Graffiti from an Alderman study carrel. From September 17, 2008: partly cloudy, pleasantly cool + impossibly optimistic Courtesy photo

As a first- and second-year student, Judy Thomas (Col ’77, Grad ’84) huddled for countless hours in Alderman Library’s New Stacks, usually at study carrel 3M-19. The art history major was “all fired up” about politics, she says, and she scrawled her thoughts on the walls of that carrel: “Impeach Nixon. Stop the war.”

Or else “witty epigrams about life and art and Neoplatonism.”

“You think you’re being very profound,” she recalls. “It was the simple precursor, in a way, to Twitter … that desire to say something that others will see, that’s a little bit subversive.”

Today, Thomas is UVA Library’s director of faculty programs, and her rebellious scrawls have been painted over and replaced by those of later generations. Soon all Alderman graffiti will disappear. According to John Unsworth (Grad ’88), dean of libraries, Alderman will be emptied of books by year’s end and not reopen until extensive renovations are complete, likely at the end of 2023. 

Before that happens, however, one UVA professor and her students are logging thousands of photographs of graffiti into a database, complete with annotations—thus capturing a sizable chunk of what’s scrawled on the New Stacks carrels. 

“It’s a glimpse into … [students’] uncensored thoughts, opinions, feelings, expressions,” says Lise Dobrin, director of the Interdepartmental Program in Linguistics, who coordinated the effort as a class project.

The idea to document Alderman’s graffiti arose last spring in Dobrin’s anthropology and linguistics seminar, “Literacy and Orality.” As her students studied a chapter on graffiti, one mused: “Gosh, somebody should do something about the graffiti in Alderman.”

“I’m a documentary linguist,” Dobrin says, “which means that I record endangered languages.” So she rolled the idea into a hands-on project for her students. 

The team focused on Alderman’s fourth-floor carrels—the most-visited ones, and containing the most graffiti, according to Dobrin. The team researched everything from song lyrics to foreign-language translations. One carrel had close to 70 pieces of graffiti.

The class project won’t encompass all graffiti across all UVA libraries, and the facilities team paints over the most offensive messages each year. But Dobrin and her team have so far captured more than 3,500 photos of scribbles from 79 of the 176 carrels in the New Stacks—the earliest dated notations going back to 1980. The collection ranges vastly: cultural references next to political commentary and artsy doodles, innocuous weather observations juxtaposed with crude jokes, frustration abutting inspiration.

Anyone wishing to scroll through the digital archive can visit the Special Collections database: uvamag.com/graffiti. Or stop at Alderman’s reference desk before the end of the fall semester to pick up instructions for a scavenger hunt of some of the best.

“Read at your own risk,” Dobrin says. “This is graffiti, you know—that’s the whole point.”