Mudd Library symposium focuses on revealing underrepresented demographics in Special Collections

Emma Sarconi, Sophia Sotilleo, Shelby Sinclair, Iliyah Coles, and Sara Howard

On Jan. 24, Mudd held a symposium to discuss the challenges of conducting research on underrepresented demographics in the archives. The panelists, from left to right, included: Emma Sarconi, Sophia Sotilleo, Shelby Sinclair, Iliyah Coles, and Sara Howard as moderator. Photo by Christa Cleeton, Princeton University Library


How can researchers dive deep into the archives to reveal hidden voices? 

In summer 2019, April C. Armstrong, Special Collections assistant for public services at Mudd Library, and Amanda Ferrara, public services project archivist, searched for archival materials representing the voices and influence of historically underrepresented groups for the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library’s exhibition, On Display: The Public Lives of 20th-Century American Women.

The exhibition, open through March 2020, commemorates the centennial of women’s suffrage, showcasing items from the Princeton University Archives and the 20th-century Public Policy Papers collection, which documents individuals and organizations that played a significant role in 20th- and 21st-century American domestic and foreign policy. 

On Jan. 24, Mudd held a symposium to share the curators’ process, discuss challenges of conducting research on underrepresented demographics, including women and people of color, and brainstorm strategies to promote access to students and researchers, titled Hidden in Plain Sight: How Changing Our Priorities Can Reveal Underrepresented Demographics in Special Collections.

Panelists included sophomore Iliyah Coles, blogging and social media assistant at Mudd Library, Emma Sarconi, reference professional for Special Collections, Shelby Sinclair, graduate student in history and African American studies, Sophia Sotilleo, associate professor and access services librarian at Lincoln University, and Sara Howard, librarian for gender & sexuality studies and student engagement, as moderator. 

Over 30 people attended, including Princeton University Library staff, campus partners, librarians from peer institutions, researchers, and community members, as well as the incoming John T. Maltsberger III ’55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections William Noel.  

Audience member with microphone

Christine Lutz, New Jersey regional studies librarian and head of public services for Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University Libraries, shares ideas to promote access to materials of underrepresented groups in library collections. Photo by Christa Cleeton


Panelists expressed that researchers are forced to work harder and more creatively despite efforts to promote access to archival materials of historically marginalized groups. 

Last year, Coles discovered a forgotten picture of former First Lady and 1985 Princeton alumna Michelle Obama in a 1984 edition of Vigil, the newsletter of Princeton’s then Third World Center, now Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, when conducting research for a Mudd Library blog post. Though the photo's caption named the man, Joey Harris ‘85, it did not name the woman, Obama (then Michelle Robinson).

Sinclair, who researches 19th- and 20th-century black women’s history, shared that finding aids can be less detailed for black women, and materials are often more difficult to locate. This has huge implications for graduate students, not only affecting their time to completion but also their legitimacy as authorities on their areas of specialization, she commented.

Attendees view exhibition

Attendees view the exhibition, co-curated by Armstrong and Ferrara. Photo by Christa Cleeton

“If you give a job talk to a group of people who don’t have similar subject matter expertise, you might receive outlandish questions,” said Sinclair. “People may ask incredibly specific empirical questions about the research, but some information can’t be located in the archive…it can be demoralizing.”

When curating the On Display exhibition, Ferrara and Armstrong sometimes had to search for archival materials on women under their husbands’ names. Armstrong explained that when conducting research, it helps to imagine how people in the past would have thought. As an example, Armstrong asked: “How would material about women’s issues be labeled in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign files?” 

Howard asked the panelists and audience: “How do we move forward? How do we reduce barriers to access?”

Sinclair shared that the Princeton and Slavery Project, a campus-wide effort to explore the University’s historical ties to slavery and now an undergraduate research seminar taught using the University Archives, is a step in the right direction. “These types of courses promote engagement with archival material,” said Sinclair. “If I had that opportunity as an undergraduate, to get my hands on the materials, to begin doing archival work, it would have been invaluable coming into a [graduate] history program.” 

Sotilleo emphasized the importance of making students feel welcome at the library: “Be excited about what they’re excited about. If we can share how important this material is, we can bring all hands on deck. We can get students excited and encouraged to research on this subject material.” 

Sinclair also expressed gratitude for working with Steve Knowlton, librarian for history and African American studies, who supported her research ideas.

Sarconi and Howard co-lead the Varied Activities of Women Project which invites students to write blog posts about early 20th-century women. Sarconi feels motivated to honor these hidden voices: “There's so much work to do, but it's worth it in the long run. Maybe it means someone else doesn't have to go home angry.” Sarconi also launched the Her Book Project, which aims to inventory women’s book ownership in PUL Special Collections to support research on women’s reading habits.

In the audience, one researcher who struggled finding archival material for her dissertation said: “As librarians, you’ve helped us. You are part of the researchers’ stories.”

Written by Emily Judd, Library Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director, Library Communications