The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia

By Wetherington, Mark V. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia


Wetherington, Mark V., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia. Edited by SANDRA GIOIA TREADWAY and EDWARD D. C. CAMPBELL, JR. Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1997. xvi, 293 pp. $65.00.

IRONICALLY, the archives and historical societies that have done so much to preserve our nation's past by collecting historical source materials are not much inclined to self-examination. "Historians, it seems, would have much to say about the history of historical societies, but this is not the case," concluded John Alexander Williams in a survey of the historical society field in 1984. The publication of The Common Wealth: Treasures from the Collections of the Library of Virginia, edited by Sandra Gioia Treadway and Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., is a welcomed addition to the institutional histories and collection guides of archives and historical societies in the United States.

This handsome, coffee table-sized volume's purpose is "to tell the story of how the Library came to be and how its collections grew through the years, and to showcase some of the commonwealth's historic treasures that have been entrusted to the Library's care" (p. xi). Given the library's long history and enormous collection, this was no small undertaking. The Library of Virginia-formerly the Virginia State Library-was founded in 1823 and today "houses the single most comprehensive collection of materials relating to Virginia history, culture, and government available anywhere" (dust jacket). The Common Wealth represents a parallel project to the construction of the library's new building, which opened in 1997. As work on this "beautiful civic space" with its fifty-five miles of shelving proceeded in downtown Richmond, a staff committee began to work on this volume, intended to draw public attention to "the building's true significance[,] ... the magnificent archival and printed collections that are housed within" (p. xi).

The volume succeeds in its goal and is divided into two sections. The first is "A Rich Storehouse of Knowledge: A History of the Library of Virginia," by Brent Tarter. When the commonwealth first committed public funds to create a reference library in 1823, Virginia could trace its Euro-American history back more than two hundred years. The library of the colonial governor's council formed the core of the early collection. Placing a heavy emphasis on legal works and funded partly by quitrents, it resembled in some respects a learned gentleman's library, and Council members, lawyers, and their clerks accounted for most of the users. Following the first appropriation of public funds by the General Assembly in 1823, the "official" founding date of the state library, the institution experienced steady growth for the remainder of the antebellum era. On the eve of the Civil War, the library boasted approximately 20,000 volumes, and its already voluminous archival holdings were getting out of hand, becoming mixed with its unofficial manuscripts, described during the 1830s as a "useless mass of private and professional papers belonging to individuals" (p. 13).

As was the case throughout the South, the Civil War had a devastating effect on the state's historical collections. Acts of thievery and vandalism occurred before Richmond fell to Federal forces in April 1865, but disaster and plunder reached new heights during the evacuation fire of 2 and 3 April. …

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