A New Collection and a New Look at Virginia Tech’s Architectural Style

Glass plate negative of a drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad. The design of the current Upper Quad construction is based on these original designs.
Glass plate negative of a drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad. The design of the current Upper Quad construction is based on these original designs.
The same drawing with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.
The same drawing with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.

An important bit of Virginia Tech history came through our doors recently in a unique form- a collection of 8 x 10 glass plate negatives of architectural drawings and artist renderings that were made by the architectural firm Carneal and Johnston. These designs were made for several campus buildings in the 1910s, including the original McBryde Hall and the original library building. In addition to the campus buildings that were built, some of the glass plates depict drawings for proposed buildings, including an alumni hall and new dormitories for the Upper Quad- projects that wouldnt be taken up until nearly 100 years later, and, in the case of the Upper Quad, are actually being built as we speak.

A drawing of a proposed alumni hall designed by Carneal and Johnston in 1916
A drawing of a proposed alumni hall designed by Carneal and Johnston in 1916
Floor plan of the proposed alumni hall
Floor plan of the proposed alumni hall

The glass plate negatives were made using the silver gelatin dry plate process- a direct forerunner of roll film- in which the glass plates were treated with emulsion and allowed to fully dry long in advance of actually exposing them in a camera. This technique, developed in the 1870s, was a huge improvement in convenience over the wet plate process, in which the emulsion on the plate had to be wet when it was exposed, meaning the photographer had to apply the emulsion right before taking the photograph, (and you can imagine how much of a hassle that might be if you were photographing out on location somewhere).

These particular dry plates were made as copy photographs of the original architectural drawings made by Carneal and Johnston as well as artist renderings made by Hughton Hawley for the architectural firm and probably served the purpose of what digital scans do today- to make high-quality renderings of the original image in another format that can be preserved as well as easily copied and shared. As relatively large and thin plates of glass, they are extremely fragile, yet amazingly, other than a few chips, most of the 23 glass plates have survived intact over the past 100 years.

A prospective drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad.
A prospective drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad.
What the same negative looks like with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.
What the same negative looks like with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.

William Leigh Carneal, Jr., and James Markam Ambler Johnston (a VPI alumnus) began their firm around 1908 after spending a year working independently out of the same office space. The firm went on to become one of the most prolific and long-established architectural practices in Virginia, surviving after the original architects retired in 1950 up until 1999, when the firm merged with Ballou Justice & Upton, Architects, and ceased to use the name Carneal and Johnston. These designs from the mid 1910s were made very early in the firms career and possibly represent the very first of what would be many design projects for Virginia Tech (then known as VPI)s campus.

President Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Jr., whose term lasted from 1913 to 1919, likely had a hand in commissioning these early designs from the firm. President Eggleston saw architecture as a way for the struggling young college to build its own unique identity, and the Carneal and Johnstons design of the original McBryde Hall would set the standard for all campus buildings that were built over the following half century- a dramatic collegiate gothic style clad entirely in our signature grey hokie stone. The gothic hokie stone buildings gave the VPI campus a radically different look and feel from the red brick neoclassical style present at most of Virginias college campuses, and remains a unique and integral part of our identity even today.

This collection of glass plates negatives is currently being processed and will be available both online and in physical form soon!

Alexandria and Fairfax Counties Civil War Correspondence

Today I finished up the first phases of work on a great collection of Civil War correspondence. The collection includes 19 letters by 18 different authors. Unless there’s a connection (usually family, business/organization, institutional, or something along those lines), we tend to name and organize collections based on the creators. So, under “normal” conditions, if such a thing exists (one of our favorite phrases in the archives world is “it depends”), these letters might have ended up as 17 collections (two of the letter writers are brothers). These 19 letters, though, have something else in common: location. Each was written in or around Alexandria and Fairfax counties in Virginia. And each was written within the first 16 months of the Civil War. As a result of that, we’ve decided to treat them as a single, cohesive unit. This group of letters offers a unique perspective on the early experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers around Washington DC in the early months of the war. There are number of common elements: regiments cutting down trees to build up defenses, skirmishes between forces, the need for food and clothes from home, and a frequent hope that soldiers “hope to be home soon.”

You can see the finding aid for the Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) online here. The contents list of the finding aid includes links to the digitized letters and, when available, the transcripts. You can also go straight to Omeka (our emerging digital content platform) and see the letters and transcripts here. The digital images all have links back to the finding aid, as well. The idea is that we’re creating online connections to help our researchers move back and forth from digitized primary sources to context for those materials easily.


Franklin B. Lukens served in Company E of the 3rd Regiment, New Jersey Infantry. His December 9, 1861 letter to his parents mentions that there is a man missing who has not been found. He talks about a woman who is a Secessionist and her slaves. He closes by asking them to write soon.

This collection remains a work-in-progress, as we expect new materials from the donor in 2014 and into the future. As new materials arrive, we’ll continue digitize them and update the finding aid. We’ll be able to offer new insight into early war-time conditions and experiences as the collection continues to grow.

The Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) is not the first collection we’ve placed in Omeka (https://omeka.lib.vt.edu/), nor is it the first one we’ve digitized, but it’s the first one to go through acquisition, digitization, processing, and addition to the web in sequence and within a short period of time. We hope it will help us create and shape our workflow for the future as we digitize more collections. It may not be a speedy process, so we also hope you’ll bear with us as we create new material to share. We promise, it’ll be worth it.

From the Donor to the Shelf: A Few Words on Acquisitions

One of the reasons Special Collections launched this blog was to show off some of our cool materials. We can talk about new acquisitions, new discoveries, and old favorites all day! (Curious, just come by and ask us!) Another reason, though, was talk a little about the who, what, where, and why of Special Collections. One of the questions we are frequently asked, in one form or another, is “How to you get stuff?” The short answer is that we acquire books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, and other materials in three major ways: donation, purchase, and transfer (this last is the least common, but is vital to our mission of preserving university history!). The much longer answer continues below…

I’m Kira Dietz (aka archivistkira), and since part of my job as Acquisitions and Processing Archivist is to work with donors & potential donors, book & manuscript dealers, university employees, alumni and more, I thought I might spend a post or two over the next couple months tackling the “How do you get stuff?” query. The best way to do that is to answer a few more specific question potential donors might have.

Culinary Pamphlet Collection, Ms2011-002
From the Knox Gelatine: Desserts, Salads, Candies, and Frozen Dishes (1933). This pamphlet is one of a collection of 92 items donated in 2011 that went on to form the basis of the Culinary Pamphlet Collection, Ms2011-002. This collection continues to grow through donations and purchases. http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00787.xml

Why donations?

While Special Collections does have a budget to purchase materials (more on that in a future post), we rely heavily on donations. We have just that–a limited budget. Donations make up more than half of our holdings and are the backbone of our manuscripts, university archives, and rare book collection. There are financial costs involved in the acquisition, processing, maintenance, and access of our collections, but donation of materials can help us save a little on the acquisitions part. Donations that come with a financial contribution can help us further reduce some of the processing costs. Basically, without donations, the University Libraries would never have acquired much of the materials that led to the creation of Special Collections, and we wouldn’t be here today!

Where do donations come from?

Donations can come from anyone! We receive materials from staff/faculty and departments on campus, from alumni of Virginia Tech, from community members and organizations, from current students, from professionals active in fields related to our collecting areas, from researchers and scholars, and from people around the world! Sometimes, donors already know who we are. Sometimes, they hear about us at an event or through word of mouth. Sometimes, they have an item or collection that they just want to be available to a wide range of researchers, scholars, and visitors, rather than keeping it in their attic.

John Newton Carnahan Letters, Ms2009-112
The John Newton Carnahan Letters, a series of Civil War letters by Carnahan to his family at home in Wytheville, Va., were donated to Special Collections in 2005. You can see a guide to the collection here: http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00485.xml

What kinds of donations do you want?

We’re always on the lookout for new items and collections! While an exhaustive list is tricky to provide, here are some general sorts of formats we seek: Correspondence, diaries, and manuscripts (preferably original documents), logbooks, ledgers, memorabilia, photographs, drawings, architectural collections, and other records of historical importance to the mission of the university and that support existing collections.

We are actively collecting materials in a 7 or 8 major subject areas at present. These include,but are not limited to, local history (SW Virginia and nearby parts of Appalachia), university history, the American Civil War, science and technology, speculative fiction, women & architecture, and food & drink history. You can see more about the kinds of collections we have in all these areas in the individual subject guides listed here.

What do you do with donations once you receive them?

One of the phrases you hear often in archives is, “it depends.” What we do with a donation once we receive it depends on a number of factors: what the donation consists of, how large it is, what condition it’s in, whether further donations may be expected, and more.

In general, the first thing we do is create a record of the donation in our database. Books and other publications that can be cataloged to the University Libraries’ Technical Services, then are returned to our Rare Book Collection. Manuscripts, photographs, drawings, maps, and mixed material collections are placed in acid-free boxes and added to our processing queue. If there are fragile or damaged items, we may do some preservation work like placing torn documents in polyester sleeves, unrolling and flattening rolled photos or documents, or photocopying acid paper. Preservation issues may also be addressed when a collection is processed at a later date.

Susana Torre  Architectural Papers, Ms1990-016
This drawing of Garvey House, designed by architect Susana Torre, is part of the Susana Torre Architectural Papers, Ms1990-016. The collection includes more than 24 cu. ft. of correspondence, project files, articles, teaching notes, and designs. http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00175.xml

What do I do if I have something I want to donate?

Contact Special Collections! Whether your potential donation is a single item or lots of boxes, we’ll talk to you about what you have and how it might fit in with our holdings.We can also talk to you about how we process, house, and provide access to collections (I could write a whole series of posts on that subject, so I won’t cover it today). If you live nearby or are passing through Blacksburg and want to visit us, we’re happy to show you around the department, too.

If we all decide Special Collections is the right place for your donation, we’ll make arrangements to receive the material. It might mean a pick up, a drop off, or something being sent via the mail. As a record of your donation, we’ll ask you fill out and sign our “Deed of Gift” form. We’ll keep a copy and we send one to you, too. We also follow up with a thank you note from us.

On the whole, we try to keep our donation process as simple as possible for everyone.

What if Special Collections at Virginia Tech isn’t the right place for a collection?

That’s one of the main reasons we encourage you to talk to us about your donation. Sometimes, we just aren’t the right home for a book, a letter, or a diverse collection of materials. Whether or not you know it, though, there are LOTS of special collections, archives, historical societies, museums, and other institutions out there. All of them have different interests and collecting areas, and many of them accept donations. If we aren’t the right home, we’ll use our network of colleagues and resources to help you find an appropriate home.

William MacFarland Patton Papers, Ms1954-001
This bridge drawing comes from the William MacFarland Patton Papers, Ms1954-001, donated to Newman Library in 1954, years before Special Collections was born! Patton was a professor at VAMC (now Virginia Tech) from 1896-1905. http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00786.xml

I hope this is a helpful introduction to donations at Special Collections. There are plenty more questions I could try to answer here, but each potential donation is different. Each one has its own needs and poses its own challenges. If you have something else you’d like to know, feel free to post a comment below or contact Special Collections. I’ll give you the best answer I can!

Battlefield Diary 1862: Lieutenant William W. Barnett . . . or is it? “Who?” is only the beginning!

Barnett Diary Spine and PagesThe diary arrived in a handsome case that clearly identifies the contents as the work of Lieutenant William W. Barnett. A legible note in the front of the diary tells us that Barnett served in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. Records indicate, however, that Barnett mustered in with the 8th as a private in Company A on 15 May 1861 and was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate on 20 March 1863, also as a private! Who is our lieutenant?

The records do show a William H. Barnett of the 8th PRVC, Company A, whose name was sometime recorded as William W. Barnett. There is another William W. Barnett, also serving in the same regiment and company, but with a different enlistment record than man discharged in March 1863, a record that is also contradicted by events recorded in the diary. A history of the 8th reports that this regiment consisted of men from Armstrong Co. in western Pennsylvania. The 1860 census for that county lists at least three William or W. H. Barnetts ranging in age from 19 to 21. Who is William Barnett?

Once you know what you might be looking for, the clues in the diary itself are easier to spot. On 15 September, Barnett writes, “This day is my birthday and I am twenty one years old and in the hospital.” This suggests our Barnett would be 19 in June 1860, the time of the census. He writes often in the diary that Henry has come to visit, and mentions an uncle Hezekiah Wood. William Barnett of Armstrong Co., son of Alexander and Hannah Barnett, is 19 in 1860, has a 21 year-old brother named Henry B., and a youngest brother named Hezekiah. Henry B. Barnett served in the 9th PRVC, a regiment that moved throughout 1862 in tandem with the 8th. William’s post office, as listed on the census, is Freeport. In faint writing on one of the last pages of the diary is written, “My mother Mrs Hannah Barnett resides in Freeport Armstrong County Penna.” We have a winner.

But what of Lieutenant Barnett? It turns out that our Barnett re-enlisted in August 1864 in the newly formed 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. Though entering as a private, he was promoted at least twice, finally to the rank of lieutenant on 19 January 1865. At war’s end, he returned to Pittsburgh and mustered out with his battery on 30 June 1865.

The task of identifying the diary’s writer is only the beginning. The diary itself is the treasure beyond! More about this in an upcoming post!!