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Archivists Rustle Up Richmond Memories


One of the library blog’s popular features is Mug Shot Mondays. - LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA
  • Library of Virginia
  • One of the library blog’s popular features is Mug Shot Mondays.

The Library of Virginia’s downtown archives are as long and wide as a city block. They hold row after row of shelving filled with boxes filled with treasure. Take this 164-year-old rejection letter from L.B. Powers, an evidently no-nonsense woman.

“I have no objection of your waiting on me,” Powers wrote in her letter dated Sept. 26, 1849, to suitor Henry Sears, “but as you are in a hurry for a wife I think it is best for you to dispense with your conversation as I think there is no earthly chance of my agreeing with your proposal. …”

No ambiguity there.

“That one really connected with people,” says local-records archivist Bari Helms, who found the letter in chancery papers from Middlesex County and posted it on the library’s blog, Out of the Box.

Helms is one of three editors of the blog, which launched May 2010, and which, with scant publicity, reaches an audience in the tens of thousands. About 600 people, a majority of them unique visitors, visit the site daily, Helms says. From July to September, more than 87,000 people from across the country visited the blog.

“Our archivists find stuff every day and we didn’t have a way to highlight what we’re finding,” Helms says.

What else to do with the fascinating little stories behind state penitentiary mug shots? In occasional Monday posts, archivists have highlighted Charles Beckner, who began a life of crime at 14, and Walter E. Stiars, whose 1906 escape from the Virginia Penitentiary was “the catalyst for requiring that prisoners be photographed.”

That series is called Mug Shot Mondays and yes, Helms says, “it’s really popular.”

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