Listening to the Past: The Collections of the Virginia Historical Society
By Frances Pollard
Shortly after he was named the Librarian of Congress in 1939, Archibald MacLeish commented that libraries were familiar to most people only as "imposing edifices on important streets." The Virginia Historical Society fits that description, and until more recent times, it probably took a certain amount of courage for visitors to climb the front steps, pass by the Ionic columns, and peek inside the front doors.
Those doors stand open these days, and a glance at the registration guest book confirms that the library attracts a varied mix of researchers. There are historians sifting through manuscripts and doctoral students anxiously trying to wrap up their Virginia research before time and funds run out. Local history enthusiasts seek information on a particular field of interest, from railroads to the Algonquian vocabulary. A high school student writes his honors paper on the history of Richmond baseball leagues. Genealogists from all over the country arrive because their ancestors have led them back to Virginia. And the occasional tourist approaches the Reference Desk and asks innocently "What kind of stuff do you have here?"
It is a legitimate question and the short answer is "Virginia stuff." Since 1831, the Historical Society has collected materials that support the study and interpretation of Virginia's history and culture. The first items given to the Society-an account of the 1706 witchcraft trial of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County and a memoir of Colonel John Stuart about the Indian wars in western Virginia-are still preserved in the collections and have been joined by 7 million manuscripts, 145,000 books, and an extensive collection of maps, newspapers, photographs, and museum objects.
After more than a century and a half of collecting, the Society holds the evidence of the life and times of Virginians whose shared stories constitute our past. The collections include such treasures as the diary of George Washington kept during his first year as president, letters written by emancipated slaves who emigrated to Liberia, the first cookbook published in America, and gold buttons from a hat worn by Pocahontas. The collection and preservation of these unique and fragile items is complemented by the Historical Society's commitment to their access and interpretation.
The manuscripts are the most important segment of the collections. As the largest repository of non-official manuscripts in Virginia, the Society is a magnet for researchers. The collection includes personal, family, and corporate papers from the 17th century to the present. One can read the private mail of the colonial elite--the Carters, the Byrds of Westover, the Tayloes of Mt. Airy, and the Fitzhughs. There are diaries, and letter books, and account books kept by governors and presidents and Revolutionary patriots. The leaders of the Confederacy are well-represented, including Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and the largest collection of Robert E. Lee correspondence in existence.
In addition to these manuscripts pertaining to the "rich and famous," patrons also can sit in the reading room and handle the papers of "ordinary" Virginians: the businessman writing in the 1840s and wondering if he will be able to pay his bank loan; or the anxious farmer recording the weather daily, praying for rain. There is a mother's antebellum diary where she records with heartbreaking regularity the births and deaths of her children. And homesick soldiers during World War II send V-mail back to their families in Virginia.
Reading such documents can be an intimate and moving experience. These are authentic voices from the past and historians listen closely. The traditional fields of historical study-biography, military, political, church, business, and economic research--continue to be researched through the collections. The field of social history, while not new, continues to attract a growing number of students and historians. Whether they are researching women's history, African-American studies, or the ideology of Civil War soldiers, these collections of private family papers are a gold mine for researchers trying to evoke a particular sense of place and time.
Complementing the Society's manuscript holdings is its collection of rare books and other published materials. In addition to Virginia-related travels, histories, and biographical accounts, the library actively collects architectural plan books, Confederate imprints, and Virginia imprints, particularly those prior to 1870. The library also seeks first editions by Virginia authors and "association books," or books once owned by Virginians and bearing signatures, bookplates, annotations, or other marks of ownership. Examples of these holdings include the library of Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's personal library, and volumes from the libraries of William Byrd of Westover, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Ellen Glasgow, as well as many others who figure in the four centuries of Virginia's history.
The comprehensive Virginiana collection ranges from the general--local history, genealogies, directories, regimental histories and published records-to the obscure-a booklet that lists the name of everyone issued a Virginia drivers license in 1912. More selective collections of American, Southern, and English history are also maintained. There is an extensive collection of sheet music pertaining to Virginia, and a broadside collection announcing everything from a 1615 lottery in England to raise money to settle Virginia, to Douglas Wilder's campaign for governor.
The manuscript and book collections are thoroughly cataloged, and many items have additional indices prepared by the staff. This is a non-circulating library with closed stacks, but people who cannot visit the library can log onto the catalog via the Internet through the Society's Web site (www.vahistorical.org). Although it will be some time before retrospective conversion is complete, the on-line catalog will eventually provide integrated access to the manuscript, book, and museum collections in one searchable database. Future searchable components of the catalog will include records of maps, newspapers, photographs, and portraiture.
In addition to being a research library, the Virginia Historical Society is also a museum that oversees the special collections. These materials range chronologically from Jamestown colony relics to a uniform worn by a Virginia marine in Desert Storm. The museum collections include photographs, portraits, the largest collection of Confederate militaria in the country, Virginia-made silver and furniture, and mourning jewelry. These collections are showcased in the permanent exhibit "The Story of Virginia: an American Experience."
A special effort has been made to preserve ephemeral items, such as tickets, bookplates, menus, programs, playbills, and invitations. The special collections also houses items that range from the eccentric to the bizarre, such as a cigar butt discarded by Jefferson Davis, a likeness of Robert E. Lee carved from a tree fungus, hair from the tail of Lee's horse, Traveller, and an autographed photo of Elvis inscribed to Governor Lindsay Almond.
The Historical Society's staff provides access to these materials through exhibits, the research library, publications such as the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and a variety of educational programs. All these activities are enhanced by a partnership with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the state agency charged with overseeing historic preservation. A three-story wing was added to the Society's building in 1998, part of which is rented to the DHR under long-term lease. The DHR now has a permanent, public exhibition space, collection facilities, and an expanded library and archives for the public. These two institutions, one private and one public, share a similar mission of stewardship of Virginia's rich historical legacy.
All of these diverse collections take on an added significance by being housed under one roof. A researcher studying migration patterns from Virginia to the West can come to the library and read the secondary literature and then examine an original 1846 journal kept by a young woman who left Virginia for Missouri. The patron can later stroll through the gallery and stand before an authentic Conestoga wagon made in Sperryville in the 1830s.
A local high school student recently made a remark that reminded us of the value and richness of the collections. She attends an all-girls school that has formed a partnership with the Historical Society, and the class visits the library throughout the year. A reporter had come to the library to interview the students who were working on a class project about women's clubs in the 1920s. When the reporter asked one student what textbook the class was using, the student responded "We don't have one. The Society's library is our textbook."
The Virginia Historical Society is located at 428 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia 23221. The library, galleries, and offices are open Monday through Saturday, 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. The galleries are also open on Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 P.M.
Frances S. Pollard is Assistant Director of Library Services at The Virginia Historical Society.