We Have Changed More Than Just Our Name

We Have Changed More Than Just Our Name

by Dan Linke

The world has changed a lot in the past four years, and Princeton University Library’s Special Collections is no exception. The start of a New Year is a good opportunity to review these changes, as we strive to make our holdings accessible to users around the world. 

Going back to Fall 2019, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections changed its name to Special Collections. This was not to diminish the importance of our incredible rare book holdings, but to reflect that rare books are part and parcel of Special Collections (SC), not distinct from it. This new name provides both brevity, as well as consistency with our peers.

Will Noel leads a session on a medieval manuscript during a Rare Books School class in July 2023, one of two hosted at Princeton last summer.

Then in March 2020, Will Noel became the inaugural John T. Maltsberger III ’55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, and though the COVID-19 pandemic slowed his plans to demonstrate that “Special Collections is where the party is,” we now have been able to host more events such as book receptions, lectures, MARBAS talks, Rare Book School and WinterSession classes, and other activities that open our doors and expose our holdings to a broader audience.

Some of the changes are internal, even “inside baseball,” such as re-organizing to appoint single heads of public services, technical services, and acquisitions and curation, in order to create harmonized policies across the department–as we continue to operate two reading rooms: one on Firestone’s C Floor (SCF) and the other within the Mudd Manuscript Library (SCM). In addition, this alignment helps us collaborate with colleagues across the Library system, all in the hope of creating consistent and equitable user experiences.

We have also re-organized how we acquire material by assigning responsibility by subject and time periods, for the most part, rather than material genre. We no longer have curators of manuscripts or rare books; rather, see the chart below for how we have organized staff collecting responsibilities, with an emphasis on incorporating the Library’s North Star and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements into what we add to the collections.

Special Collections Acquistion RolesStaff Member
American collections to 1899Gabriel Swift
American printed books 1640 to 1899Gabriel Swift/Rene Boatman
Europe and the Americas, 1900 to presentJennifer Garcon
Global, 1600-1900Mireille Djenno
Graphic Arts, including photographyMolly Dotson
NumismaticsAlan Stahl
Public Policy Papers, 1900-Dan Linke
University ArchivesDan Linke
            -Administrative RecordsAnne Marie Phillips
            -Student Life Records / Alumni donationsValencia Johnson
Western books to 1600 and European books to 1800Eric White
Western and Eastern illustrated materials for children, 1500-Andrea Immel

But the public should notice many of the changes we have implemented in order to provide both physical and digital access to our holdings. We have worked to clarify and, where possible, reduce restrictions, having removed or modified access restrictions on over 60 manuscript collections, and modernized and updated copyright language on more than 2,000 finding aids. We have also embarked on revising and updating the language in our finding aids to surface topics not noted by our predecessors.

We continue to tirelessly digitize materials and our new (as of 2021) finding aids site allows searches limited to only those materials available online, among many other accessibility improvements. In addition, we eliminated the tedious form associated with our reading room camera policy, and our patron digitization no longer charges fees–though it does have a cap and a wait. Last year we digitized almost 100,000 images for more than 800 patron requests and linked those materials outside of copyright to the finding aids and catalog records for future users’ benefit, adding to the more than 100,000 books and folders of material available online.

Our blog presence was also recently renovated, and this summer our website will be as well. In addition, we created a centralized inquiry webpage where users can ask questions without having to know what library or collection may hold the answer, as public services members at both locations monitor, assign, and collaborate with each other to expeditiously answer the 4,000-plus questions we receive annually. 

Physically, you will find our spaces improved as well. The Mudd Library renovation was completed in September 2021 to update both internal systems and the decor, as well as add a second instruction space, and there have been a number of aesthetic changes to Special Collections in Firestone as well in an effort to make the space more welcoming. By one metric, we have been very successful, as SC hosted over 200 classes in Fall 2023, a 30% increase above our pre-Covid numbers.

From 2021: Former Public Services Project Archivist Amanda Ferrara sits in the lobby of the newly renovated Mudd Manuscript Library. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson.

While we are pleased with all this, the work is not done, nor will it ever be. As the interests of our researchers change and the possibilities of technology evolve, we will continue to adapt ourselves to each, as we strive to meet both the needs of our established users and welcome those who may be discovering our fantastic holdings for the first time.