New PUL program provides Princeton students, faculty, and staff opportunities to curate digital collections

Cuban tourism magazine

Tourism magazine from Princeton University Library's Latin American Ephemera collection, included in the curated collection, Tourism in Cuba: From Colonial Past to Culinary Present.


Princeton University Library’s (PUL) digital repository houses over 130,000 digitized items from the Library’s unique and rare collections. Curated Collections, a new program at PUL led by Reference Professional for Special Collections Emma Sarconi, provides the Princeton community opportunities to curate these digital items into online exhibits, add detail and narrative, and contextualize them within a larger theme. 

“An advertisement for the subway can tell the story of the history of the subway, or the history of public transit in general; it can tell the story of expansion of public space or prejudice in city planning; it can tell of human successes and human failures. Not every person is going to see the same story in every object,” says Sarconi. “We wanted to give the Princeton community an opportunity to tell the stories they see in our collections, celebrate those narratives and their creators on our website, and in turn, enrich the conversations around Special Collections as a whole.”

PUL’s digital repository contains material from a range of special collections, from rare books to graphic arts, the Princeton University Archives, children’s books and literature from the Cotsen collection, and Western Americana. Each curated collection should surround a particular theme, be that genre, subject, time period, or other, and consist of 10 to 15 digitized items. 

During her 12-week fellowship this fall, Manuscripts Division Archival Resident Carolina Meneses curated a collection of items from PUL’s Latin American Ephemera Collection, titled “Tourism in Cuba: From Colonial Past to Culinary Present.” 

“There’s a complicated history when it comes to tourism in Cuba,” says Meneses. “My parents are Cuban and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. My mom recalls tourists being segregated from the locals. There was a whole separate section of Havana, with certain hotels and restaurants only open to tourists.”

Meneses wants viewers of the curated collection to see this complicated history and come to their own conclusions. 

“As travel restrictions have eased, Cubans are split in their desire to return even as tourists,” says Meneses. “In my family, there are some who really want to go back and see old neighborhoods, and some who never want to return.”

For Meneses, coming up with a topic was most challenging, but once she had the idea, the workflow and site building were straightforward.

Curating a collection is an opportunity to bring new life to collections with no narrative. It requires only a genuine interest and curiosity in helping shape the narratives surrounding Princeton’s collection. 

Sarconi encourages Princeton students, faculty, or staff to curate digital collections for a research project, for a class, or just for fun. “I see this as a way for faculty and students to begin conversations on larger topics using our collections. In particular, I hope that the openness of this program encourages diverse and critical uses of our material in ways that have not been possible before,” she commented.

“The program was inspired by a commitment to provide and expand access to and engagement with Special Collections material,” Sarconi said. “These items are in our stewardship, but their stories belong to everyone, and they are myriad.” 

To participate in the program or learn more, view the guide on Building Exhibitions in Digital PUL or contact Emma Sarconi

Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Communications Specialist and Staff Writer, and Emily Judd, Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications

Published on Jan. 6, 2021.