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An important tool in the historian’s kit is the archive, which is a trove of various historical documents, materials, and items that can transport you to another time.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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Writing a Literature Review? Some Tips Before You Start

Writing the literature review section for a scientific research article can be a daunting task. This blog post is a summary of what I have personally found to best help when writing about scientific research. I hope some of these tips can help make the process an easier and more fulfilling experience!

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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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Visualizing COVID-19 Mutations Using PyMOL, a University Provided Resource

These days, it seems like every day we learn of a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). However, it’s hard to understand what a variant is and how it changes the virus. In this post, I wanted to introduce PyMOL, a program that students have access to through the University. This program can be used to see what the spike protein and its mutations actually look like.

But first, here’s some background on SARS-CoV-2: COVID-19 is a disease caused by a strain of coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. This virus gets inside the human cells by using something called a spike protein. This spike protein binds to a receptor on the human cell called the ACE2 receptor, and this allows the virus to infiltrate the cell. The variants of SARS-CoV-2 that we keep hearing about typically have different mutations on the spike protein. In the case of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is a variant that is thought to be 30-50 percent more infectious than other variants in circulation, the mutations are at a location that allow the spike protein to bind better to the ACE2 receptor. If you bind better to the receptor, you’re better at infiltrating the cell. The spike is also the target of the vaccine and our natural immune system.

Now, let’s try and look at where these mutations actually are.

This is an illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus published by the CDC. The spikes are in red, labeled with a white arrow.
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The Gem of Cross-Disciplinary Thesis Advice

For better or worse, the university is internally cloistered as an academic institution. Walls literal and metaphorical separate the departments. This is perhaps most apparent to students on an administrative level; each department has its own academic guidelines, grading policies, and research expectations. Deeper differences, though, may present in modes and content of knowledge production. Disciplines often preclude interdisciplinarity. Divergent methodologies might be applied to the same subject matter to produce different results; within a department, the range of expertise might end up applying similar methods to wildly different subjects. 

I, for one, think that these disciplinary divisions often do more to stifle than to encourage intellectual growth or humanistic inquiry (on the problems and politics of the academic disciplines, see my interview with Daniela Gandorfer here). But, as things are, attempting to explain research across disciplines can be quite difficult– like speaking to someone in a different language without a translator. Seniors writing their theses are certainly familiar with this issue when trying to explain their work to people outside their department, or in some cases, anyone other than their adviser. When it comes to feedback on thesis work, then, it makes immediate sense to gravitate towards people with background in whatever you are writing about. They indeed might be able to give very pointed advice.

That said, there is still great value to turning towards those beyond the official borders of your discipline. A lack of familiarity with the subject matter can indeed be an asset– especially in terms of providing feedback on your writing and your writing/research process.

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How to Write An Email To Someone You Don’t Know

“What? Why would I ever need to read an article about how to write an email?” This is what my first thought would’ve been if I ever saw an article like this. While many Princeton students probably understand the basics of how to write an email (type, then hit send), today, I wanted to go over tips to use when “cold emailing” someone.

Before coming to Princeton, the emails that I wrote were sent to my friends and high school teachers. I’d only ever emailed people that I already knew. However, throughout the years, I’ve learned that email is wonderful ⎯ and useful for research ⎯ because you can contact people who you don’t already know! Although learning how to write emails is something that’s not taught formally, I think it’s increasingly important to know what to do and what not to do when you’re trying to catch the attention of someone you’ve never met or talked to.

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Tips on Preparing a Research Funding Proposal

At Princeton, we are fortunate to have pretty much unrestricted access to a huge variety of research resources through our libraries– access which is free (or, at least, “free” after tuition…). However, as I have written before on this blog (see here and here), there may be situations where Princeton’s library system does not have the information you need for your research, and you have to venture outward to other libraries and archives, or, in some cases, engage in field work of some kind. Now, access to these resources, unfortunately may not be free. Usually the biggest expense here would be travel, but even given our current no-travel circumstances, research expenses remain in the form of document scans, books, photocopies, and human subject payment (all of which are acceptable uses of funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) as of now).

If you relate to this concerned student, have no fear– research funding is accessible with a well-done research proposal!
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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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