Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Notes from Charlottesville

Barbara and I are enjoying our time in the town of Charlottesville, which in some ways is very similar to Kalamazoo – the airport is about the same size, the university is a large part of the town and economy, and downtown consists of a pedestrian mall anchored by an hotel – the Omni, where we are staying. The first night I was talking on my cell to my son and looking out of my hotel room window, across the open atrium, I saw lights beyond the trees and people circling around. Turns out they have put an ice arena there and a hockey game was going on. Looking for dinner, Barbara and I left the hotel and found ourselves in a bustling pedestrian mall – full of restaurants, bars, galleries, book and gift shops. Later I talked to friends who live here and they said that their downtown mall almost died too, but they didn’t give up, drew in the hotel, opened a movie theater, the skating rink, and people started coming, restaurants opened, and now it is very much alive. The university is about a mile away, but the merchants have paid for a free trolley service to bring students downtown. We used it to get to a reception at the university library and found it is well used.

I have to admit I didn’t know anything about the University of Virginia before coming here, so the following is just a miniscule window to the place, but I have to say I really liked what I saw. It was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson (called Mr. Jefferson by UVA folks), and his influence is still felt today. He designed the first buildings – two rows of buildings with a huge Lawn in between. The buildings alternated between two story “pavilions” and one story rooms for students. Faculty lived on the second floor of the pavilions with classes below. Each pavilion has its own unique set of columns and friezes, and there is a fenced walkway along the rooftops connecting all the pavilions, so the faculty could visit without dealing with the student riff-raff. Jefferson loved visual games, so there are some unique things about the spacing too. Behind each pavilion were two sets of gardens, set off by snaking brick walls – an upper garden for flowers, the lower for animals. Today, the pavilions still house upper level administrators, and the student rooms are the most prestigious place to live on campus, or on the grounds, as they say here. There is a tough competition for these rooms that have their own fireplaces, and a stack of university provided wood outside, but they have no air conditioning or bathrooms – students have to go outside and use a group bathroom. The rooms are awarded by a point system based on university involvement. When students graduate, they gather by the Rotunda (former library) – at one end of the Lawn, come around the sides of the rotunda and march eight abreast down the Lawn to the amphitheater where graduation is held. So graduation is called “Walking the Lawn” around here.

I had to look up the quick facts. It is usually ranked first or second best public university by US News & World Report (though their state funding is down to 12%) and in the top 25 universities in general, usually comparable to the University of Michigan. They have 20,000 students, of which 4700 are grads, and 1700 are in law or medicine.

The Libraries are a happy place. They have numerous libraries scattered around campus, but we got to see three that are next to each other. The reception was at the Harrison Institute – a new special collections library that has a reception building above ground, but the collection is housed underneath the lawn and is marked by a few skylights that are visible above ground. I missed the reception, as I was having dinner with some family friends that teach at UVA, so I just took a quick look around and was duly impressed – similar to the underground set-up at Cornell.

Alderman Library is the Humanities & Social Sciences graduate library. I was most interested in seeing their Information Commons set-up, though I don’t think they call it that. As you walk in the door into the large main hall, you see it is divided into 4 areas: the cafĂ©, the comfy seating area, the computers, and the circulation/information/reference desk. We talked to the circ students and they explained that they will answer simple reference questions if they are asked and know them, otherwise they are handled by the reference people. There is also an IT consultant available to answer technical questions at most times. There was a small ready reference collection by the desk. The reference room with a reference collection comparable to ours was off of the main hall. At the other end of the main hall was a passage to the Scholars Lab. This is a new area with high end computers, scanners and other equipment. It is used by students and faculty to create digital projects. My friend Dr. Benjamin Ray had worked with this lab to scan and XML code the transcripts of the Salem witch trials and had used the GIS system to locate the proximity of the accusers and accused. Barbara and I talked to the woman working there and she explained that is was a joint effort between the library and IT. Specialized IT help was split between this lab that mostly helps with digitizing and GIS projects, while the scientific software experts went to the science library. The quiet study area was two stories below in the former rare book area – with dark paneling, comfortable furniture, and old style feel like in our Meader Room.

The Clemons Library is the undergraduate library and we just had time to peek in the first floor main room. The room was full and bustling and Barbara and I thought it rather loud. The room was one large open space with different pods for computers, comfortable chairs, and tables. Along one wall were booths with padded seating and a table for working. As you walked in, there was a circulation/information desk – which acted as both circulation and reference. In the middle of the room was an IT consultant’s desk, which was not staffed at the time (8:30pm), and the reference person complained about them constantly changing their schedule. On one side was a Reserves desk.

My faculty friend said everyone was very happy with the library. They get books delivered to their offices, and he talked of a Tool Kit, which I later found out was a home grown course management software, that lets faculty create their own online coursepacks/course reserves. They have also negotiated for lower prices on journals with the help of lawyers.