Tracing Princeton’s Connections to Slavery through Intentional Serendipity

The Princeton and Slavery Symposium, a presentation of several years of “scholarly investigation of Princeton University’s historical engagement with the institution of slavery,” is scheduled for November 17-18, 2017. As we lead up to that date, we will be blogging about Mudd’s involvement in this larger project.

Last November, the University of Houston-Downtown Archives wrote about their staff’s annoyance at headlines about items “Found Buried in the Archives!” Articles like these often rub staff in archives the wrong way, because they render their ongoing efforts (necessary for scholars to uncover such material) invisible. Working day-to-day in the archives of a university, we often know a lot more about our institutions than we’re ever able to share in writing, leaving it to the researchers who visit us to record most of the stories that the materials we show them reveal. It is sometimes our jobs to tell the stories of our schools, but not always; even when it is, there will never be enough time for us to write them all down. My multi-page list of blogs-in-progress attests to this.

Even so, there are still discoveries made on a daily basis, “buried” materials or not. Not everything is easily found. My work at Mudd often highlights our collections from new angles and/or reveals forgotten stories about Princeton’s past. In order to do this, I keep records of what I discover in the course of my workday. Themes sometimes emerge and eventually become social media posts, blogs, or exhibit fodder as I transform the messy notes in my legal pads and Word documents and the connections in my head into more coherent pieces for public consumption. I also recruit my student assistants to help in this endeavor. Just as I do, they sometimes intentionally set out to tell a specific story, but we also write the stories that find us rather than vice versa. Our discoveries about Princeton’s connections to slavery reflect this kind of intentional serendipity (not quite the oxymoron it seems). The work of Mudd’s Public Services is both visible and invisible to the patrons who use our library. In today’s blog, I will reveal some of the invisible work that we do to support Princeton’s educational mission.

The first such item I want to highlight is one I uncovered in the course of collecting items for the weekly blog feature, “This Week in Princeton History.” The notice of a slave sale held on the Princeton campus in 1766 was worth including in this weekly roundup of events in mid-August 2015 in part because I had talked with students in the “Princeton and Slavery” course about their research and knew it was of interest to the public we serve. The professor for the course, Martha A. Sandweiss, referred to the slave sale in an article about her class that appeared in The Nation a few months later.

Clip from the Philadelphia Journal, August 14, 1766.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 8-14

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) delights the campus with a surprise appearance, protests greet a segregationist governor’s visit, and more.

May 8, 1989—A freshman diagnosed with the measles is admitted to the McCosh Health Center, prompting approximately 500 students to get a booster vaccine to prevent an outbreak on campus.

May 9, 1901—Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) surprises students with an unadvertised appearance in Alexander Hall, where he gives a reading of his work and entertains the crowd with stories about his adventures in Nevada and his attempts to learn German.

This letter from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), most likely to Stephen Van Rennseler Throwbridge, Class of 1902, dates from ca. 1901 and seems to accept an invitation to speak at Princeton “as long as one would only have to talk, & not have to talk long, nor make preparation.” Pyne-Henry Collection (AC125), Box 2, Folder 1.

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Thesis Central: New for the Class of 2017

The senior thesis, the capstone of a Princeton student’s academic experience, has moved further into the 21st century with Thesis Central, a new thesis collection and management tool. Working closely with the Office of Information Technology and the Office of the Dean of the College (ODOC), the Princeton University Archives launched the site on Monday, March 27 in order to begin collecting the theses that are due during the months of April and May.

Courtney Perales ’17, Anthropology. Thesis Due: April 17.

Seniors will log into the system with their NetIDs, with much of the necessary information pre-populated into the collection form. In fact, seniors will only need to do three or four things after logging in: provide their thesis titles; upload the thesis files (and any supporting files such as datasets or videos); affirm they followed University rules regarding the work; and, if their department requires one, cut and paste their abstracts. Students are also provided a link to the ODOC page should they wish to request any type of restriction.

Antoine Crepin-Heroux ’17, Electrical Engineering. Thesis Due: May 8.

After departmental and library review, all theses will be available via DataSpace by the start of the new school year. Since its launch in 2014, use of the online database has been very high. Last year students on campus searched and downloaded over 14,000 theses, an impressive number given that the database has not yet reached 5,000 individual theses. (For copyright reasons, theses are not downloadable from off campus.)

See the Mudd Library website for detailed information about the new submission process.