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Why Books Matter

A University-wide competition sponsored by Rare Book School
and The Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the UVA Alumni Association

First Prize: $1,500 | Second Prize: $750 | Third Prize: $500

An opportunity for UVA students to respond to the confluence of today's technologies as they inform and shape material texts.

During the 2012–13 academic year, UVA undergraduate and graduate students are invited to work individually or in teams to develop innovative approaches to the presentation of textual media. Students can submit projects to any of the following three categories:

Essay | Fine Arts | Science, Technology & Entrepreneurship

Update: Click here to see the winners from each category.

  1. Introduction
  2. Submissions
  3. Rules & Dates
  4. Submission Form

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I cannot live without books.”

Today, perhaps more than ever before, books and other forms of recorded texts are of great cultural consequence for us all. Their fate is widely discussed in the public press, by libraries and universities, and by companies of various kinds—from publishing firms to Apple Inc. Their future shape will depend, in great part, on the desire, initiative, and imagination of our generation.

“Why Books Matter” is a University-wide competition open to all UVA students who wish to explore the changing nature of textual media, and who envision new approaches to engaging with books as physical objects. The competition celebrates Rare Book School’s twentieth anniversary on Grounds, and is meant to promote research and design related to the book, broadly conceived—that is, any recorded text, including manuscript, printed, and digital media. Its substantial prizes—ranging from $500 to $1,500—are meant to recognize UVA’s ongoing commitment to innovative research and design relating to books.

Books, whether ancient codices, printed volumes, or digital texts, are always material. Marshall McLuhan argued that “the medium is the message”; likewise, the “matter” of texts can be understood to consist of more than just words. Books are tools. They are art- works. They are objects that give shape to history, even as they are shaped by history. Last, but not least, they are commodities. The forms and presentations of texts shape their meanings; likewise, one can research the physical properties of texts—whether they be manuscripts or ebooks—to understand their histories. Thus, even as University Professor Jerome McGann in 2003 founded Applied Research in Patacriticism, a cutting-edge digital humanities lab that has resulted in influential scholarly projects, including NINES, Collex, Juxta, and IVANHOE, UVA and Rare Book School alumnus Timothy Stinson recently developed methods for extracting DNA from medieval manuscripts for dating and localizing them.

Material texts have always played a central role in the life of the University. Anyone who has visited UVA’s Rotunda might recall that the principal room of Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece was once filled with books. Jefferson’s design was innovative for its time: his Academical Village and Grounds surrounded not a church, but a library. Thus, Jefferson, an Enlightenment bookman, leveraged his understanding of architecture and books to build a “temple of knowledge” and a center of learning “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

As textual scholarship changed, UVA changed with it. In the 1940s, Charlton Hinman (Ph.D. English; 1941) designed an optical collator to perform a groundbreaking analysis of Shakespeare’s First Folio. His machine and research continue to be used by textual scholars today. In 1948, University Professor Fredson Bowers founded Studies in Bibliography, which quickly became (and remains) one of the preeminent journals in its field. In 1992, David Seaman founded UVA’s Etext Center, which was at the forefront of developing and delivering electronic texts and ebooks to readers; at the same time, UVA initiated the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), whose mission remains “to explore and develop information technology as a tool for scholarly humanities research.” In the same year, Rare Book School moved from Columbia University to UVA, where it continues to run its internationally recognized program for specialists in the study of manuscript, printed, and digital texts.

Today, the University is a renowned center both for the digital humanities and for the study of books as physical objects. Rare Book School, in partnership with The Jefferson Trust, invites UVA students to participate in this community; together, we have the potential to make a substantial contribution toward the future of material texts. In 2012–13, we ask, “How have material texts been shaped by recent technologies?” We solicit responses in the forms of projects submitted to any of the following three categories:

Essays | Fine Arts | Science, Technology & Entrepreneurship



Examples of submission to the following categories might include, but are by no means limited to:


Fine Arts

Science, Technology & Entrepreneurship


Rules and Regulations

The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate students who are currently enrolled at UVA. Students are permitted to work in teams. Collaborative, interdisciplinary research is encouraged, but not required. Applicants must submit their projects to Rare Book School (114 Alderman Library; whybooksmatter@virginia.edu) by 15 March 2013.

Please submit digital recordings of performances and high-resolution digital images of artworks and inventions, along with instructions or descriptions (if relevant) about their production. The competition’s judges reserve the right to request a live performance of any play or reading, to view in person any artwork, and to test any invention submitted to the competition.

Written work should be submitted in the form of a PDF file. Essays should not exceed twenty-five double-spaced pages (in twelve-point Times New Roman type, and with margins of at least one-and-a-half inches).

Submissions will be judged by UVA faculty from departments throughout the University. Plagiarism will be considered a violation of the Honor Code, and will be reported to the Honor Committee.

Applicants will retain all rights to their intellectual property. Winners will be asked to present their submissions at an awards exhibition on 19 April 2013. Rare Book School will also publicize and share information about the winning projects on its website.

First Prize: $1,500 | Second Prize: $750 | Third Prize: $500

Important Dates

Submission deadline: 15 March 2013
Awards announced: 5 April 2013
Awards exhibition: 19 April 2013

"Why Books Matter" Submission Form (PDF) - The form can be filled out digitally using Adobe Acrobat. Otherwise, please fill out the form by hand and either turn in a hard copy to the RBS main office (114 Alderman Library) or email a scan of the form to whybooksmatter@virginia.edu.

For additional information, contact RBS Assistant Director and Curator of Collections Barbara Heritage (CLAS ’01; GSAS ’02) at whybooksmatter@virginia.edu