Arriving in Charlottesville last fall as the new University Librarian, I found that an immediate and pleasant task was to begin planning a suitable way to celebrate the acquisition of the University of Virginia Libraries' four-millionth volume. Research libraries never leave such milestones to chance; a worthy candidate is given much thought. In reflecting upon the qualities of this institution, I knew the four-millionth volume must symbolize our traditional strengths in books and manuscripts yet also acknowledge our leading role in electronic technology. The volume must interweave these elements and represent our vision of the Library's role in the twenty-first century.
Many ideas were generated, but one stood out as especially appealing. We are fortunate that Rita Dove, United States Poet Laureate, is on the University of Virginia faculty as a member of the English Department, and we were eager to see if one of her poems could serve as the four-millionth volume. Ms. Dove kindly agreed, and we turned to Claire Van Vliet of the Janus Press to create a handmade book based on the poem "Lady Freedom Among Us." Ms. Dove read the poem at the occasion of the return of the statue Freedom to the dome of the Capitol on October 23, 1993. Simultaneously, we made a digital reproduction of the poem's text and of related images with plans to make it available on the Internet, where it would be widely available. As we developed plans to celebrate the milestone, we continually were amazed at the myriad of connections it makes.
After all, what could be more fitting than adding a work by the U. S. Poet Laureate to a library that holds what is considered the most extensive collection of American literature in the world? We would also be adding a volume to our excellent Janus Press Collection, a gift of Ms. Van Vliet's cousin, J. Wallace Sieg. And we didn't have to look far to find the obligatory link to Thomas Jefferson. "Lady Freedom Among Us" reminds one of Jefferson's vision that a free republic depended on an educated citizenry.
Our exhibit Freedom and Other Great Gifts in commemoration of this milestone is primarily a retrospective sampling of gifts to the Library, with a peek at what the future will bring. The gifts selected are illustrative of a range of subject matter, and the exhibit allowed us to bring into view some of the gifts that are less well known than the keystone Barrett and McGregor collections. As the University embarks on a Campaign to marshall the private resources necessary for continued excellence in the next century, it seems appropriate to acknowledge again our debt of gratitude to past donors to the Library. One of my distinguished predecessors, John Cook Wyllie, wrote in 1956 that the "Library's efforts at distinction are dependent on patronage rather than on appropriation ..." Although our appropriations are more generous than in 1956, Mr. Wyllie's words hold true. The Library will continue to depend on private gifts to provide the margin of excellence in the quality of collections and services provided to the University's students and faculty.
Text and images © Copyright 1995, Rita Dove, Claire van Vliet, and The Rector and Visitors of The University of Virginia. All rights reserved.