Being in the Archive: Navigating the Space and Etiquette

Ricardo Barros, PAW
The Reading Room on the C-level of Firestone, where one can read and view items from Princeton’s Special Collections.

In the first article of this archival tour, I talked about the process of identifying the proper archives to further your research. But what happens next, once you have the archive, the collection, or the item you want? How do you proceed from there? For the purposes of this article, I will assume you are physically at the archive because we already have some great articles about requesting items from archives that you cannot physically be in. Here, then, I’ll talk about navigating the spaces of the archive and their uses, as well as some facts about archive etiquette.

Instead of dallying around, let’s jump back into the archive!

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Lost in the Archive? Here’s How to Find Your Way!

Detre Library & Archives, Catelyn Cocuzzi
The reading room of the Detre Library and Archives, located on the sixth floor of the Senator John H. Heinz History Center.

Fall break – a time for rest and relaxation. While I certainly used the time to collect myself after the whirlwind of a more normal semester, I also had to make progress on my junior paper for the History department ahead of its first draft in November. Exploring a consumer’s perspective on post-war nylon riots (1945-46), I had toiled through various online newspaper archives to rack up an impressive number of sources; however, something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t going deep enough. I wanted to find someone’s thoughts on the riot outside of the newspaper databases I had used, which I knew would be a challenging (if not impossible) process that could only be achieved by looking at the archive.

An important tool in the historian’s kit is the archive, which is a trove of various historical documents, materials, and items that can transport you to another time. Given that the archive is a physical location, the pandemic had interrupted much of the on-the-ground work historians do in libraries across the country, much of which was overcome through technology. Thankfully, I was able to access wonderful archives in-person in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA: the University of Pittsburgh Archives and Special Collections as well as the Senator John H. Heinz History Center Detre Library and Archives. Covering a vast array of local and regional history, I was set on taking advantage of these archives’ resources to further my research.

I wanted to use this space, then, to share a bit about (in-person) archival research and what I learned. Regardless of your academic studies or research, archives offer a window into the past that could helpfully contextualize your topic, explore an unknown tangent that can offer up a new perspective, or even just lose yourself in the archive looking at random things. In this article, I will specifically cover the process of identifying an archive and then finding items within that archive.

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Census Records, Wills, and Obituaries: Exploring the Ancestry Library


Have you ever wondered about your family history?

Besides the DNA kits offered by Ancestry and 23andMe, there are more concrete ways of piecing together the different tales that aunts and uncles spin at family reunions. Thankfully, as Princeton students, we are given access to a powerful database to locate, explore, and utilize different genealogical records to the benefit of both our personal and academic research: the Ancestry library. I had earlier discovered this resource through the class HIS 388: Unrest and Renewal in Urban America, whose instructor is Alison Isenberg, who was just featured in PCUR!

You might be asking: What kind of records does Ancestry keep? The records are multitudinous. From census records to wills to obituaries to yearbook photos, Ancestry keeps records from many different places, different times, and different people. The bulk of these records are government documents, often created, collected, and stored by bureaucrats for the purpose of institutional record-keeping and tracking individuals. According to Ancestry, these records are collected from different archives of information across the world, where they are then digitized, made machine-readable, and uploaded to their public database.

So, what does this all mean? What can we do with these documents? Let me show you.

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Lost in the Library? Turn to a Librarian!

The Trustee Reading Room in Firestone Library, the hub of the entire Princeton University Library system and one of the largest libraries in the world.

Beginning a research project is often a daunting task. Often, when I begin a project, I have the vaguest idea of what to research. Sometimes, I don’t know where to begin looking. Given that Firestone is one of the largest open stack libraries in existence, there are literally millions of books, journals, anthologies, and other pieces of literature to sift through. The process of identifying the literature that will propel a research topic is thus often the most tiring part, but thankfully, there is a solution: the wonderful Princeton librarians!

So, who are these librarians? 

In fact, each undergraduate student at Princeton is assigned their own personal librarian. This librarian is supposed to act as your direct liaison between the library system and yourself. You can go to them to receive guidance on how to navigate the stacks, learn how to take advantage of different workshops and programs, or even just have a chat. My personal librarian, Ellen Ambrosone, almost always sends me an email every semester to remind me of her services. Often, she also includes a picture of her dog! Regardless, these librarians are meant to be friendly faces in a huge space, so do reach out to them with any inquiries about your research or the library system writ large!

The Princeton University Library system also hosts a large array of different subject librarians, each specializing in their own discipline. For example, Steven Knowlton is one of the subject librarians for both History and African American Studies. Thus, a student interested in a topic pertaining to History and/or African American Studies might want to reach out to him in order to identify literature that may be pertinent to your research topic. 

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Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor of History Alison Isenberg

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.

Alison Isenberg, Professor of History; Co-Director, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Taken Feb 6, 2017.
Professor History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Alison Isenberg plans to finish a draft of her upcoming book, Uprisings, soon.

As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.

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Write Again! Stress-Reducing Tips for the Rewriting/Editing Process

Pre-pandemic Firestone: A writer’s paradise?

As a student studying history, my classes are essay heavy. Whether it’s a short, 5-page paper, or a longer 10-to-15-page paper, I write a lot. And surely, I’m not alone; as Princeton students, we are expected to write a lot, whether it be academically, extracurricularly, or professionally. With so much writing, it becomes easy to grow tired and forgo editing. After all, with an outline and ‘rough draft’ in hand, it’s easier to call it a day and pray for an A.

The rewriting process is perhaps the most underrated yet important step when it comes to essay writing. Rewriting is not just about catching misuse of the dastardly Oxford comma or misspellings of common words but finding out what fundamental aspects of the essay work and do not work. This is asking yourself the basic questions: Does the essay make sense? Does the structure create a naturally flowing, cohesive essay? Are my references in order? Is everything grammatically correct?

With a new semester coming up ahead, and those dreaded 5-page or 10-to-15-page papers coming along with it, I thought it was best to outline some of the strategies I use to rewrite my essays. These are strategies I took away from Writing Seminar (mine being WRI 146: Constructing the Past), some of my history classes (most notably HIS 281: Approaches to European History), and my own writing exercises to rewrite and edit my essays. This list is not exhaustive, not meant to be followed point-by-point nor used for every type of essay; in fact, I would take this list as blend of different strategies to mix-and-match. Nevertheless, here it is!

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Lost and Confused? Create a Map!

It’s said that a picture tells a thousand words; a map, however, can tell you a million.

To me, maps are not just tools for navigation. They have a variety of uses, enabling their creators to visualize a vast array of data efficiently and quickly. From questionable election forecasts to the location of monuments in a city, anything of your choosing can be mappable. Maps, in my experience, can be one of the most powerful tools in your research toolbox. Thus, I want to show you how you can use maps in your research, and the power they hold!

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4 Tips to Organize Your Lost Folders and Misplaced Files

While I was working to finalize my research this summer, I realized something: I couldn’t find one of my sources central to my argument. Pouring through my various folders on my computer, I could not find this source. Between Excel sheets with undescriptive names and misplaced images, it wasn’t just that my source was missing; I lacked an entirely well-formulated, well-maintained organizational structure to keep track of my work.

If anything, organization should be easier in the digital space. Besides bytes, we’re not necessarily concerned with finding the space to store our papers, books, and other materials; in fact, we can create folders upon folders, meticulously grouping related works together to keep track of them.

But this is the trap. While I’ll see the mess before me on my desk, I don’t necessarily see that all of my folders are disorganized until I need to find something. I don’t see that I stored images for my essay on my Google Drive rather than in that class’s folder. In my experience, computer storage may facilitate organization, but it also hides potential messes from you until you need to find that one file for your assignment or research. And even if you’re the type of person where all of your work is spilled out onto your home screen, sifting through the documents at times is surely a nightmare.

So, I wanted to outline some of the steps that I’ve taken this school year to make sure that everything remains organized in this weird digital setting:

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