If you want to take your research in the humanities to the next level while here at Princeton, one of the best ways you can do that is by availing yourself of Princeton’s Special Collections. Home to vast stockpiles of manuscripts, rare books, coins, and other materials, Special Collections is a great place for students who want to pursue rigorous and impressive humanities research while making use of the excellent resources that Princeton has to offer. Many of these articles were donated by benefactors or acquired by the university specifically so that they could be researched by professors, students, and other researchers. In this article, I’ll present some reasons why you might consider checking out Special Collections, and then follow that up with a basic “how to” for when you visit.
A manuscript of an Ethiopic Synaxarion in Special Collections
Most people probably know Trustee Reading Room as that large room with big glass windows on the first floor of Firestone, where you go when you want a really quiet study space. Perhaps you’ve recently studied for midterms or worked on a paper in its sacred silence. Maybe you’ve wondered if there’s more to Trustee than simply providing a quiet atmosphere for study. The answer to that question is: yes, there is. It is the primary reference room of Firestone library– and if you read to the end of this article you will learn how to make the most of this tremendous resource.
Trustee Reading Room in Firestone Library has many reference works
When I first walked through the doors of Theodore Sedgwick Wright Library at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) on a sweltering September day a few weeks ago, I was struck by three things: the great size of the library, the small number of students there, and its remarkably-strong air conditioning. As I set my things down and cooled off in a quiet study area, I began to work on an assignment for one of my classes. My gratitude for the engineers who designed the building’s cooling system was quickly superseded by my admiration for those who worked together to produce the largest theological library in America and the second largest in the world after the Vatican Library in Rome.
Theodore Sedgwick Wright Library is the main library at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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.
Last school year, during my first year at Princeton, I rarely ventured out to study in the libraries, instead preferring to stay in the comfort of my dorm room. However, after spending the fall semester at home, I realized just how much I missed the Princeton libraries, and I regretted not taking advantage of this amazing resource more often while on campus.
Going into spring semester, I challenged myself to explore the many incredible study spaces on campus that I had never been to. I was partly inspired by this post on the best study spaces on campus, and I wanted to provide an update on how studying on campus during a pandemic is like. A lot of the logistics around studying in the libraries have changed due to new Covid-19 regulations. So, in this article, I am going to lay out the changes to the Princeton library system and provide an update on some of the best new study spaces on campus.
When I first applied for departmental senior thesis funding early this spring, everyone was still uncertain about how long the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would last. It seemed departmental administrators were optimistic: funding requests could still be made for summer travel. In my application, I detailed my intent to travel to university and state archives throughout the U.S. south for a thesis examining how antebellum Mississippi Valley planters conceptualized the idea of labor. But before I even heard back about whether I was to receive support, the department updated its funding parameters to prohibit summer travel and I had to redo my application in turn. My summer plans, of course, were not the first academic casualty of the strange 2020 world; nor would they be the last. Fortunately, though, there were ways to work around my newfound limitations: all of the archives that I wanted to visit offered services for resident librarians to scan and send materials from their collection, so I updated my application to ask for funds to pay for associated fees. Here, I’ll be sharing some tips for requesting archival materials to be scanned, which I hope will be helpful to any researcher unable to travel (pandemic or not).
This year, as we prepare to write our final papers in quarantine, it will be extra tough to locate the sources we need for our research. Without in-person access to campus libraries, this Dean’s Date will require some new strategies for accessing research materials. To help with this process, I’ve collected a few virtual research resources from my weeks of quarantine thesis work, as well as the beginnings of my Dean’s Date research (also check out Alec’s recent post for more tips):
Do not underestimate the library catalog. A lot of sources are available online, especially with the University’s new partnership with the HathiTrust Digital Library. Through this partnership, millions of scanned books have been made temporarily available to students—in addition to Princeton’s many existing online holdings. To see if a book is available online, just search for it in the Princeton library catalog. If you don’t see a digital edition listed, try clicking on a print edition and seeing if a scanned version is available through HathiTrust (if it is, there will be a link just below the book’s title and general information). You can also click the “Request” button under “Copies in the Library,” then “Help Me Get It” and a librarian will do their best to send you a digital copy—if it’s available—within a few days.
[Note:This post was written before COVID-19 reconfigured our library access. Interlibrary Loan is no longer accessible for students, but its sister program, Article Express, is still running at full speed!]
Every so often, when reading sources for my thesis, I come
across a citation for a book or article I can’t find in the Princeton library catalog.
Of course, given the size of Princeton’s holdings, these moments are rare—though
somewhat more frequent as I’ve entered the fine-grain stages of my research
project. In the past, a dead end in the library catalog was enough to convince
me to give up on a source. However, the exigencies of my last month of thesis writing
have pushed me to use what might just be the most magical tool in the Princeton
library toolbox: Interlibrary
Whereas Borrow Direct and Recap only provide access to books listed in the Princeton library catalog, Interlibrary Loan can provide access to… pretty much any source you could possibly need. ILL has two main request options: Article Express (for scans of specific articles and book chapters) and Interlibrary Loan (for larger sources, like books, audio/visual materials, and microreels).
I recently discovered yet another lifesaving research resource on campus: Library Guides. Compiled by Princeton’s subject librarians, these free online guides tell you everything you need to know about researching your field – and I mean everything. If you haven’t yet explored the available Library Guides, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Even after a few years at Princeton, the library system can feel overwhelming. Locating the relevant databases, citation formats, and reference books is always a challenge – especially at the start of a project.
On Friday morning, I encountered a manuscript no historian had studied before. I was on the C Floor of Firestone in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room, finding it hard to believe my luck. I had asked Gabriel Swift, the Reference Librarian for Special Collections, if he knew of any interesting primary sources connected to my Junior Paper topic, an 1805 Lenape religious revival led by a woman named Beate. In response, he connected me with this new acquisition, a handwritten journal from 1774. Just this year, he explained, the University had purchased it at auction in Paris. And because it was from a private collection, the source was previously unknown to academics.
According to the RBSC website, “its holdings span five millennia and five continents, and include around 300,000 rare or significant printed works.”
With just a few simple steps, you can see one of the first “Wanted” posters for John Wilkes Booth, Beethoven’s music manuscripts, or Woodrow Wilson’s love letters. It is one of the most fabulous and underutilized research resources on campus – especially for historians. As undergraduates, we have nearly complete access to the collections. Continue reading Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections