Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer

Virginia Tech is proud to be the alma mater to many pioneers in aerospace engineering, perhaps none as famous as Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. The VT Stories team recorded an oral history interview with Kraft in April 2017, and Special Collections now has the full interview and transcript available online. The VT Stories summary of the interview is available here.

Chris Kraft being interviewed by VT Stories project director Ren Harman at his home in Houston

Chris Kraft graduated from Tech in 1944 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. The university was operating on a 12-month schedule because of WWII, therefore Kraft graduated after only three years. Despite only this truncated time at Virginia Tech, Kraft rose through the ranks to become president of the Corps of Cadets, which he counts as teaching him important leadership skills. Kraft also recounts his classes with Professor Rasche, contracting Scarlet Fever, and dance weekends from his memories at Virginia Tech in his interview.

After graduating at age 20, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Kraft worked at Langley Research Center as a flight test engineer for 13 years, until the space race began.

Kraft works at his console inside the Flight Control area of the Mercury Control Center, from Wikimedia Commons

In 1958, he became one of the original members of the NASA Space Task Group, which was established to manage Project Mercury, the nation’s first project to put a man in space. During Project Mercury, Kraft developed many of the basic mission and flight control techniques used in manned space flight, which culminated in the creation of the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center (originally the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston, from which all of NASA’s manned space flights have been conducted. He also served as Flight Director for all the Mercury missions and many of the Gemini missions. Kraft was named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1970, and later director in 1972. He retired from NASA in 1982 and and subsequently served as a consultant for various corporations. In 2001, Kraft’s autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control was published.

Special Collections also has Kraft’s papers, which he donated in 1986. The collection consists of approximately 28 cu. ft. of manuscripts, particularly NACA and NASA reports and documents, meeting notes and agendas, research materials, and the manuscript for 2001 Kraft’s autobiography. You can view the finding aid for this collection here.






The Power of Primary Sources

For nine and a half years, I’ve been working at Special Collections and have been doing instruction just about since I started. After being an observer for one class and anticipating my own first class to follow shortly, I asked myself a basic question that I remember quite well. “What do I want to communicate about Special Collections to a group of students, most of whom have never visited an archival repository before or worked with original primary sources?” Yes, yes, the rules are different here. Explain why. That can lead nicely into a general description of the kinds of materials found here. Sure. No appointment or invitation is necessary. We’re a friendly bunch, after all. Talk about primary sources. What’s a finding aid? All of these came to mind, along with various other important details, all to be ordered in a clear, comprehensive, and understandable way. Describe the materials kept here and how to find them. Talk about collecting areas. All good. All necessary, but, taken together, insufficient.

We also want to give students the experience of interacting with primary sources: to see them up close, to hold them (carefully), to get a sense of how they might be useful in research, to judge the challenges they may present, or to be startled by the surprises they may hold.

Display of materials for class exercise
Display of materials for class exercise

So, we assemble an exercise in which all members of the class get to choose from a selection of largely unidentified items from various collections and spend a few brief moments with the material they’ve chosen. Most likely, it’ll be from a manuscript collection, that is, it’ll be some kind of unpublished primary source. After those few moments, they’ll be asked to talk a bit about the item(s) they’ve picked. The hope is that with as many students as possible talking briefly about the materials they’ve chosen, everyone in the class will leave the session with a better idea about the kinds of materials held at Special Collections.
That may be the low bar of an adequate objective, but it’s not all we really want to encourage. What we really want is to present an opportunity to create a connection between student and primary sources, broadly considered, through an initial, singular experience.

World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]
World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]

Sometimes that experience depends on pure happenstance. A student beginning work on rationing on the homefront during World War II drew a folder that contained rationing materials that belonged to a nearby Giles Co. family and included a small box of Office of Price Administration (OPA) Red Point ration tokens. These tokens, used for change when buying meats and fats with ration stamps, were first issued in 1944. She was thrilled to see these for the first time, to have the actual materials in front of her.

V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944
V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944

Another coincidence involved a member of the Corps of Cadets who happened to choose a folder containing a single sheet of paper marked “Reply by V . . .-Mail” at the bottom and “Lt. J.W. Monteith” written in at the top as the sender. The date on the letter is May 27, 1944. I swear that I did not give this particular folder to this fellow, whose eyes lit up and jaw dropped with the recognition that he was holding a letter written about ten days before Monteith, a cadet at Tech in the late 1930s, took part in the assault on Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Lt. Monteith was killed that June 6th day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Like many (all?) cadets to this day, the cadet in the class knew Monteith’s entire story. I’m guessing, this was not what he expected from a class session at the library!

Honestly, situations like this happen quite often. Both of these incidents happened within the last couple of weeks. Ideally, we’d like students to experience these kinds of connections. Sometimes a connection may occur on the basis of an interest; sometimes it may be more emotional, or anywhere on a scale between the two. In that connection is an initial understanding of the potential power of primary sources. This is what we hope to communicate, especially to students who have not previously had the opportunity to work with these kinds of materials, for example, letters, diaries, journals, correspondence of all kinds, family papers, even legal and business records.

Some instances do depend on luck, as is the case with the two examples above. The right person choosing the right document, though even having one classmate describe a document meaningful to another can have the same effect. Who knows which student will be stirred by the first commercial announcement for the new Lime Jell-o (1930, for all of you who care) or by a police blotter from the Bowery district of New York in 1861. I am still absolutely wowed by a 27 July 1969, post-Apollo 11 letter from Charles Lindbergh to astronaut Michael Collins!

Then, there are some documents that, hopefully, have a wider impact.

Take a look at this document. Don’t even read it. Just look at it. (Click on each image to get a closer look.)

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3


What do you see? It’s a letter, yes. Is it just me, or isn’t it beautiful to look at? The handwriting is gorgeous. Even if you’re not used to reading cursive writing, it’s clear and easy to read. The paper is accented with a red rule on the top of the first page and blue one down the side of that page. Maybe you couldn’t help but notice the date, January 28, 1863; the location, Philadelphia; or the formal salutation, “Dear Sir.” Now read that first line:

I have just received through your kindness the painfull intelligence of my son’s death.

The beauty of the letter as an object and the foreign quality of the language in that first sentence anticipate the power of its meaning, which comes that much more powerfully precisely because of those two prior elements. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Carver (she wrote the letter) has died. He’s not named and the circumstances of his death are not specified, though the date and place provide likely clues to both. Charles Carver, 19 years old in 1860 and, in 1862, a private in G Company, 121st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, was wounded at Fredericksburg and died some five weeks later. Like so many documents, this letter raises more questions than it answers and invites the reader to discover its stories while delivering an emotional blow that all can understand.

Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796
Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796

Written some sixty-six years earlier is another document I often use in the classroom.

Here the writing is more difficult, as is the language. The date may be the first thing to jump out at a reader, in part because it comes before a line break and, thus, stands out a bit more: 27 September 1796. Here, part of the power lies, first, not in the document’s uniqueness, but in its ubiquity, for its day. In 18th-century America and the first half of the 19th, this kind of document was exceedingly common.

Know all men by these presents that I John Edwards of Rockbridge County with my security John Dunlap & William Johnson of Greenbrier County am held and firmly bound unto Joseph Dickson in the just sum of one hundred ten pounds current money of Virginia to be paid to sd [said] Dickson by sd Edwards or security in witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands & seals this 27th day of September 1796.

The language will sound strange to folks not used to it, but it is, likely, recognizable as legal language. John Edwards is paying Joseph Dickson £110 for something. Of course, the something, in this case, someone, becomes clear in the second paragraph, “a Negro boy named Elijah.”

The ubiquity of this kind of document, a bill of sale for a slave, in the Virginia of 1796 is tied fast to the fate of a specific individual, in this case, the young Elijah. Both characteristics of the document are contained in this single sheet that represents the sale of one human being to another. A note on the reverse of the document tells us that Elijah is 12 years old and weighs 77 pounds. I suggest, if you let yourself realize it, there is great power in this document, precisely both in the commonness of its form and in the specificity of its effect.

In these materials are the potential power of primary source documents that we, as archivists, wish to communicate and share. Of course, these documents are each just one out of a larger collection of materials. Also, recognizing the power of primary sources is just the beginning, not an end in itself. But for students who haven’t had the opportunity to work with materials like these, it’s an important element of starting out. It’s the introduction with a bang, the “wow” that we hope to make possible! Any document is just a piece of a story, a part of a thread of a research question or an element that fills out one’s own interest.

History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters
A First-Year Experience History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters

Story is, I think, part of what drove Trudy Harrington Becker’s First-Year Experience History class (HIST1004) in it’s effort to transcribe the letters of Joseph F. Ware this past fall. With nearly 50 students tasked to work with 100-year-old letters written in a cursive script that was often not easy to read, I was first amazed and then very impressed by the determination, excitement, and downright fervor they brought to the assignment. My first thought was to have folks work in small groups, each with a single letter. No, no, every student would get a letter to work on! There are, after all, more than 100 letters in the collection. As two colleagues and I hustled around from table to table, helping folks who were stuck on this word or that phrase, it was clear that everyone was ENGAGED! Folks who finished their first letters were asking for more! A second session with the class turned into a third.

At first, the desire to simply read and make sense of an initial letter seemed to provide more than enough motivation. The students knew only a few general facts about Ware. He had been Commandant to the VPI Corp of Cadets from 1911 to 1914 before resuming his Regular Army commission prior to American involvement in World War I. They began with his wartime letters from France written to his wife, Susie, in Blacksburg. Then, there were the letters home from training sites and other posts prior to his departure for France, along with a few post-war letters. Fifty students in a room all transcribing letters that each tell part of a story led to what became an irresistible incentive to know the full story, to know what happened. There were long separations between husband and wife, wartime wounds, and a young son, among other facts to consider. Students were no longer talking as much to their classmates about this or that word, but asking, “What happened in Paris?” or “Did Ware return to Blacksburg?” The outlines of the story needed to be filled in.

If Ware’s letters provided the impetus to learn of his larger story, they also supplied the gateway to a range of inquiries into broader historical themes taken up by the class. At the end of their semester, these students presented the results of their work in a series of digital posters in an exhibit open to the public. Drawn from Ware’s own texts, they highlight, for example, not only Ware’s personal story and the toll the war took on him and his family, but also, for example, the American conduct of the war and the nation’s attitudes toward the war and its leaders.

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Here, then, is an example of the power of primary sources to fire the imagination and propel further inquiry. At its heart, this is what we want to instill in students. This is the experience we want to provide. The project of any archival repository is not to just preserve history, but to preserve its materiality in order to provide it to following generations for further use. Though obvious to any archivist or historian, this simple point is not necessarily clear to a student—or anyone—who has not yet experienced the archives or had any reason to consider the question.

Of course, students aren’t the only folks who get to recognize the excitement of discovering the possibilities embedded in an archival collection. To bring this long post to a close, I’ll mention one last story, mostly because it shows how the activities of the “Special Collections classroom” and exposure to the power and value of primary sources can truly be preparation for future scholarly endeavor.

Back in May 2014, we received an email from a scholar who wanted to do work at Special Collections with a focus on “Confederate prisoners of war and their intellectual engagement while in prison.” He said it was “part of a larger project on intellectual life in the Confederacy and post-Reconstruction South.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already about to publish a book titled, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (published by UNC Press, 2015.) On a list of 14 collections he wanted to see, the Nelson Family Papers were dead last.

Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866 Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018
Prison Pens: Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866
Edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler, University of Georgia Press, 2018

A few days ago, we received a copy of Prison Pens
Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866
, edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler. Tim Williams came here in 2014 with a broad research agenda and found a collection that spurred his interest, I dare say his passion. A correspondence of fifty-five letters, untranscribed, written between “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay from 1863 to 1865 were a part of the Nelson Family collection. Once the collection had been identified, Tim and his co-editor did, essentially, what the students in HIST1004 did, though at the level of professional scholarship. They transcribed the letters. They sought the story of the correspondents and presented research into the themes in which, as context, they wished to place both the writers and the letters themselves. Then . . . with the help of the University of Georgia Press . . . they did take an extra step. They published the book.

The “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay correspondence can be read in the new book by Williams and Kutzler. Digital copies of the letters and the rest of the Nelson Family Papers can be viewed on Special Collections Online. These materials are now broadly available to inform, encourage, and stimulate new research.

The originals remain housed in Special Collections with all the other primary source materials—preserved, available, and powerful.

Virginia Tech Pioneers from China

Cato Lee: Pioneer of the Lee-aphon Clan by Gigi Lee-aphon tells the fascinating stories of Cato Lee, one of the early Chinese students at Virginia Tech, and the members of his family. Written by Cato Lee’s daughter, Gigi, the ninth of his ten children, the book gives insights into the challenges faced by family members as they confronted Chinese, American, and Thai cultures. The author uses family stories to give the reader a better understanding of the life of Cato Lee. The book was published by Lotus Seed Press in 2017.


Cato Lee book cover includes image of Lee and his bridewith
Cover of Cato Lee Pioneer of the Lee-aphon Clan with image of Cato Lee and his bride Kim Reiw
Text about the book and small image of the author on the back cover
Back cover of Cato Lee Pioneer includes image of the author, Gigi Lee-aphon

Cato Lee, who graduated in 1927 in Mechanical Engineering, was one of the first six Chinese students at Virginia Tech. The University Archives’ site, “First International Students at Virginia Tech,” lists the first and early international students by year and country:

Born Lee Kee Tow in Bangkok, Thailand in 1904, Cato Lee was the son of Lee Tek Khoeia, a Chinese immigrant and merchant from Canton, and Noei Lamson, the youngest child of one of the most prominent families in Thailand. Because his father was a playboy, Cato was raised in unusual circumstances in Canton, China from the time he was four. When he was fourteen, his father enrolled him in an English/Chinese school in Hong Kong. He became a “British subject” while he was in Hong Kong, a status that his father already had. The British passport made it easier for him to travel to the United States.

When Cato was 17, his close friend from Hong Kong, Tien-Liang Jeu talked him into going to study in the United States. Tien-Liang already had visited the United States and enrolled at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. The two young men made the arduous journey by ship from Hong Kong to Vancouver and then traveled by train across the United States to New York City. Since he did not have much money, Cato waited on tables at a small restaurant before he enrolled in school. Because he was younger than Tien-Lang Jeu, who entered Virginia Tech (then called Virginia Polytechnic Institute or V.P.I.) in 1921, Cato first attended and graduated from Fork Union Military Academy a military high school for cadets in Fork Union, Virginia.

image of the yearbook page relating to tien-Liang Jeu
Tien-Liang Jeu’s page in the 1924 Bugle (p. 61)

Tien-Liang, whose nickname at V.P.I. was “Ting Ling,” earned a degree in electrical engineering. According to his Bugle page, “his highest ambition is to turn the wild and destructive forces of the mighty Yangtse and Yellow Rivers into power that will illuminate all China.” (1924 Bugle, p. 61)

Page gives information about Lee and his activities as a student at VPI
Cato Lee’s Senior Page in the 1927 Bugle, p. 183.

Cato Lee entered V.P.I. in 1923 and earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1927. He played on the varsity track and tennis teams and belonged to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Lee Literary Society. His Bugle page (1927, p. 183) includes a quote from Kipling:

But there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they have come from the ends of the earth.

The commentary on his Bugle page indicates that Lee was not only a student but also taught his fellow cadets by “showing us that the gentleman of the East is not different from the gentleman of the West.”

VPI members of A.S.M.E. with equipment used in theier work
Image of V.P.I. members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 1927 Bugle, p. 352.
Blown up image of Cato ee from A.S.M.E. group photo.
Detail from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers group photo showing Cato Lee.

Virginia Tech was very important to Cato Lee. Gigi Lee-aphon wrote in an email that she learned to say the word “bugle” at a very young age, not knowing it was an English word. Her father’s cadet uniform, sword, and sash were neatly hung on a stand in a corner of his bedroom for many years. “I could admire it,” she said, “but better not touch it.”

The image on the book’s cover shows Cato Lee and his bride, Kim Reiw, the daughter of a Chinese businessman. They only met because he stopped off in Thailand to visit his Thai mother on his way back to China. The couple married soon after they met and lived in Bangkok. Kim Reiw is wearing the wedding dress her parents ordered from Hong Kong. The book describes the couple’s glamorous wedding at one of the royal palaces in Bangkok where they both wore traditional Thai garments. They were known as the Romeo and Juliet of Thailand.


Women’s History Month 2018

Women’s History Month is only a few days away and again this year, Special Collections and the University Libraries, in conjunction with some friends around campus, have some plans a-foot!

“Coeds: The History of Women Students at Virginia Tech” (sponsored by University Libraries and Virginia Tech Alumni Association). Virginia Tech first admitted women as students in 1921, but it was a long road to acceptance. Women had to create their own yearbook and unofficial sports teams in the beginning, and it took decades to achieve important student leadership positions in student organizations. Additional barriers prevented women students of color from reaching the same status as white women students for years and sometimes decades, as with the first Black women who didn’t matriculate until 1966, a full 45 years after the first white women and 13 years after the first Black man. This exhibit highlights the many women who overcame these obstacles in order to obtain a quality education and to open doors for others to join the Hokie Nation. Wednesday, February 14th through Friday, March 30th, Monday-Friday from 8am-5pm at the Alumni Museum in Holtzman Alumni Center.

“Courage, Resistance, and Leadership: Women in American History” (sponsored by Special Collections and University Libraries).  Special Collections and Newman Library will be collaborating on two exhibits in two spaces on the first floor of Newman Library. Special Collections will have items from our collections on display in the Reading Room, along with a digital slideshow of additional materials, trivia, and fun facts. In a nearby location on the first floor of the library, there will be a display of posters highlighting women represented in Special Collections holdings, as well as from the Women’s History Month website, which contextualize their roles in American history. Open Thursday, March 1 through Monday, April 2, during Newman Library Hours. Posters will be on display on the first floor of Newman Library in the hallway across from classroom 120; the Special Collections reading room is on the first floor near the cafe. 

“Together | We: Troubling the Field in 20th Century Architecture” (sponsored by Special Collections and University Libraries). The Special Collections Department at Newman Library will have an interactive digital exhibition on display focused on materials from the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA).  The exhibit will highlight a number of women working primarily in the 20th century who were practitioners and often pioneers in the field. In addition to their architectural work they often had to overcome significant barriers to entry into the field, including access to the resources and networks of professional organizations. Several of these women became avid organizers and advocates, highlighting the contributions of other women to the profession and working to rectify the disparities in representation across daily practice and professional associations. Open Thursday, March 1 through Monday, April 2, during Newman Library Hours. Display will be on the first floor of Newman Library in the hallway across from classroom 120.

For the sixth year running, our What’s Cookin’ @Special Collections?! blog will continue its “Women’s History Month” series, highlighting the contributions of women to the culinary and agricultural fields! (You can view the posts to date online.)  New posts should also show up under this category as they are published. So far, we’re planning to look at Martha Lee Anderson (pamphlet author for Church & Dwight, aka Arm & Hammer), the legend of Betty Crocker, and a manuscript cookbook from an alumnae of Randolph Macon College from the 1920s.  And you may see some women’s history-themed posts on our Special Collections at Virginia Tech blog, as well as on our social media channels (@VT_SCUA on Twitter and through our contributions the University Libraries’ Instagram account, @vtlibraries).

We are also involved in a set of individual events in March:

  • Wikimedia Share-A-Thon” (sponsored by University Libraries and the Women’s Center). Come help enhance the visual record ahead of the next two events in this Wikipedia intervention series (see below). The workshop will start with an introduction to Wikimedia Commons and then dive into sharing photos on the platform. As Wikimedia Commons only accepts freely licensed images, there will also be an overview of Creative Commons Licensing. Tuesday, March 20 from 2-3:30pm in the Newman Library Multipurpose Room. 
  • “FlowGround Session Wikipedia Editing Workshop” (sponsored by University Libraries and the Women’s Center). Drop in for an informal session to chat with colleagues about intersections between fields that could generate a push to make Wikipedia articles a more complex—yet still accessible—resource for the general public. Set up an account, learn about editing, talk with people from a wide range of disciplines about intervening in social spaces, and just generally share ideas that transcend specific disciplines, technology, tools, and processes. Wednesday, March 21st from 11:30am-1pm in the Newman Library Athenaeum (room 124).
  • “Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon” (sponsored by University Libraries and the Women’s Center). Drop in any time to help edit Wikipedia—or just learn about the process and purpose. Tutorial sessions, online modules, assistance in setting up accounts, and other resources will be provided throughout the day for new editors or anyone who wants a refresher. Share ideas, update articles in your area of interest, work with others to enhance existing materials, and enjoy the experience of coming together to make a difference. Wednesday, March 28 from 11am-8pm in the Newman Library Multipurpose Room. 
  • 2018 International Archive of Women in Architecture Symposium(sponsored by College of Architecture and Urban Studies Diversity Committee and the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA)).  For centuries, women in architecture have been involved in pushing the boundaries of architecture and architectural practice. Whether as registered architects, members and leaders of architectural firms, academics and scholars, or in any of the less conventional capacities, women have helped transform the discipline of architecture and the related design fields shaping the built environment. Wednesday, March 28th: 7pm; Thursday, March 29th and Friday, March 30th: 9:30am-4:30pm

There will be about 45 events going on during March all over campus to celebrate women’s history month and we encourage you to check out the calendar (which will be posted online this week) and get involved where you can!


From Diary to Webpage: Making John Henning Woods Accessible

Ms2017_030_5_018Like all archives, Special Collections at Virginia Tech holds a rich store of fascinating stories. One of these is the “John Henning Woods Papers,” a collection of six diaries and memoirs by a Confederate conscript who created an underground Unionist society in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War. A Southerner by birth and education who was opposed to slavery and secession, Woods was conscripted into the 36th Alabama Infantry Regiment of the army in 1862. While in the army, he was caught, tried, and charged for an attempt to organize a mutiny. His resulting execution was delayed until Jefferson Davis finally pardoned him and he was assigned to build trenches around Atlanta. Woods finally escaped and made it to the Union lines in late August of 1864, enlisting as a clerk in the 93rd New York Infantry in September of 1864. His story is fascinating and can be found in full here; however, it is not the main focus of this blog post. Outside of providing new insights into the Civil War and the experience of Unionists of the Confederate South, Woods’ collections of memoirs and diaries also provide a first-hand look into the behind-the-scenes processing practices and obstacles that arise in making archival collections accessible to researchers.

You’ve likely seen, and perhaps even used, a digital collection of archival material. Such collections can be quite expansive, containing a transcript, a scan of the archival material itself, and maybe even some contextual information, such as footnotes or suggested readings. Ultimately, the goal of making and publicizing digital collections is increased accessibility so that you can view it while in your pajamas from your living room at two in the morning. This was the goal for the John Henning Woods Papers; their unique value as a source written by a Unionist Southerner who hated slavery made it a prime collection for digitization. Thankfully, the process of scanning was done by the digitization department, decreasing the amount of work I personally had to do. However, like with all digitization projects, there were a number of issues that arose throughout this process. Woods’ papers became the prime example of the difficulty of this process, raising the usual, but also some new and unusual, obstacles to digitization.

The usual first step in digitizing a collection is to create a transcription so that

Figure 1
This example demonstrates the method of writing via cross-hatching that was used to save paper, ink, and postage.

researchers don’t have to attempt to read old handwriting. Even the neatest handwriting still contains issues such as slanting lines, uncrossed t’s or undotted i’s, crossed out words, or words that are crammed into spaces that are too small… the potential reasons for illegibility are endless. Some of the more unique letters, particularly from the Civil War era when paper was expensive and even scarce, contain examples of cross-hatching as seen here, where sentences were written on top of and perpendicular to more text. While daunting at first, reading cross-hatched lettering is simply a matter of focusing your eyes and

This page from Woods’ journal shows where he rewrote a section of text over top of a previous draft.

perhaps tilting your head. Some sections of John Henning Woods’ journals put such relatively decipherable space-saving methods to shame, however. Unlike cross-hatching where the 90 degree turn of the paper allows for distinction between the sentences, Woods simply wrote over top of his own writing, which you see to the left. To make it worse, the two transcriptions are almost identical with a few key differences that make transcription necessary yet almost impossible. Ultimately, transcription had to be done with a magnifying lamp that exaggerated the slight difference between the two inks Woods used. You can see this digitized page and (eventually) the corresponding transcriptions here.

Outside of writing over top of himself, two of Woods’ handwritten journals also had another quirk: in some places, he switched over to another alphabet altogether.

This largest section of Pitman found in any of Woods’ journals has been a serious translation challenge.

These instances of strange lettering were written in Pitman Shorthand, an antiquated version of shorthand that used shapes to denote sounds with which to spell words phonetically. While resources do still exist that provide basic information on how to write and read Pitman, the writing system’s rules contain a wide range of exceptions and shortcuts that are far more difficult to learn. Woods’ shorthand contains its own quirks, as well, as he used his own shortened symbols to represent common words, making it impossible to translate some sections with certainty.

Despite the difficulty, these sections are particularly important to translate because of what they contain. Success in translating the majority of Pitman within the journals has shown that Woods used the writing system largely to write about sensitive subjects. In his daily journal from 1861, Woods used Pitman to write about his success in stopping a duel, an act that would have frowned upon in the honor-based culture of the Old South. Another section of shorthand in his journal describes his former love for the local preacher’s daughter that faded after she fell from grace. While certainly unique, these notes that Woods attempted to hide are invaluable because they provide clear insight into Woods’ character, as well as his view of the world around him.

Screenshot for blog
Woods’ formatting doesn’t always translate into neat code. See Woods’ original on the right, the code input on the top left, and resulting transcript on the bottom left.

Following the process of transcription, the collection and its accompanying transcriptions and translations had to be put online, which is our current project. Along with scanning individual diary pages and providing accompanying transcriptions, accessibility requires footnotes to contextualize the people, events, or terms used in the journals. These footnotes and matching transcriptions then needed to be translated into HTML code to be used by Omeka, our online exhibit software. While this was a fairly easy process, my determination to keep Woods’ formatting made some of the pages difficult, an example of which can be seen above, where the HTML code can be seen in the top left, resulting text in the bottom left, and corresponding page scan to the right.

Regardless of all the difficulties of this process, however, I will miss working on this collection once it is successfully turned into an online exhibit. While I have plenty that I could work on once I say goodbye to John Henning Woods, I feel at this point that I know him. After all, I have spent a year reading his writing, deciphering his handwriting, and translating his deepest secrets out of shorthand. It’s hard to forget that I was most likely the first person to read those sections since he wrote them 150 years ago. As a part of researching this collection, I’ve also found the location of his grave and researched to see whether he has any living relatives; unfortunately, the closest I could find was a grandniece who recently passed in 2017. Because of my familiarity with this collection, I know his deepest wish was to be known for the sacrifices he made for his country. It may be a little late, but I do hope that this post and the online exhibit we create can make a little headway towards that goal. I know I at least will be visiting his grave even if just to say thank you.

Once the online exhibit has been completed, it will be available here. Until then, come to Special Collections to see the John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030.

By Katie Brown



Getting Out of the Map Case and into the Light

Map case d images

As archivists we look at objects all the time, putting them into protective folders, filing them into map cases and boxes, labeling them to provide context and preserve their order. We repair, we structure, we help people gain access, and we promote their existence at every turn. We take the often ordinary and treat it like a priceless item—and usually believe that to be true because of the significance documents and drawings, especially en masse, can hold in building greater understanding.

As long as you have a writing utensil at all times, the world will provide a canvas. Sketches on napkins from the Susana Torre Architectural Collection.

We also put items safely away to protect them from all kinds of harm—air, light, insects, dirt, fingers. We worry about the fragility, though often those documents had a rougher life before they came into our care. Architectural plans that survived tough jobsite conditions, napkins that served as a quick drawing slate—things that in general had a life out in the world all come to mind.

As a profession we have always been working to balance care and access, to promote use and find ways to share materials that transcend geographical locations or more mundane barriers such as reading room hours. We digitize in order to share, and we look for ways to improve our efficiency, quality, and process so that we can share more. With that goal in mind, we have been testing a new camera this week to make shooting large format drawings faster and easier. The beauty of technical details aside, it allows for great image quality at incredible speed and it has allowed us to quickly work through a large volume of oversized work from the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA).

To that end, we are getting things out of the map cases and into the light.

Women of Design: Digitizing Hidden Collections
Selection of IAWA materials that have been digitized for a CLIR Digitizing Hidden Collections grant.


Flora Virginica and the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands

An advertising graphic that reads: "Flora Virginica" within a border of dogwood blossoms. Below the graphic is the text "On display in the Special Collections Reading Room February 5 - March 16." In the lower right corner is the Virginia Tech University Libraries logo.Over the past few months, I’ve stepped outside my normal topical areas of social justice and the history of traditionally marginalized communities. This departure was related to an exhibit titled Flora Virginica that is on display in our reading room from February 5, through March 16. I enjoy putting together exhibits, so I was happy to take this on even though it was something I knew nothing about. This blog post will include a description of the exhibit, the reasons for its existence, and the interesting history I discovered while putting it together (only not in that order). Enjoy!

An Exhibit, In Partnership

In 2012, the Flora of Virginia Project published Flora of Virginia (QK191 .W43 2012), a 1,572 page comprehensive compendium of Virginia plants. It’s a thick botanical tome of little interest to most people outside the botanical sciences. We acquired multiple copies in the library when it was first published and it isn’t one of our particular collecting focuses. It wasn’t something we were particularly focused on highlighting.

Skip ahead to fall of 2017 and an email from the Massey Herbarium to the Director of Special Collections mentioning an exhibit about Flora of Virginia that the Massey was going to be hosting. Special Collections was being involved because there was an opportunity to display an original Flora Virginica in support of the Massey exhibit. This is where I entered the process.

Over the course of a couple of months, I worked with Jordan Metzgar at the Massey Herbarium and Bland Crowder, editor of the 2012 Flora of Virginia, from the Flora of Virginia Project to arrange a loan of an original 18th century Flora Virginica. During the process of arranging this part of the exhibit, it was suggested that I might also wish to exhibit some 18th century Mark Catesby prints alongside the book. Still not knowing much about the project or the books, I opened discussions with Lynn McCashin, the Executive Director of the Garden Club of Virginia, to arrange a loan of some of their Catesby prints. The next few months consisted of multiple emails negotiating the logistics of the loans. As the date for the exhibit approached, I began to research these items so that I could create some didactic labels for the exhibit (those short little descriptions that go next to items in museum-type displays).

In order to adequately describe the 1762 edition of Flora Virginica and the 1771 Catesby prints – and explain what they had to do with one another and Virginia history, I had to learn that history myself. Where did I start? A general web search, of course. Wikipedia offers great superficial overviews on just about any topic. That was enough to get me oriented before moving on to better sources including the Encyclopedia Virginia, JSTOR Global Plants, the Catesby Commemorative Trust, The Royal Society, and the University of North Carolina Libraries. During the course of this research, I learned some interesting details about the people who created these items and their places in botanical and zoological history.

Flora Virginica, 1762

A photograph of a copy of the 1762 Flora Virginica open to the section on Monandria and Diandria. On the left side is a fold-out map of the Virginia colonial region that is larger than the bound book.
Flora Virginica, 1762 printing

Flora Virginica (QK191 .G86 1739a) is a precursor to Flora of Virginia. They are actually named the same – just in different languages. The original Flora Virginica was published in two parts, the first in 1739 and the second in 1743. Then, a combined edition was published in 1762. All three editions were published in Latin by Lugduni Bavatorum publishers in Leiden, Zuid Holland, Nederland. They all list Johannes Fredericus Gronovius as the person who classified the specimens and wrote the book. They also list John Clayton as the observer and collector of the plants. This attribution has led to much debate over the correct citation of authorship. Many, using modern standards, have claimed that Gronovius plagiarized Clayton’s work. Scholarship as recent as 2004 has addressed the authorship issue directly and concluded that Clayton likely did not have much chance of being published without the help of someone like Gronovius and the actions of the latter would not have been deemed plagiarism using the standards of the 1700’s. Proper credit for authorship, then, is probably to list them both.

Amidst the issues of authorship, I discovered some interesting things about the men who created what was the only comprehensive listing of Virginia plants for over 200 years. John Clayton was born in England in 1694/5 and came to America sometime before 1720. His move to the Virginia Colony was likely due to his father’s position as Attorney General of Virginia. Clayton was an amateur botanist. He was a plantation owner, a slave owner, and Clerk of Gloucester County, VA for more than 50 years. He liked to travel around the state and collect specimens of flora and fauna.

Gronovius was a Dutch naturalist and friend of Carl Linnaeus. He built up a reputation in the Netherlands as a botanist and had his own herbarium. He was considered a professional and had standing within the scientific world to publish. As part of Clayton’s  amateur botanical work, he compiled for Gronovius a catalog of various plants using Linnaean classification. This catalog is what Gronovius eventually turned into Flora Virginica.

So what about Mark Catesby?

Mark Catesby was born in 1683 and was an English naturalist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He first traveled to Virginia in 1712, accompanying his sister and her children. Over the next seven years (1712-1719), he collected and sent to England a variety of botanical specimens from Virginia and Jamaica before returning to England himself. During this time, at least one ornithological specimen and several plants were provided to Catesby by John Clayton. That one connection is why the Catesby prints are often displayed with Flora Virginica … that one connection and the fact that the Catesby prints include gorgeous illustrations of many of the plants mentioned in Flora Virginica.

After a few years in England, where he became a member of The Royal Society, Catesby returned to America to begin work on his grand project. He spent the next 20 years compiling specimens, teaching himself to illustrate them, and writing his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (QH41 .C28 1754).

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He wrote and illustrated the book(s) entirely himself, publishing them in eleven sections totaling more than 220 hand-colored etchings. In order to finance all this work, Catesby sold subscriptions, offering the book in sections of 20 plates every four months. The first section was published in 1729 and he presented Her Majesty Queen Caroline with her copy in person. Following Catesby’s death in 1749, his work was republished twice, in 1754 and 1771. Catesby’s work was done before Linnaean classification was developed but the 1771 reprint includes a catalog of the Linnaean names for the flora and fauna depicted in the book.

While Flora Virginica is recognized as the most comprehensive listing of Virginia plants from 1739 to 2012, Catesby’s History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands is known as the earliest published work illustrating and describing North American flora and Fauna. It was published almost 100 years before Audubon’s The Birds of America (QL674 .A9 1827a).

The Exhibit

Through the generous courtesy of the Flora of Virginia Project and the Garden Club of Virginia, we have an exhibit containing a 1762 original Flora Virginica, a 1946 reproduction Flora Virginica, and two Catesby prints from the 1771 reprinting: The Summer Red-Bird, The Western Plane Tree and The Red Start, The Black Walnut. This exhibit gives viewers a chance to appreciate the wonderful history of all of the items with an abbreviated version of the information presented here. If you’re in the area and want to see the exhibit in person, stop by Special Collections and take a look.

While you’re visiting, if you are interested in taking a look at a copy of Flora Virginica in person (reading Latin helps),  Special Collections has one copy of the 1946 reproduction on site and two in remote storage (QK191 .G86 1739a). If you want to see the amazing Catesby illustrations in person, Special Collections has a copy of the 1754 reprinting of Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (QH41 .C28 1754). As for the 2012 Flora of Virginia, Newman Library has two copies and Special Collections has one (QK191 .W43 2012). And, if you’re curious about Audubon’s The Birds of America (QL674 .A9 1827a), Special Collections has a 1985 issue of the double elephant folio in our reading room – it’s our only item with its own piece of furniture.

A full listing of events related to the Massey Herbarium Flora of Virginia exhibit is available at