Innovation and Digitization

  • A “miscellany” of Latin and German school texts (Princeton MS 178) was produced ca. 1436; in the “Freidank,” the Latin Proverbs have interlinear German translations.

  • Richel Diaz, digital imaging technician, photographs a rare manuscript. In addition to photography, PUL’s Digital Imaging Studio has contributed transcriptions and structural metadata to collections, turning digitized books and manuscripts into more useful research tools.

Princeton University Library staff pioneer new ways to support patrons around the world, despite limited in-person access.

By Mary Cate Connors, Office of International Programs

Additional reporting by Barbara Valenza, Princeton University Library and Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

With collections from nearly every country in the world and millions of books, journals, manuscripts and non-print items in over 200 languages, Princeton University Library (PUL) is inherently global in scope. But in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to send the majority of its students and staff home, PUL’s global reach became wider than ever.

As students and faculty began studying, researching and working remotely, PUL staff expanded virtual library resources to support an influx of requests, says Robert H. Taylor 1930 University Librarian Anne Jarvis. “Our staff have been working together in new and creative ways, finding and implementing solutions for meeting the needs of our students and faculty who are situated all over the world,” Jarvis says.

These new Library initiatives include the PUL information technology team, curators and subject librarians experimenting with new media — including live video — for teaching and conducting research with special collections remotely.

When Sara Poor, associate professor of German, could no longer take her fall advanced language class to Special Collections in Firestone Library to view the medieval German manuscripts they were studying, she had to get creative. She worked closely with Eric White, curator of rare books, to reinvent the library experience virtually. Using overhead cameras, White, who was on-site, manually turned manuscript pages as Poor and her class interacted from locations around the globe.

“[It] was about as close to being in the reading room as I could imagine,” Poor says. “In some ways, looking at the books virtually offered students a better view of the objects than they would have gotten while standing around a seminar table. I’m sure the experience helped them to feel a sense of the library as a place, certainly one to which they will look forward to returning.”

The Library has also expanded online services and created new virtual content to support faculty and students anywhere, anytime. Currently, PUL offers controlled digital lending, virtual one-to-one research consultations around the clock, extensive in-house digitization and book scanning, online instructional videos and virtual workshops and seminars, which have been attended by students in North America, Asia and Europe.  

“Not only are library staff helping researchers meet deadlines, they’re helping us hang onto some sense of normalcy in pursuing our scholarly work,” says Pamela Patton, director of Index of Medieval Art, Department of Art and Archaeology, who uses the Library’s electronic document delivery service. “That in itself is very much valued.”


PHOTO: Roel Muñoz, Princeton University Library