Though most of the people who walk through our doors are here for research purposes, we have another role in the lives of Princeton’s graduate students. I sometimes call us “doctor makers,” though there are a variety of other, more official terms for this role, notable for connection to mysterious acronyms: ETD (Electronic Theses and Dissertations) Administrator for ProQuest and the “Mudd Librarians” whose signatures are on file with the Graduate School for the FPO form (Final Public Oral Examination Report).
Though the deposit of an undergraduate senior thesis into the University Archives was fully electronic as of 2013, Princeton still requires all PhD candidates in all fields to deposit one bound copy of their dissertations into Mudd Library prior to the conferral of the degree. This can be done by proxy, but most candidates bring it themselves, usually still reeling from their FPO (also known as a dissertation defense). The deposit of one’s bound thesis into Mudd Library is something of an anticlimax, and for many students it probably feels daunting less because of our actual requirements and more because it comes at such a stressful time, when there are many different forms to fill out, requirements to meet, and signatures to obtain.
My sense of the contacts we get from graduate students in advance of an FPO is that they are motivated less by the actual questions they ask us and more by the anxiety they feel in anticipation of this capstone of their graduate school careers, which, albeit one they are almost sure to successfully complete, is fraught with many perceived dangers. Thus, we answer the questions they ask but offer them our support as well—I never end conversations about these mundane issues like what the page margins should be without well wishes for their success and reassurances that we will help in whatever way makes sense. Some students ask to drop by with drafts of their dissertations in advance for outside confirmation that the formatting is appropriate. Others just need a voice on the phone or an email to verify that yes, the bound copy of the dissertation can be single spaced, or that yes, we will be open tomorrow. Pre-FPO anxiety may have no cures, but we offer some salve for it, nonetheless.
In this scenario, students sometimes perceive us as an obstacle in their path, as harsh bureaucrats seeking reasons to prevent their receipt of a doctorate, when the opposite is true. Whether or not we have PhDs ourselves, all of Mudd’s staff has an appreciation for the effort behind the volumes brought to us as a sort of ritual offering at the end of this long and winding journey. There are sometimes problems that do arise, such as a recent crisis when the bindery left three chapters out of a bound dissertation, but they do not result in students leaving Princeton in disgrace without the right to the title “Dr.” We work with students and with the Graduate School to prevent emergencies from becoming tragedies, and these students still have President Eisgruber pronounce the Latin incantation that officially makes them doctors upon the approval of the Board of Trustees: Auctoritate mihi a Curatoribus Universitatis Princetoniensis commissa vos ad summum gradum in philosophia admitto.
The Board of Trustees meets five times each year, so there are five degree deadlines for graduate students, but the busiest one for us is the deadline for June graduation. As this date approaches, the library becomes more hectic, as students come in waves and clusters from all fields holding black volumes with nearly identical bindings. The Graduate School provides a list that gives us a sense of what we can expect. The June 2018 degree list was their largest ever, with 151 PhDs. For a little over a week in advance of the deadline, our lobby nearly always seemed to be full of almost-doctors awaiting our verdict.
Our procedures follow predictable patterns. We ask for the required materials—evidence of upload to ProQuest, the bound copy of the dissertation, the FPO form signed by the Director of Graduate Studies in the student’s department, an email from the Graduate School confirming the embargo of the electronic copy of the dissertation (if applicable)—and direct the student to pay the $15 fee at our front desk while we check to ensure the bound and electronic copies meet our requirements. Contrary to rumor, this almost never means pulling out a ruler or a tape measure, though there is one exception. If the binding is too thick—more than two inches—it will have to be rebound in multiple volumes because otherwise the binding will not remain intact for long term preservation, so we will occasionally need to measure the thickness of the binding. In the majority of cases, however, we trust our eyes and hands to assess conformity with our guidelines.
We will perform a similar check of the electronic submission. At this point, we also apply an embargo, if applicable, and note any revisions that might need to be made. If all is well, we sign the FPO form, keep a copy for the library, and present the student with the signed form and our congratulations. I present it to the student with a gentle warning: “Just make sure you drop this off at the Graduate School’s office in Clio Hall because otherwise the magic won’t happen.” They are usually relieved and begin their last walk across campus as students, closer to emerging from this liminal state.
After the Board of Trustees meets, we deliver the electronic dissertations we’ve accepted in advance of their deadline to ProQuest. After performing their own clean up on the files, ProQuest sends an exact set of these dissertations to Princeton’s digital repository, DataSpace. Students may request an embargo or delay of up to two years, renewable once for an additional two years, to prevent their dissertations from becoming readily available online, as they sometimes elect to do if they are pursuing a patent or seeking to publish their findings elsewhere. Within a few weeks, the dissertations that are not under embargo are available online. Meanwhile, MARC (MAchine Readable Catalog) records are created for dissertations. Other Princeton University Library staff add a web address for the electronic copy to the MARC record and these records are then loaded into the Princeton University Library Catalog.
Because so many people handle the bound copy of the dissertation before a researcher might, we must bust another myth we sometimes hear about dissertations: You cannot find out if someone has read a given volume by hiding money in it and going back to check to see if it is still there. If money were left behind in a dissertation, several people would have the opportunity to take advantage of the windfall before it made it to our reading room.
The bound dissertations initially reside in the office of our dissertation submission coordinator, Lynn Durgin, and then move to a shelf in our processing room. A student assistant keeps track of the bound dissertations in an Access database. After the catalog records are ready, we send two boxes of bound dissertations per week to Cataloging, which is at an off campus location on Alexander Road. There, bar codes and other identifying labels are attached, the volume gets a call number, and more detail is added to the catalog entry. Cataloging then sends the bound dissertations to the Princeton University Library’s ReCAP (Research Collections and Preservation Consortium) repository for permanent storage, where they can be retrieved for researchers who want to read them in person. If the electronic copy is under embargo, this is the only way to access a dissertation. It typically takes two or three days for these volumes to be delivered to Mudd and made available to researchers after they have requested them through the Catalog.
The $15 fee students pay for dissertation maintenance is for its permanent preservation in both electronic and physical form, so once we have custody of them, we treat them as the archival items they are. Readers must use foam book rests to protect the binding when reading dissertations. Some researchers find it a little strange to treat something so new with such delicacy, but in this way, we ensure that the words of the graduates of Princeton will endure long after our own generation is gone.
This Week in Princeton History will return on September 3. Notable events of the week of July 23-29 we’ve shared with you in the past have included Nathaniel FitzRandolph’s donation of the land that made the College of New Jersey’s move to Princeton possible, a U.S. Senator’s letter to a Princeton professor that generated headlines, and the nuclear holocaust that did not occur in New York in spite of predictions by the Church of Princeton.