"Why would anyone want to celebrate a fire?" That was the question we were asked by everyone who had heard of the Library's plan to raise an exhibit in commemoration of the centenary of the Rotunda fire. That the University would launch the most ambitious capital campaign of its history during the centennial year of its greatest disaster seemed far-fetched to many. That the Library would celebrate its near-total destruction seemed lunatic.

Indeed the fire of October 27, 1895 was a disaster, the likes of which the University had never experienced: only the scorched brick shell of the Rotunda remained standing; Robert Mills' Annex, the University's main classroom building, was a smoldering ruin. Two-thirds of the University Library's collection was consumed by the inferno. The Lawn was said to resemble "nothing so much as a body without its head." It seemed that Thomas Jefferson's grand design for the University had come to naught.

However, as we delved deeper into research for this exhibit, it became apparent that the fire meant far more than the destruction of the University's library and central building. An outpouring of sympathy and support for the University began as a trickle from friends and alumni across the Commonwealth. One alumnus said he felt "as though a temple had been profaned" and regretted that he was unable "to give a million straight down at once to restore and re-equip the buildings." The trickle of support soon became a torrent from across the nation. Without such support, the University, and the Library, might well have sunk into obscurity. Instead, the Rotunda was rebuilt by Stanford White, the nation's preeminent architect; three new academical buildings were added to the southern end of the Lawn. And, the University Library began rebuilding its collections.

In the century since the fire, the University Library has grown from the 17,194 volumes saved from the Rotunda to over four million, and is now one of the twenty largest libraries in the United States. Many of the great treasures of the Library, such as the McGregor and Barrett Libraries, have come as gifts, as have other donations--single manuscripts, photographs, books, and massive collections of individual and family papers. Perhaps the greatest difficulty we encountered in assembling this exhibit was selecting the relatively small number of items on display from the wealth of the Library's collections. We chose to focus the exhibit on images of the Rotunda, both visual and verbal. and on the Library within it. The exhibit commemorates the event that brought the University into the twentieth century; it is fitting then that these materials also form the core of an electronic archive that represents the Library's growth and development into the next century. That we were faced with so many choices answers the question posed at the beginning of this preface: the fire brought about the rebuilding of the Rotunda, and the revitalization of the Library, and the reemergence of the University on a nationwide scale. Like the mythical phoenix, the University arose from its ashes to a new and greater life.

Edward Gaynor, Head of Original Cataloging

Christie Stephenson, Digital Image Center Coordinator