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They absolved into the school’s Alderman Library and promised they wouldn’t leave that night until they had begin a way to save the old agenda catalogue.

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So began a plan that would accompany calm a association of book lovers, 22,000 pounds’ account of cards and one elastic ducky.

The agenda archive was slated to be alone during a massive library renovation. Small wonder: It hadn’t been adapted in two decades, it sat mostly unused, and it would amount hundreds of bags of dollars to save. The archive is physically massive, with 4 actor cards. (Four dump trucks’ worth, an ambassador calculated.)

But Curtis and Lemley are alum students, researching and autograph dissertations about 17th- and 18th-century literature. They had acclimated the agenda archive abundantly in a activity documenting the books in the school’s aboriginal library, the Rotunda. Jefferson had advised the university so that a library — rather than a abbey or seminary — was at its heart.

A blaze in the Rotunda in 1895 larboard abounding books in ashes. Curtis, Lemley and added U-Va. advisers capital to re-create a almanac of the volumes accounted capital in the university’s founding years, and apprentice how the accumulating had been rebuilt, generally through books donated by bounded families.

The cards sometimes included advice that the school’s agenda annal did not — typed or handwritten addendum on the aback account the books’ provenance. One of the aboriginal drawers Curtis pulled out yielded a hasty find: A book about botany from the aboriginal library had been active by one of the school’s active founders. And again Curtis begin that the book still existed, in a appropriate collections library at U-Va. — but with no almanac of it in the agenda system.

It wasn’t aloof the ties to Jeffersonian times that aggressive them. U-Va.’s agenda archive spanned 50 years, from the 1930s to the backward 1980s. Those were agitated times for the nation and the university, with World War II, the Civil Rights movement, and changeable and atramentous acceptance alteration the school.

When books are assuredly removed from the library, they’re deleted from the agenda catalogue. But the agenda archive provides “an accurate, preserved-in-amber appearance of what the library was in the 20th century,” and what absorbed scholars, Lemley said.

Faculty and others lobbied to save the catalogue. But with bound amplitude for new books, 65 ample board cabinets were acutely impractical. Library leaders are already on a bound agenda afore assignment to abolish asbestos begins in January. The advance needs are across-the-board — and urgent.

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“It’s a architecture abounding of cardboard and acceptance with no blaze suppression,” John M. Unsworth, the university librarian said, again laughed and added, “except the asbestos.”

It would amount the accessible university about $750,000 to browse the cards for a agenda record, Unsworth said.

So Lemley and Curtis got to work. At Alderman backward that night, they abstinent and calculated. They advised and refined. And by apex the abutting day, they had a angle that included the cubic anxiety it would booty to abundance the capacity of the cabinets, the amount per box to address and abundance them, and a plan that could carriage 4,000 drawers’ account of cards, in absolute order, out of the library. By Jan. 7.

Money to accede the accomplishment — Unsworth pegs the amount at $75,000 — would appear mainly from donors. And the activity for this gargantuan assignment would appear from volunteers.

The card-catalogue arrangement was advised to accompany adjustment to chaos, said Peter Devereaux, the columnist of a book about agenda catalogues. The abstraction originated during the French Revolution, back arena cards were acclimated to clue libraries bedeviled from churches and aristocrats.

By the mid-19th century, it was accepted for books to be catalogued on cards, said Devereaux, a writer-editor at the Library of Congress Publishing Office.

But with a billow in book publishing at the about-face of the 20th century, the growing admeasurement of agenda catalogues was acceptable a problem. The afterlife bell came in the 1960s, with the ancestry of machine-readable data. In the 1970s, abounding beyond libraries switched to computers, and over the years, Devereaux said, a lot of agenda catalogues “ended up in the dumpster.”

Today, bodies can acquisition books swiftly, and agenda catalogues are calmly updated. Yet alike amid those who accede the advantages, there are some, like Page Nelson, who formed in libraries at U-Va. and Harvard University, who are wistful.

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“It’s baleful to sit at a computer all day. It can be soul-destroying,” Nelson said. But thumbing through cards in chase of books is “like arena a agreeable instrument.”

As a inferior cataloguer at U-Va. in the 1980s, Nelson said it took three weeks of training to apprentice the layers of alignment necessary.

Most of Nelson’s time was spent alive at a desk, but every Thursday afternoon, he and his colleagues would go out with six-inch-tall endless of cards to book them in drawers. It ability complete tedious, he said, but he remembers it affectionately.

“It was as if you were in the barrier bewilderment at Hampton Court,” he said, captivation the cards and ambit the big board banks of the agenda catalogues, with ablaze alive in beneath the aerial beam of Alderman’s lobby. “It was a astonishing befalling to babble with bodies you didn’t babble with normally, flirt, accept absorbing conversations.”

Not anybody acquainted the charms, he acknowledged. “There was a buck that didn’t assume altogether blessed in the work,” alike as his co-workers admired how bound he was able to book the cards. Again one day his assigned cards were begin in a debris can. “He was,” Nelson said, “the fastest filer.”

U-Va.’s admiral emeritus, John T. Casteen III, who is an English Department adroitness member, formed in Alderman as a apprentice in the 1960s, so he knew advice was accounting on the backs of cards. He remembered award tomes from Jefferson’s library shelved on accessible stacks, some accepting arrested out, with their actual accent unrecognized.

When he abstruse of the students’ canning plan, he and his wife offered banking support, triggering added gifts.

With the absolution of university leaders, volunteers — including undergraduates, advisers and at atomic one chief ambassador — began affective the cards from drawers into boxes, afterward a circuitous but alike system.

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In their abundant seven-page workflow plan, Lemley and Curtis drew maps of the cabinets — which are no best in alphabetical adjustment — and diagrams.

“If I didn’t alpha out with one, I absolutely accept an affection for agenda catalogues now,” Curtis said, laughing. “I don’t apperceive if it’s absolute or affected because I accept to argue myself I adulation these things afterwards spending so abounding hours with them.” By backward December, he and Lemley had spent about 200 hours on the library’s fifth floor, area books had been confused out for the renovation, abrogation abandoned shelves for the boxes actuality abounding with cards. Two-thirds done.

The calibration is staggering, Lemley said: If they ample the cards in a distinct pile, it would amplitude added than a mile high.

Occasionally, there’s a surprise. There was an electrical agglutinate larboard in one drawer. A attach clipper in another. And in the bosom of a row of cards, as admitting appearance a book, one elastic ducky.

Unsworth’s surprise: “The acumen of alum students.” They took the administration’s apropos actively and came up with a applicable solution, he said. “Their adherence to the account is inspiring.”

Late at night, they’re packing those cards. “It feels like we’re accomplishing article important,” Curtis said. “And we do accept a borderline — a actual absolute deadline. The end is near.”

In the end, 798 boxes will be alien to off-campus storage. Eventually, they will be bar-coded and housed in allotment of the library system, so advisers can appeal a box and deride through the cards inside.

One board chiffonier will angle in the new aperture to Alderman, Unsworth said, with cards called by Curtis and Lemley.

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They already accept addition plan, Curtis said, aggressive by Nelson and his agreeable descriptions of the cards (“every one a cuneiform adobe tablet”): Over the abutting few months, they appetite to almanac added interviews with accomplished cataloguers and filers. They’ll actualize an articulate history of the agenda catalogue.

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