Conversing with the McGregor Library: a reflection on the digitization project

I began working on the McGregor digitization project in January 2018, and since that time an untold number of volumes from that collection have passed through my hands. The McGregor Library is remarkable for several reasons: the items in the collection are in incredible condition; they contain a wealth of historical information on the European exploration of the Americas; and they offer a fascinating look at the religious beliefs of Europeans in their interactions with the people living in that region of the world. And while I certainly didn’t have time to read any of the books in detail, I sometimes had to read particular pages in order to figure out the metadata for a given book, such as a dedication, prologue, or other description. The little that I read in these volumes was always interesting, and from my superficial reading I felt that a much more prolonged and rich conversation was taking place among the authors of those works somewhere beneath the surface of the page. I felt that if I had the time to engage more with these materials I could begin to see the ways in which the authors of these texts were participating in a dialogue that stretched over a great many years. By way of illustration I would like to share one such “conversation” that I found particularly interesting.

When I was in the process of entering the metadata for a book that I had just finished digitizing, I came across a page variously written in English, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin that I was unsure what to name. Was it an epigraph? A prologue? I decided to look up the record in UVA’s Virgo system to see if there was any basic metadata information about that particular page that I might find useful. As I looked at the Virgo information I noticed that this particular book, written by John Norton and titled A Discussion of That Great Point in Divinity, the Sufferings of Christ: And the Questions About His Righteousnesse Active, Passive: And the Imputation Thereof, was composed in reply to an earlier book written by someone named William Pynchon. Pynchon’s book is titled The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption and was published in 1650, three years before Norton’s text. The last name Pynchon was very familiar to me, and I wondered if he was related to the modern American author Thomas Pynchon who wrote The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and other novels. It turned out that, indeed, William Pynchon is an ancestor of Thomas Pynchon, which I found particularly interesting. Even more interesting in my mind was that Norton’s book, which I had in my hand, was part of a debate about Puritan theology that was quite historically important. Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was apparently not well-received by the theologians of the time, and shortly after it’s publication it became the first banned book in the New World. It seemed, then, that A Discussion of That Great Point in Divinity was much more than print on a page; it was an important historical moment not only for the development of Puritan theology in the Americas, but it also recorded an important moment in our shared literary history. Norton’s book, of which I was completely ignorant, was an important document in a theological conversation that remained active for centuries. And I learned all this, simply because I was searching for the right description for a single page of that book.

It was truly fascinating to uncover a small moment in European literary history that was taking place between the covers of Norton’s book. That I could learn about, and in some way participate in, a centuries old conversation (and theological and literary scandal) between these authors was exceptional. I share this one story of my time digitizing books from the McGregor Library because I think it exemplifies the value of the project, and it also exemplifies my personal interaction with the items in that collection. There is a great deal of history that is being preserved through the McGregor digitization project, and that is certainly of the highest value. But there is also a great value in being at the forefront of that project and being able to hold in one’s hands artifacts of the religious, political, and geographical history of the Americas. It was a privilege being able to interact with the items in the McGregor Library, and I know for certain that the work done by the Digital Production Group for this project will benefit countless scholars in the future.

Adam Newman, Ph.D., Department of Religious Studies, 2019