The Power of Primary Sources

For nine and a half years, I’ve been working at Special Collections and have been doing instruction just about since I started. After being an observer for one class and anticipating my own first class to follow shortly, I asked myself a basic question that I remember quite well. “What do I want to communicate about Special Collections to a group of students, most of whom have never visited an archival repository before or worked with original primary sources?” Yes, yes, the rules are different here. Explain why. That can lead nicely into a general description of the kinds of materials found here. Sure. No appointment or invitation is necessary. We’re a friendly bunch, after all. Talk about primary sources. What’s a finding aid? All of these came to mind, along with various other important details, all to be ordered in a clear, comprehensive, and understandable way. Describe the materials kept here and how to find them. Talk about collecting areas. All good. All necessary, but, taken together, insufficient.

We also want to give students the experience of interacting with primary sources: to see them up close, to hold them (carefully), to get a sense of how they might be useful in research, to judge the challenges they may present, or to be startled by the surprises they may hold.

Display of materials for class exercise
Display of materials for class exercise

So, we assemble an exercise in which all members of the class get to choose from a selection of largely unidentified items from various collections and spend a few brief moments with the material they’ve chosen. Most likely, it’ll be from a manuscript collection, that is, it’ll be some kind of unpublished primary source. After those few moments, they’ll be asked to talk a bit about the item(s) they’ve picked. The hope is that with as many students as possible talking briefly about the materials they’ve chosen, everyone in the class will leave the session with a better idea about the kinds of materials held at Special Collections.
That may be the low bar of an adequate objective, but it’s not all we really want to encourage. What we really want is to present an opportunity to create a connection between student and primary sources, broadly considered, through an initial, singular experience.

World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]
World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]

Sometimes that experience depends on pure happenstance. A student beginning work on rationing on the homefront during World War II drew a folder that contained rationing materials that belonged to a nearby Giles Co. family and included a small box of Office of Price Administration (OPA) Red Point ration tokens. These tokens, used for change when buying meats and fats with ration stamps, were first issued in 1944. She was thrilled to see these for the first time, to have the actual materials in front of her.

V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944
V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944

Another coincidence involved a member of the Corps of Cadets who happened to choose a folder containing a single sheet of paper marked “Reply by V . . .-Mail” at the bottom and “Lt. J.W. Monteith” written in at the top as the sender. The date on the letter is May 27, 1944. I swear that I did not give this particular folder to this fellow, whose eyes lit up and jaw dropped with the recognition that he was holding a letter written about ten days before Monteith, a cadet at Tech in the late 1930s, took part in the assault on Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Lt. Monteith was killed that June 6th day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Like many (all?) cadets to this day, the cadet in the class knew Monteith’s entire story. I’m guessing, this was not what he expected from a class session at the library!

Honestly, situations like this happen quite often. Both of these incidents happened within the last couple of weeks. Ideally, we’d like students to experience these kinds of connections. Sometimes a connection may occur on the basis of an interest; sometimes it may be more emotional, or anywhere on a scale between the two. In that connection is an initial understanding of the potential power of primary sources. This is what we hope to communicate, especially to students who have not previously had the opportunity to work with these kinds of materials, for example, letters, diaries, journals, correspondence of all kinds, family papers, even legal and business records.

Some instances do depend on luck, as is the case with the two examples above. The right person choosing the right document, though even having one classmate describe a document meaningful to another can have the same effect. Who knows which student will be stirred by the first commercial announcement for the new Lime Jell-o (1930, for all of you who care) or by a police blotter from the Bowery district of New York in 1861. I am still absolutely wowed by a 27 July 1969, post-Apollo 11 letter from Charles Lindbergh to astronaut Michael Collins!

Then, there are some documents that, hopefully, have a wider impact.

Take a look at this document. Don’t even read it. Just look at it. (Click on each image to get a closer look.)

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3


What do you see? It’s a letter, yes. Is it just me, or isn’t it beautiful to look at? The handwriting is gorgeous. Even if you’re not used to reading cursive writing, it’s clear and easy to read. The paper is accented with a red rule on the top of the first page and blue one down the side of that page. Maybe you couldn’t help but notice the date, January 28, 1863; the location, Philadelphia; or the formal salutation, “Dear Sir.” Now read that first line:

I have just received through your kindness the painfull intelligence of my son’s death.

The beauty of the letter as an object and the foreign quality of the language in that first sentence anticipate the power of its meaning, which comes that much more powerfully precisely because of those two prior elements. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Carver (she wrote the letter) has died. He’s not named and the circumstances of his death are not specified, though the date and place provide likely clues to both. Charles Carver, 19 years old in 1860 and, in 1862, a private in G Company, 121st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, was wounded at Fredericksburg and died some five weeks later. Like so many documents, this letter raises more questions than it answers and invites the reader to discover its stories while delivering an emotional blow that all can understand.

Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796
Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796

Written some sixty-six years earlier is another document I often use in the classroom.

Here the writing is more difficult, as is the language. The date may be the first thing to jump out at a reader, in part because it comes before a line break and, thus, stands out a bit more: 27 September 1796. Here, part of the power lies, first, not in the document’s uniqueness, but in its ubiquity, for its day. In 18th-century America and the first half of the 19th, this kind of document was exceedingly common.

Know all men by these presents that I John Edwards of Rockbridge County with my security John Dunlap & William Johnson of Greenbrier County am held and firmly bound unto Joseph Dickson in the just sum of one hundred ten pounds current money of Virginia to be paid to sd [said] Dickson by sd Edwards or security in witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands & seals this 27th day of September 1796.

The language will sound strange to folks not used to it, but it is, likely, recognizable as legal language. John Edwards is paying Joseph Dickson £110 for something. Of course, the something, in this case, someone, becomes clear in the second paragraph, “a Negro boy named Elijah.”

The ubiquity of this kind of document, a bill of sale for a slave, in the Virginia of 1796 is tied fast to the fate of a specific individual, in this case, the young Elijah. Both characteristics of the document are contained in this single sheet that represents the sale of one human being to another. A note on the reverse of the document tells us that Elijah is 12 years old and weighs 77 pounds. I suggest, if you let yourself realize it, there is great power in this document, precisely both in the commonness of its form and in the specificity of its effect.

In these materials are the potential power of primary source documents that we, as archivists, wish to communicate and share. Of course, these documents are each just one out of a larger collection of materials. Also, recognizing the power of primary sources is just the beginning, not an end in itself. But for students who haven’t had the opportunity to work with materials like these, it’s an important element of starting out. It’s the introduction with a bang, the “wow” that we hope to make possible! Any document is just a piece of a story, a part of a thread of a research question or an element that fills out one’s own interest.

History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters
A First-Year Experience History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters

Story is, I think, part of what drove Trudy Harrington Becker’s First-Year Experience History class (HIST1004) in it’s effort to transcribe the letters of Joseph F. Ware this past fall. With nearly 50 students tasked to work with 100-year-old letters written in a cursive script that was often not easy to read, I was first amazed and then very impressed by the determination, excitement, and downright fervor they brought to the assignment. My first thought was to have folks work in small groups, each with a single letter. No, no, every student would get a letter to work on! There are, after all, more than 100 letters in the collection. As two colleagues and I hustled around from table to table, helping folks who were stuck on this word or that phrase, it was clear that everyone was ENGAGED! Folks who finished their first letters were asking for more! A second session with the class turned into a third.

At first, the desire to simply read and make sense of an initial letter seemed to provide more than enough motivation. The students knew only a few general facts about Ware. He had been Commandant to the VPI Corp of Cadets from 1911 to 1914 before resuming his Regular Army commission prior to American involvement in World War I. They began with his wartime letters from France written to his wife, Susie, in Blacksburg. Then, there were the letters home from training sites and other posts prior to his departure for France, along with a few post-war letters. Fifty students in a room all transcribing letters that each tell part of a story led to what became an irresistible incentive to know the full story, to know what happened. There were long separations between husband and wife, wartime wounds, and a young son, among other facts to consider. Students were no longer talking as much to their classmates about this or that word, but asking, “What happened in Paris?” or “Did Ware return to Blacksburg?” The outlines of the story needed to be filled in.

If Ware’s letters provided the impetus to learn of his larger story, they also supplied the gateway to a range of inquiries into broader historical themes taken up by the class. At the end of their semester, these students presented the results of their work in a series of digital posters in an exhibit open to the public. Drawn from Ware’s own texts, they highlight, for example, not only Ware’s personal story and the toll the war took on him and his family, but also, for example, the American conduct of the war and the nation’s attitudes toward the war and its leaders.

Here, then, is an example of the power of primary sources to fire the imagination and propel further inquiry. At its heart, this is what we want to instill in students. This is the experience we want to provide. The project of any archival repository is not to just preserve history, but to preserve its materiality in order to provide it to following generations for further use. Though obvious to any archivist or historian, this simple point is not necessarily clear to a student—or anyone—who has not yet experienced the archives or had any reason to consider the question.

Of course, students aren’t the only folks who get to recognize the excitement of discovering the possibilities embedded in an archival collection. To bring this long post to a close, I’ll mention one last story, mostly because it shows how the activities of the “Special Collections classroom” and exposure to the power and value of primary sources can truly be preparation for future scholarly endeavor.

Back in May 2014, we received an email from a scholar who wanted to do work at Special Collections with a focus on “Confederate prisoners of war and their intellectual engagement while in prison.” He said it was “part of a larger project on intellectual life in the Confederacy and post-Reconstruction South.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already about to publish a book titled, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (published by UNC Press, 2015.) On a list of 14 collections he wanted to see, the Nelson Family Papers were dead last.

Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 18631866 Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018
Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 18631866
Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018

A few days ago, we received a copy of Prison Pens
Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 18631866
, edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler. Tim Williams came here in 2014 with a broad research agenda and found a collection that spurred his interest, I dare say his passion. A correspondence of fifty-five letters, untranscribed, written between “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay from 1863 to 1865 were a part of the Nelson Family collection. Once the collection had been identified, Tim and his co-editor did, essentially, what the students in HIST1004 did, though at the level of professional scholarship. They transcribed the letters. They sought the story of the correspondents and presented research into the themes in which, as context, they wished to place both the writers and the letters themselves. Then . . . with the help of the University of Georgia Press . . . they did take an extra step. They published the book.

The “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay correspondence can be read in the new book by Williams and Kutzler. Digital copies of the letters and the rest of the Nelson Family Papers can be viewed on Special Collections Online. These materials are now broadly available to inform, encourage, and stimulate new research.

The originals remain housed in Special Collections with all the other primary source materials—preserved, available, and powerful.

What’s a “vertical file”?

Have you ever heard the term “vertical file”? Typically, when researchers come in to learn more about a topic, the first place to look is in our vertical files. These are generally folders of newspaper clippings, brochures, press releases, and other items that are arranged by subject. The term itself derives from the vertical filing cabinets that archives may use to hold these collections [for your information, Special Collections uses boxes rather than filing cabinets].

Special Collections has several sets of vertical files:

But I’d like to tell you specifically about the Record Group Vertical Files. This collection is specifically about departments, offices, and colleges at Virginia Tech, including materials advertising the university and articles about it. For example, below is a postcard advertising the Virginia Tech College of Science, the Advisor’s Manual for the VT College of Arts & Sciences, a blank application for the VT Graduate School, and an issue of the Carilion Clinic Report about the VT Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute.

In addition to the educational colleges and departments of the university, we have materials from the operational offices and student groups. Below are examples, including brochures for the Perspective Gallery and HokiePRIDE, an official VT flyer in Arabic, a program for the Alpha Kappa Delta National Sociology Honor Society, and an article about the Muslim Student Association.

The finding aid for the Record Group Vertical Files describes some of these groups when possible, including administrative history, former names of units, topics within the terms, and references to other related groups.

Whenever you are looking up the history of the university and you don’t know where to start, this collection is a great first choice. The same holds true for looking up any subjects in all the vertical files we have!

A Look Behind the Glass Door…Part 2

If you are curious what Special Collections looks like behind the scenes, Kira Dietz showed a glimpse of onsite storage previously in this blog. Well, we also have offsite storage in the Library Storage Building, managed by the University Libraries. In addition to Special Collections, Newman Library and the Records Management Department house material at the storage building. Unlike storage onsite, the shelving is so tall and aisles so long, special equipment is used to access materials up to the top and down the rows.

Library Storage Building, length of aisles
Library Storage Building, showing the lengths of aisles and some of the maps we house out there (before they were placed in boxes) alongside the University Libraries’ offsite books and other publications
Library Storage Building, height of aisles
Library Storage Building, showing the height of aisles – on the right side you can see some of the archives boxes and architectural drawings from Special Collections

Special Collections houses our large manuscript collections, most of which are accessed less frequently than onsite storage. Space is available where we can work, but we have to schedule with the other departments, who use the same office space. Recently, several students and I have been working on collections housed offsite, including the William C. Wampler Congressional Papers with 250 boxes of files from Hon. Wampler’s nearly two decades in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Pocahontas Mine Collection, which is approximately 900 cu. ft. with over 7,000 maps of mines in southwestern Virginia and Appalachia operated by CONSOL Energy and its predecessors (look out for more info on this collection when processing is done).

A student worker reviews a map from the Pocahontas Mines Collection at Library Storage Building. Some of the maps like this one are so large, we have to unroll them bit by bit and weigh them down to view them during processing.
Wampler Papers at Library Storage Building
Processing the Wampler Papers and other such large collections offsite means we have to temporarily store them in the hall and in the shared office space before they can be reshelved!
Wampler Papers being processed at Library Storage Building
The Wampler Papers during processing at the Library Storage Building

The University Libraries are currently working on another offsite storage building, this time with movable shelves. Movable shelves greatly increase the storage capacity in locations, but need strong floors to keep them stable! We also have a small, secure space in the basement of Newman Library that is shared with the rest of the library for temporary storage for our larger or more unwieldy collections, such as part of the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection with over 200 containers, many in unusually types and sizes.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look behind the scenes!

Words of Comfort: An exhibit of letters from around the world in the April 16th Condolence Archives

Things have been busy in the University Archives of Special Collections this month, with two exhibits going up this and next week. The first is the memorial exhibit honoring the memory of the victims and survivors of the tragic day of April 16, 2007. Every year we commemorate that day with an exhibit of items from the April 16th Condolence Archives. Please read the press release below to find out more about this year’s event.

The second is an update to the Virginia Tech Alumni Association’s (VTAA) Alumni Museum, with whom Special Collections has worked for over a decade to provide university memorabilia for display. Several archivists and students have been selecting items to update the current display, which will be installed next week. There is no end date for the display of these items, as we plan to continue working with the VTAA for years to come. Also, if you are attending next weekend’s Black Alumni Reunion, you will get to see several additional photographs from the university archives of many pioneering Black female students and alumnae at Virginia Tech, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first six Black women to attend the university in 1966: Linda (Adams) Hoyle, Jackie (Butler) Blackwell, Linda (Edmonds) Turner, Freddie Hairston, Marguerite Laurette (Harper) Scott, and Chiquita Hudson. You can learn more about them at The Black Women at Virginia Tech History Project.

Words of Comfort: An exhibit of letters from around the world in the April 16th Condolence Archives

Day of Remembrance display in Newman Library shares words of comfort and hope

Following April 16, 2007, schools, fellow universities, children, community and religious groups, businesses, and other individuals from around the world sent words of comfort and hope to Virginia Tech. These cards, letters, signs, and other handwritten items expressed the world’s condolences and gave Virginia Tech a global community of support.

This week, on April 15-16, many of these items will be on display in the Multipurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library at 560 Drillfield Drive in Blacksburg. The exhibit, “Words of Comfort: An exhibit of letters from around the world in the April 16th Condolence Archives,” is free and open to the public, and will be on display from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

These items represent over 40 countries and every continent, showing the outpouring of support from around the globe. Selected items on display include:

The materials are part of the Virginia Tech April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives of the University Libraries.

Campus visitors also left symbols of comfort and signs of support at memorials around Virginia Tech, which were displayed on campus for several months before being gathered and inventoried under the direction of the University Archivist. Together, the collection consists of more than 89,000 materials available through Special Collections in Newman Library.

In the summer of 2007, many items were digitally photographed for preservation and to share with the world. A large portion of the Condolence Archives of the University Libraries is now publicly available online.

The upcoming exhibit is organized and curated by LM Rozema, processing and special projects archivist for the University Libraries Special Collections, and Robin Boucher, arts program director for Student Engagement and Campus Life.

Free parking is available on weekends at the Squires Student Center and Architecture Annex lots along Otey Street. Before 5 p.m. on weekdays, a valid Virginia Tech parking pass is required to park in these lots. Find more parking information online, or call 540-231-3200.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact LM Rozema at 540-231-9215 during regular business hours prior to the event.

For more information and other expressions of remembrance, please visit the We Remember site.

The Definition of Processing as Told From an Empathetic Intern

I started working with Special Collections in September. I wasn’t sure what to really expect. I had previously done artifact analyses at my high school, but the work I have done here has been a bit different. The majority of collections I have worked on with Special Collections are either Civil War related or Engineering related. Both types had their own quirks. The Civil War soldiers and writers thought it was necessary to store hair in their letters and the engineers took few good pictures, though both were surprisingly good at sketching.

 A letter from a Civil War Soldier in 1862. Collection Finding Aid:
A letter from a Civil War Soldier in 1862. Collection Finding Aid:

As I read through each collection, these people’s lives, I consistently learned something new. I organized and processed a collection by a Chemical Engineer from Alaska who produced rocket fuel and science fiction. His name was John D. Clark. In addition, I organized the files of an Aerospace Engineer named Blake W. Corson, Jr. I found these two men particularly inspiring because they both believed it was their responsibility to serve the people around them with the skills they had. In engineering classes we are taught many things, part of the curriculum are ethics. Part of ethics are to use the skills you have to better the world. Both Clark and Corson embodied these ethics and consistently strove to make the communities surrounding them better. Corson, for example, created multiple documents detailing a better waste management system for Newport News, Virginia, that he eventually mailed to President Jimmy Carter. As I uncovered more documentation on these men I learned a great deal about their lives and I grew to admire them.

Correspondence Receipts from the Blake W. Corson, Jr. Papers (In Processing)

I was also reminded of my on mortality, many of the people who I now hold in high esteem are dead. Every collection I have processed was for someone who died. Many were eloquent in the way they worded their thoughts others went from talking about an execution to the minced pies they were eating. In my opinion some of the soldiers were heroes and some of them weren’t and some of them just wanted to see their families one more time. The engineers are heroes in their own way as well. Both were key cogs in the space agency machine working towards the goal of getting rockets off of the ground and making better aircraft for the military. All are dead. Sometimes I do not notice that these people are buried somewhere near their families or in an undiscovered grave waiting for the next Civil War historian to discover them. When I remember these things I remember why I sit at a desk for a minimum of two hours at a time writing a person’s name once or even a hundred times. The idea is that this person will be remembered and their distant relatives might find their names. They will be found as a relic from the past that a family can reminisce over or claim as their heritage. I am glad that I have been a part of that process, even if only for a little while.

Apollo Escape Craft Sketch from the Blake W. Corson Jr. collection (In Processing)
Apollo Escape Craft from the Blake W. Corson, Jr. Collection (In Processing)

Since I have talked a lot about the things that I have processed I want to give you an idea of work I do. The steps seem repetitive, but I actually find the work relaxing and remedial.As a processing intern, my responsibilities have been relatively straight forward and simple. I wanted to end on these steps because they are the dictionary definition of what I do as opposed to my personal definition of what I do.

Step 1: Look at files. Read the files if they do not span longer than a cubic foot of box.

Step 2: Organize and catalog each document in the collection. Personally I color code with plastic clips.

Step 3: Review organization and file order, reorder.

Step 4: Label each folder with a box number and folder number.

Step 5: Create a resource on the collection.

Step 6: Create the appropriate notes.

Step 7: Begin again.

By Kaitlyn Britt

Breaking News: You can follow us on twitter, @VT_SCUA!

Recently, our graduate student Rebecca asked about our twitter account – the question being why aren’t we on twitter yet?! Thanks to her prompting, we now are – check us out at @VT_SCUA!

Our twitter @VT_SCUA
Our Twitter @VT_SCUA

Our first post you will notice is about the exhibit currently on display in our reading room windows about the history of African American female students and student groups at Virginia Tech. And guess what….one of our student volunteers, Alexis, came up with the idea and put it together!

Part of exhibit on African American Women at Virginia Tech
Part of exhibit on African American Women at Virginia Tech

With millions of users on Twitter, it’s a great way to stay current with different Virginia Tech departments and other libraries. Also, we hope the website will encourage our users to engage with us by asking questions, sharing their ideas, or notifying us of relevant stories and news. Because of its nature – being only 140 characters per tweet, we’ll be able (we hope) to share with our followers and others a bit more frequently than we are able to just via our blogs. Some tweets to look for from us include photos of neat items from our collections; announcements of new finding aids, new exhibits, or digital exhibits; upcoming events; and new blog posts on either this blog or our food and drink blog, What’s Cookin’ @ Special Collections?!

We hope that you will enjoy this new way to interact with us at @VT_SCUA!


There’s Something about Mary…or rather, James or Eleanore or William

This week, I though we might peel back another layer of Special Collections and peek behind the curtain again. It seems like a good follow up on the heels of my colleague John’s post last week. He described a particular collection and included lots on information on the collection’s creators, Joseph P. and Margaret James. So, today, I thought I’d write about the people in our collections–more specifically, how we go about putting them in context.

J. Hoge Tyler, Virginia governor from 1898 to 1902 (more on him in a moment!)

First, a noteon finding aids. If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve inevitably seen a link somewhere to a finding aid. Hopefully, you’re curious and you’ve followed one of those links and seen one of our finding aids online (we have nearly1,800 online and new ones in progress all the time). If you haven’t looked at one before, you might want to right now. Here are a few of my favorites (and no, they aren’t just ones I’ve written)…Who I am kidding, they are all my favorites! But here are a few examples:

If you took a look, you’ll notice they have some things in common (mostly the elements that appear in them and to some extent, the structure), but just as much, if not more, is different. The Tyler family collection has a long, detailed, highly structured list of contents. The Pettersen collection has a large project list that’s available as a separate spreadsheet–that spreadsheet was a much better way to convey what the collection contained, given the variety of types of materials. The Tippett letterhas a much shorter description, since the entire collection is only one item. And the receipt book is a great example of a collection where we don’t have much information at all, other than the collection itself. There are a lot of things I could say about finding aids, but we’ll save some of it for future posts. Today is about that lovely “Biographical Information” section.

Biographical notes in finding aids are there to (hopefully) provide context and background on the people who created and/or are the subjects of a collection. Seems straight-forward enough, right? Part of the job of our archivists is to help provide that context. And it can come from many places.Sometimes, the collection itself is a rich source of information. It could contain biographical files, CVs or resumes, or secondary research completed by someone else.

Tyler Bio

This is only a portion of the J. Hoge Tyler Family Collection biographical note. Because the collection documents several generations of family members, it’s extensive. Information in the note comes from the collection (you learn a LOT about people by processing their papers), but also from published sources. Since Tyler was a governor of Virginia, there’s no shortage of published biographical informationon him. We have books in our Rare Book Collection that often support us doing research on people connected to the local area, Virginia history, and other subjects in which we specialize, like the Civil War.

Tippett Bio

William Tippett’s biography issignificantly shorter for a couple of reasons. First, the collection is smaller. It’s not always an even ratio between size of collection and length of the biographical note (more on that in a bit), but it can be factor. It’s easy to get caught up trying to unravel the threads of someone’s life story and I am a sucker for it, but at the same time, we have lots of collections needing our attention. Our goal is provide you, the researcher, with some sort of context. Second, William Tippett’s collection contains a letter from his service in the Civil War and the best information we had available at the time related to his military history, so the biographical note reflects that. That’s not to say you wouldn’t find more about William Tippett in many places (I’m certain you could), but this particular note reflects the letter’s contents. In this case, we used a regimental history of the 1st West Virginia Infantry, located in our stacks, to write the note. Then, there’s something like the Hertford Receipt Book:

Hertford Bio

Although the receipt book includes several names, as you can see, they aren’t very thorough and don’t leave even the best archivist (or researcher!) a lot to go on. The other catch with this particular collection is that it’s from England and we have far fewer British genealogy resources available (or at least had, in 2008 when the collection was processed).

All that being said, if you’re interested in doing genealogy research on your own, there are endless resources out there and it would take more posts than I’d have time to write in a year. However, your local academic and public libraries probably some tools to get you started. Last year, the University Libraries acquired a subscription to Ancestry Library Edition, which is a collection of more than 4,000 databases and 1.5 billion names. It contains census, birth, death, military, and marriage records, as well as digitized yearbook collections, immigration information, maps, genealogy indexes, and more. And that’s only for the U. S. materials. Ancestry also contains records relating to Canada and the U. K. Lots of other libraries subscribe, too, so it never hurts to ask.

If you have a library card for the Montgomery-Floyd RegionalLibrary, you have access to something called Heritage Quest, which is a database that includes census records and indices. You can check out Heritage Quest, and some of their other genealogy resources online. If you’re part of a different public library system, ask them! Librarians have access to lots of cool resources.

The first page of William Tippett’s 1864 letter. I’ve written about it on our History of Food and Drink blog previously. You can read the post online ( and see the whole letter with transcripts on our Omeka site (

And, of course, Special Collections is here to help, too. If you want to visit us to do some research, we have a guide you started:Local History and Genealogical Research in the University Libraries. This will tell you about some of the resources available at Newman Library and in Special Collections specifically. The guide is adapted from a print resource and we’ve done our best to update it, but if you run into something odd, give us a shout. You can also always check out the library’s catalog and our finding aids. You might be surprised at just where you can find connections to your family’s past. Plus, it might give you a little more insight into the kind of work that archivists do everyday.

A Look Behind the Glass Door…

If you’ve visited Special Collections in the last 2 years, you’ve probably seen our reading room. (Although, if you were last here more than 2 years ago, the tables might have been a little different and if you were last here more than 8 years ago, we weren’t even in this space!)

Coincidentally, the space you can see into behind the open glass door is my office. So, now you know where to find me!

However, the reading room is really just the gateway to Special Collections’ secrets. So, this week, I took walk into the Rare Book Room and twoof our manuscript storage spaces with adigital camera.

Our historical photograph collection is in black acid-free boxes and is organized generally by topic. Beyond it, you can see some bound and boxed newspapers above and part of our collection of vertical files on university history.
Our historical photograph collection is in black acid-free boxes and is organized generally by topic. Beyond it, you can see some bound and boxed newspapers above and part of our collection of vertical files on university history below.
To be honest, manuscript collections means lots of boxes on shelves.
To be honest, manuscript collections means lots of boxes on shelves.
Seriously, I mean LOTS of boxes. In all kinds of sizes and shapes.
Seriously, I mean LOTS of boxes. In all kinds of sizes and shapes.
These boxes contain rolled architectural drawings from two large IAWA (International Archive of Women in Architecture) collections.
These boxes contain rolled architectural drawings from two large IAWA (International Archive of Women in Architecture) collections.

One of our on-going projects at the moment (well, two on-going projects, now, but more on that below), involves managing all these boxes (and books!). Until the last year or so, everything was on shelves where it fit and we relied on a printed shelf list and/or our archival management software to tell us where things are. However, in late 2013, we launched the first phrase of a major reorganization. Most of our manuscript collections are now in order by number on the shelf. We still have some more things to move, but at the moment, we’re working on creating space for additional shelves (meaning we need to move some map cases). IAWA materials are located on separate shelving and will probably be reorganized in the future. Other future phases will involve reordering record group materials (in a smaller room past the map cases below) and flat files in map cases like these:

Boxes on top of these map cases contain textiles (while will be moved to new shelving soon) and architectural models.
Boxes on top of these map cases contain textiles (which will be moved to new shelving soon) and architectural models.
These cases, like the others above, contain architectural drawings stored flat. We have map cases throughout the department that also house oversize manuscript materials, unframed art, and historical university items.
These cases, like the others above, contain architectural drawings stored flat. We have map cases throughout the department that also house oversize manuscript materials, unframed art, and historical university items.

Opposite the space where the manuscript collections are being put in number order is part of our Rare Book collection. (Some of it is also in an off-site library storage facility.)

Our rare books are shelved in call number order, but not all together. We have some shelved by size (so we can maximize available shelves) and others shelved by topic (like university publications and Civil War books).
Our rare books are shelved in call number order, but not all together. We have some shelved by size (so we can maximize available shelves) and others shelved by topic (like university publications and Civil War books). This photo shows a set of shelves containing “large” books, which for us means books over 28cm tall.
We also have a fun collection of boys adventure books, which have spines that make for nice images.
We also have a fun collection of boys adventure books, which have spines that make for nice images.

We are also in the process of shifting our book collection in order to fit in one more range of shelving. (Space is tight and we’re exceptionally good atacquiring new materials!) It’s a long process, but it will give us much-needed wiggle room. For us, managing materials is always an active process, whether it’s adding a single new boxor moving 1,800 manuscript collections and 35,000 books.

Of course, there’s lots more to see and this is only a sneak peek.If you do pay us a visit and want to see more, please ask! We’re more than happy to take you on a tour beyond the glass door at the end of the reading room and into the stacks. We LOVE to share Special Collections and you’ll probably see something you might not discover otherwise!

Lincoln…in the Library!

This past Monday, a new exhibit opened on the 2nd floor of Newman Library. If you’re in the area over the next month or so, you might want to drop by! “Lincoln in Our Time” is an exhibit that includes documents, artifacts, pictures, and an interactive display with videos and presentations. Many of the materials on display come from Special Collections, and the videos are the work of a class in the Department of History, HIST2984: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, the Myth, the Legend.” You can read a bit about the exhibit in one of the photos below, but you’ll have to visit the library for more details. “Lincoln in Our Time” will be in place until April 15, so you’ve got plenty of time!

*Special thanks to Scott Fralin in University Libraries for the great photographs!

If “Lincoln in Our Time” isn’t enough Civil War history for you, you should also know about the upcoming Civil War Weekend on March 13-15, 2015. There will be guest speakers on a range of topics, showcasing Civil War history at Virginia Tech and beyond. Special Collections’ own Marc Brodsky, Public Services and Reference Archivist, will be talking about resources you can find here in our department. You can find out more about the events and register on the website!


The Hairy, Scary Things That Time Forgot!

So you think archival work is boring and routine, that nothing could be so harmless and mundane as arranging papers and then writing summary descriptions of them? Maybe you think the most frightening thing an archivist encounters in a typical workday is a misfiled folder or a paper cut. Well, let me tell you: a misfiled folder can be a pretty ominous thing, and as for paper cuts, hey, those things can get infected. And if you were to delve deep into the dark, quiet recesses of Special Collections, you might be shocked to find archivists with hands stained crimson (with red rot), their clothing torn (by sharp, rusty paperclips), and their minds shattered by a blinding stench (from decaying film negatives).

If none of these prospects strike you as particularly sinister, then also consider this: Archivists often spend a great part of their workday hanging out with dead people (no, Im not referring to other archivists). In arranging the personal papers of long-deceased individuals, we often come to know them pretty well, not only the bare facts of their lives, but their habits, their successes and failures, and their oddities. Truth be told, dead people can be pretty creepy sometimes, and when it comes to creepy, the Victorians, preoccupied as they were with mortality and the macabre, take the cake. These are the people, after all, who popularized the gothic novel, sances, so-called freak shows, and post-mortem photography. Several of our collections from that time period contain another creepy artifact of Victorian culture: the dreaded lock of hair keepsake.

Now of course a lock of hair seems a fairly innocuous thing and wouldnt normally be associated with creepiness, but when youre thumbing through the century-old account ledgers of a long-defunct livery stable, the lastwell, perhaps near to the lastthing you expect is for a big clump of hair to pop out at you. Thats exactly the shock we recently got, however, when reviewing the Warm Springs, Virginia Ledgers (Ms2014-003), a collection purchased earlier this year.

Though locks of hair continue to be clipped and kept as mementos, usually by parents who want a keepsake of their infant children, the sharing of a lock of hair between lovers as a symbol of devotion is a tradition that has largely fallen out of favor. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, it was a very common thing for a lover to request a lock of hair as a keepsake. Within the Frank C. Kitts Jr. Scrapbook (Ms2010-20), in fact, may be found small ringlets that Kitts, a native of Tazewell, Virginia, obtained from three different women, seemingly as a chronicle of his romantic conquests.

The scrapbook of Frank C. Kitts Jr., who perhaps considered himself something of a Lothario, contains locks of hair from three different women.
The scrapbook of Frank C. Kitts Jr., who perhaps considered himself something of a Lothario, contains locks of hair from three different women.

Locks of hair were also often kept as mementos of deceased loved ones. Such would seem to be the case with a small, loose bundle of reddish-blonde hair in the Vivian Coleman Bear Papers (Ms2009-086). The lock is accompanied by a poem titled “Despair,” clipped from a newspaper, which concludes, [I]n this world-weary bosom / is buried a sleepless pain.

The poem accompanying a lock of hair in the Bear Papers seems to have been written from the point of view of a woman mourning the loss of her fianc.
The poem accompanying a lock of hair in the Bear Papers seems to have been written from the point of view of a woman mourning the loss of her fianc.

The symbolic associations and physical qualities of hair gave rise to its use as a medium for artistic expression during the 19th century, and hairwork became a fashionable handicraft, with jewelry, accessories, and wall ornaments being meticulously fashioned from human hair. Unfortunately (well, fortunately, as far as Im concerned), we have no examples of hairwork in our collections. Most of the locks in our collections are simple affairs, either kept loose or bound with a small ribbon. Within the back of a Civil War-era diary found in the John D. Wagg Papers (Ms1992-048), however, may be found a rather fancily braided ringlet.

The intricate braid of this lock of hair found in the back pocket of a diary in the John D. Wagg Papers (Ms1992-048) suggests that it may have been intended for ornamental use.
The intricate braid of this lock of hair found in the back pocket of a diary maintained by John D. Wagg suggests that it may have been intended for ornamental use.

Within our collections from the Victorian era are many other locks of hair. The owners of these tresses are sometimes identified, but more often theyre not. And so were left today to wonder just who they were, these dead people with their clipped hair, and to be terrifiedokay, not terrified, but at least vaguely and mildly repulsedby the little pieces of themselves that they left behind.