How and Why to Use Firestone Special Collections

Hand turning page of a book of 13th century poems in Firestone special collections.
Hand turning page of a book of 13th century poems in Firestone special collections.

Where can you find trinkets Albert Einstein collected in Japan, diaries and manuscripts by Toni Morrison, and an autographed manuscript of The Great Gatsby? None other than our very own Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library of course! Welcome to the wonderful world of one of Princeton’s coolest resources: Firestone special collections. Basically, it contains anything in the University’s possession that is rare, valuable, and/or too old and fragile to be removed from the library. I learned about special collections recently through my AAS 244 class on Pre-20th Century Black Diaspora Art in which we often check out art and related manuscripts in the special collections.

How does it work? First, you can go to the Firestone special collections website. They have digitized quite a bit, so you may find copies of what you are looking for online in the digitized collections. If not, or if you want to see things in person, you can follow the link for finding aids and from there just search whatever you are looking for and click on a result. You can also search something directly in the library catalog just like you would any other book. If it is in special collections, it will direct you to the same place. Once you navigate to a specific item, there should be a button that says “request this box.” It’s kinda like online shopping, and once you have a box (or a few boxes) requested, go see them in person in Firestone. University students just have to show their prox upon arrival.

I didn’t really know what to request so I checked out a box of stuff Einstein collected on a trip to Japan in 1922 and a collection of Toni Morrison’s things, including her personal planner for 1998. The next day, I visited the special collections, which is the big glass room directly ahead of the elevator on Firestone C level. The staff will tell you everything you need to know, but in case you want a heads up, the process is pretty simple. First, put everything but a laptop/iPad or pencils in a locker outside and check in at the front desk. After washing your hands, you will be let into the special collections reading room and the staff will wheel your items out to you on a cart. You will be instructed on how to handle the items, and then you are free to spend as long as you like with your materials!

I looked through Einstein’s box first and saw some old photographs of him in Japan along with a card inviting him to a dinner (at least I think so, the card was in French). The box of Toni Morrison’s things mostly contained posters, flyers, and laminated newspaper articles about her work. It was very surreal to uncover, piece by piece, little mementos of a legendary career, including the suede case for her Nobel Prize, though the actual prize resides with her family. While I looked at some pretty popular items, you can request anything from cuneiform tablets to J.D. Salinger’s unpublished work. For anyone thinking of doing historical research, you may end up spending some time in the special collections. They are chock-full of a mind-boggling amount of cool, rare things, and all are available in a few clicks. 

Virginia Cobbs, Natural Sciences Correspondent