Archival Research in the Age of COVID-19: Requesting Document Scans from Libraries

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).

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How to Complete Research Assignments during Quarantine

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.

For one final paper this semester, I’m researching “Khush Khat,” a letter-writing program facilitated by a Bombay magazine in the 1990s. All of my sources are from the University’s online holdings: its digitized books and its digitized archives and databases.
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Interlibrary Loan and the Magic of Online (Research) Shopping

[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 Loan (ILL).

A detail from a 1967 event program I received through Interlibrary Loan this month. Some of the pages were still uncut when I received it!

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).

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Library Guides: Your Princeton Research Bible

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.

Library Guides helped me sort through the shelves of journals in the Architecture Library.

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Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections

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.

“‘Journal of the Expedition down the River Ohio Under the Command of his Excellency John Earl of Dunmore Lieutenant and Governor General of his Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia 1774.”

This is just one example of the magic of Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC).

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

Fitting Pleasure Reading into a Busy Schedule

Growing up, I always enjoyed reading books. While some of my friends complained about having to read short chapter books for homework, I was busy devouring book after book. One summer, as I went to check out a stack of books for the next week at my library, the librarian scanned my card and suddenly exclaimed, “Ah hah! It’s you! You’re the one who’s read most of the Young Adult section this summer!” I frequently argued with my parents over the merits of bringing half a suitcase full of books on every vacation. They constantly asked if I wanted an eReader for whatever holiday was coming up, but I was far too set on physical, paper books and refused each offer.

An eBook nestled between print books.

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Recommend a Purchase: The Princeton Wish List

The Princeton University Library system features over six million unique titles. So when you discover a book not already in the system, you know you’ve found a niche topic.

This semester, I’m taking a course called “Modern India: History and Political Theory” taught by Visiting Professor Sunil Khilnani. In the course, we examine primary sources from the major actors in the Indian nationalist movement.

Recommending a book purchase is as easy as online shopping!

Interested in indigenous politics in India, I asked Professor Khilnani if I could write my midterm paper on the Adivasi (Indian tribal societies) role in Independence – even though we haven’t addressed this topic in class. He suggested I focus on Jaipal Singh, a major twentieth-century Adivasi activist, and sent me a list of primary and secondary sources to consider. Specifically, he recommended using the recently published collection of Singh’s speeches and writings, Adivasidom. Continue reading Recommend a Purchase: The Princeton Wish List