In 1825, when the University of Virginia’s first class of students began classes, the Rotunda was still under construction. As a result, the first university library, with the texts chosen by Thomas Jefferson, was housed in Pavilion VII.[1] During this first year, Jefferson hired a young entering student, John V. Kean, as the first university librarian, giving him strict instructions for the management of the library.[2]

As part of these duties, Kean kept a log of the students and the books which they removed from the library. Using this catalog, we can better understand early life at the University of Virginia through the books that students read.

During the first session of University of Virginia, from March through December of 1825, Kean recorded students and professors checking out a total of 1,306 different works, from histories of Rome to medical dictionaries.

What were the most popular texts among students? According to the catalog, students checked out the works of William Shakespeare a total of 87 times, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary a total of 57 times, and David Hume’s The History of England a total of 47 times during the opening session.

In addition to these works, students frequently checked out Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Robertson’s History of Charles V, Ferguson’s Rome, and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son on Morals and Manners.

Beginning in 1826, the University began to offer legal courses, but in the prior year Kean’s records show that 22 different students checked out 41 legal volumes from the university library. During this first year, the most popular legal texts were Coke volumes, which students checked out eight times, and Blackstone’s Commentaries, which students checked out six times. During the Second Session, from February 1,1826 to December 1826, we can see that Blackstone and Coke remain the two most popular legal texts, with 13 and 8 check-outs respectively.

By the fourth university session, beginning in 1827, students were no longer removing either Blackstone or Coke’s works from the university library. During this period students likely began acquiring their legal texts from other sources. Later syllabi from 1832 show that professor John A. G. Davis continued to teach both Coke and Blackstone’s works.

Over time, the catalog shows that these trends don’t hold. By 1827, the record shows only one removal of Coke, and none of Blackstone, with total checkouts less than half those of Session one and a third of Session Two. By Session Four, records show that of the 131 enrolled students and 18 declared law students at UVA, only three checked out legal texts from the library during the school term.

The 1832 Catalog of students includes a printed list of readings for law students at the University as assembled by Law Professor John A. G. Davis. According to this list, law students at UVA were first assigned Vattel’s Law of Nations, Blackstone’s< Commentaries, and other texts before moving onto “Coke upon Littleton, (Thomas’ edition)” and other texts. At the end of this 1832 catalog, the university included a list of students’ projected expenses while at school. At the end of this projection, the catalog notes that this tally is “exclusive of books and stationary, clothing and pocket-money” (4).

According to this catalog, it is possible that students began to purchase their own textbooks and began to use the library less than in the early years. Since Coke and Blackstone’s works were two of the most popular legal texts in the United States as well as at UVA prior to 1828, it’s unlikely that UVA law students stopped reading the texts entirely.

[1] “History of the University of Virginia Library.” University of Virginia Library, University of Virginia ,

[2] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to John Vaughn Kean. 31 Mar. 1825. MS. Monticello, Virginia.