U.Va. Library Background & History
History of the U.Va. Library
Based on the exhibit "Building the University of Virginia Library"
For information on Library images, please visit the University Library's Online Visual History Collection.
Background info on Mr. Jefferson's Library
In developing his plans for the University of Virginia, Jefferson envisioned the college experience as taking place within an “academical village”—a place where shared learning infused daily life. Classrooms and living quarters for students and faculty would line either side of a central lawn.
Jefferson’s plans also place a library, not a chapel, as was the standard among other universities of the time, at the head of the shared lawn. Jefferson designed the library to include a domed roof, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon and symbolic of the enlightened human mind.
Thomas Jefferson was intimately involved in the details of the University Library—he selected the initial collection of books, designed the Rotunda to house them, and arranged the books according to his own subject classification adapted from Francis Bacon. He also hired the first two Librarians and developed the first library regulations.
As rector, Jefferson established strict rules for the use of the Library. For example, students had access to books for only one hour a day on weekdays and no books could be borrowed without permission from a professor.
1824 - Eight thousand volumes make up the newly established Library for Thomas Jefferson's University. Pavilion VII (now known as the Colonnade Club) serves as a temporary library building while the Rotunda is under construction.
Spring of 1825 - Jefferson compiles a list of nearly 7,000 books to be acquired for the University Library. The Library’s collections will continue to grow with early gifts, including Jefferson’s papers, the papers of the Lee family of Virginia, and books from James Madison’s collection. Madison’s bequest of $1,500 also establishes the Library’s first endowment.
Jefferson hires John Vaughan Kean, a student at the University, as the first librarian. Jefferson considered this position to be a safekeeper of books and enforcer of rules rather than an administrator.
1826 - The Rotunda is completed. In a letter to his foster parents on September 21, 1826, second session student Edgar Allan Poe writes that all the books are finally in the library.
1850s - As the enrollment at the University increased, library collections and resources grew. By the end of the 1850s, the library holds 30,000 volumes. The pressing need for additional instructional space results in the Annex addition to the Rotunda in the 1850s.
October 1895 - A fire starts in the Annex and soon envelopes the Rotunda. Students, professors, and community members save what they can, but by the time the fire subsides, the Rotunda is completely gutted and only 17,000 out of the library’s 57,000 volumes remain.
Architect Stanford White is selected to rebuild the Rotunda. His design removed the Dome Room floor and opened the building’s interior from main floor to oculus, increasing the capacity of the library.
An outpouring of generosity from alumni and friends of the University helps rebuild the library and its collections. A decade after the fire, the University holds over 60,000 volumes.