'These e-books could be accessed and read only while the visitor was logged on to the E-text Web site. In August of 2000, however, the E-text Center included free on its Web site Microsoft Reader, a book-reading software tool that allows the user to download literature directly to his or her computer. At the same time the E-text Center made available, in Microsoft Reader format, more than 1,200 of its most popular e-books.
'We deliberately chose titles that we knew we did lots of business, in on the Web," says Seaman, "Shakespeare, the Bible, Jefferson. Dickens. American fiction, philosophy. Caesar, Plato. These are time-tested titles.
"Between August 8 and November 13, to Microsoft's amazement and everybody's amazement." he says, barely containing his excitement, "we've shipped over 1,000,000 complete e-books, from this library, to over 100 different countries ... How can that possibly he true? It's true because we were already the world's largest public e-book library."
Surprisingly, the e-book that scored the most downloads during that period was Aesop's Fables. The top ten also included Beowulf, Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
As can be imagined, the response from around the globe has been nothing short of overwhelming. "Hello! I'm Mitja from Slovenia," e-mailed one e-book user. "I wish to thank you for making such [a] large e-library [available] for Microsoft Reader. It's great!"
At the University of Virginia Library's many electronic departments-such as the Special Collections Digital Center, the Geostat Center, and the E-text Center-digital whiz kids are building an ever expanding Internet window into one of the greatest collections in North America. Mr. Jefferson himself, who dedicated the University to "the illimitable freedom of the human mind," would certainly be proud
for links to the Web sites mentioned in this story.