Featured Books

These investigative notes on individual RLO titles provide concise yet nuanced studies of some of the books recorded in RLO's database. Think of it as a revolving (or evolving) exhibition of our research, which curates interesting books (and perhaps some objects) once held in the University of Virginia's Rotunda Library.



In a well known article on the history of the Rotunda Library, Frederick Winslow Page recounts the following anecdote secondhand (he no doubt borrowed it from his predecessor, the University’s longest-serving librarian and one of the anecdote’s actors, William Wertenbaker):1

When the first shipment of books arrived [Thomas Jefferson] visited the library, where Mr. Wertenbaker had already placed them on their shelves. After a thorough inspection, he called Mr. W. to him, and, pointing to “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,” said: "You ought not to have received that book. It should have been returned." "Why," said Mr. W., "it is a very handsome edition." "That may be so," said Mr. J., "but look at the back." It was (and is yet) “Gibborn’s Roman Empire.”

On a bit of a whim, we tracked down this book, hoping to identify and photograph the offending label. As it happens, the book survives complete in twelve volumes in the University of Virginia’s Harrison-Small Special Collections Library. Seven of its volumes (volume 3, pictured here) retain their original half-leather bindings and shelf marks; and though the ink lettering on most of these shelf marks has faded past the point legibility, a ghostly trace on the fifth volume reads “B 25”, marking the volume’s position (twenty-fifth) in sequence on a shelf labeled ‘B’.

Our first featured book of many, this copy of Gibborn’s [sic] Decline and Fall (London, 1821) demonstrates the type of provenance evidence that abides unrecognized in (or on) books that escaped the 1895 Rotunda fire. Each of these typographic survivors (time-traveling envoys clad in paper and leather) constitutes and carries evidence of a history that survives only in fragments. RLO’s effort to reconstruct the Rotunda Library—its history, content, and design—relies on these fragments to fill in gaps that would otherwise remain as voids in the historical record.

This is one of RLO’s aims. Recording provenance evidence like this—indexing it, contextualizing it—restores vitality to a collection of books long disbanded but still voluble, waiting to tell its secrets. Watch this space! We will be featuring similar blog-like notes on this page in coming months as work on RLO progresses.


1. F.W. Page, “Our Library” in The Alumni Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 3 (November, 1895), p. 80. Page was the University of Virginia's sixth Librarian and Wertenbaker's last assistant; Page served two terms as University Librarian, from 1881-1882 and again from 1891-1903. For biographical sketches of Page and Wertenbaker, see Harry Clemons, The University of Virginia Library, 1825-1950 (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Library: 1954), pp. 93-101; 115-118.

Pictured: DG311 .G423 1821 v.3, courtesy of University of Virginia Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library