Virtual dives into the archives: How classes transitioned mid-semester to teaching with Special Collections online

overhead view of a page from an early book

Eric White, curator of rare books, displays a vellum leaf from a liturgical book, c. 1500, for the class, Migration, Myth and the Making of Spain: Art & Architecture in Medieval Iberia. Photo courtesy of Eric White


With the transition to a remote academic environment midway through the spring 2020 semester, Princeton University’s faculty, library staff, and students worked together to keep calm and continue teaching with Special Collections buoyed by technology and ingenuity, digitization efforts, and an overarching commitment to higher learning.  

In a typical year, Princeton University Library’s (PUL) Special Collections hosts over 300 class visits to Firestone Library, Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, and the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, showcasing selections from over 400,000 rare or significant printed works, 30,000 linear feet of textual materials, as well as prints, drawings, photographs, maps, coins, visual materials, and more. 

Students not only view but also handle rare artifacts of the past—from a sixth-century Egyptian Book of the Dead to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s annotated personal copy of “The Great Gatsby.”

Transition to virtual

When President Eisgruber announced Princeton’s shift to virtual instruction on Monday, March 9, Special Collections moved quickly to support an online campus. 

That week, Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Princeton assistant professor of art and archaeology and African American studies, had planned to visit Special Collections to examine an 1856 surgical anatomy book with her first-year seminar, “Pathologies of Difference: Art, Medicine, and Race in the British Empire.”

In the last days of working on-campus, the Imaging Services team, led by Roel Muñoz, library digital imaging manager, digitized the anatomy book and prioritized other previously scheduled classes. 

Illustrations from Surgical anatomy by Joseph, Maclise, 1856

Illustrations from Surgical anatomy by Joseph, Maclise, 1856. Photo by Digital Imaging Studio, Princeton University Library


With over 160,000 items and five million images from PUL’s collections available online, faculty and library specialists adapted syllabi, reimagined lesson plans, and carried on. 

Near Eastern Studies

On April 1, Jonathan Gribetz, associate professor of Near Eastern studies and the Program in Judaic Studies, and his class, “Jerusalem Contested: A City’s History from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives,” organized the first virtual instruction with Special Collections to view digital images from a 1486 Latin “pilgrimage” book illustrated with a 6-page fold-out panorama of Jerusalem

Bernhard von Breydenbach, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, illustrated and printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1486, by Erhard Reuwich

Bernhard von Breydenbach, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, illustrated and printed in Mainz, Germany in 1486, by Erhard Reuwich. Photo from Wikimedia Commons


“Though students cannot access library materials [in person], our students can continue to benefit from the individuals who work at the library,” said Gribetz. “Princeton's library is extraordinary not only because of its vast and impressive holdings but also, and no less, because of the expertise, talents, and enthusiasm of its staff.”

Curator of rare books Eric White led a Zoom session to explain the process of early book making, from the economics of turning herds of cattle into parchment pages, to the way the leaves were sewn into bindings. Without the primary material on display, White used a slideshow to introduce concepts and assembled makeshift props to bring the material “half-way to life.” 

Eric holds a piece of paper in front of laptop

White uses sheets of paper, a 500-year-old fragment of parchment, and old books of his own to demonstrate early book making to an online class. Photo courtesy of Eric White


Junior Tara Shirazi said that the class folded paper along with White because they were “genuinely curious” during his presentation, despite an occasional interruption from White’s cat walking across the keyboard. Overall, the virtual visit to Special Collections highlighted “the archivist’s knowledge of the history behind the objects.” 

Another advantage was that White could zoom in on the image for close-up detail. “We might have been crowded around a table if we had been in person,” said Shirazi.

Art and Archaeology

The following week, White worked with a class on art and architecture in medieval Iberia, taught by Pamela Patton, director of the Index of Medieval Art. The experience for students was particularly unique given that White and Patton are married and have taught side by side for decades.

“Students found it entertaining that professors are human beings,” said Patton. “Even in a virtual classroom, the guest lecturer and I were physically in the same room.”

Seven grids with faces of a Zoom call

Students from ART 367 attend class via Zoom with professor and guest speaker. Photo courtesy of Eric White


Patton had planned on visiting Marquand Library to work with a facsimile of a 14th-century illuminated Pesach-Haggadah, a service book for Passover. Although Marquand’s deluxe facsimile was inaccessible, Patton and White had an older facsimile edition of the same Haggadah on their personal bookshelves, his gift to her many years ago, that they used for the lesson. White discussed the book’s physical and material aspects, while Patton highlighted certain images related to cultural issues addressed in class.

Eric White and an overhead projector made from milk cartons, duct tape, and a ruler

Patton and White rigged an overhead projector with a milk carton, duct tape, and a ruler to display a facsimile of a 14th-century illuminated Pesach-Haggadah, a service book for Passover. Photo courtesy of Eric White


“The guest lecture was very cleverly done,” said first-year student Benjy Jude. “Though the quality of these facsimiles may not have been as high as the Library’s versions, and of course, seeing them virtually is nothing like seeing them in person, the content of the lesson was just as high.”

In addition to teaching virtually, Patton has led the effort to make Princeton’s Index of Medieval Art’s online database open access until June 30, 2020. 


Wiliam Gleason, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of English and American Studies, thought he might have to cancel the Special Collections visit for his children’s literature course until Minjie Chen, metadata librarian at the Cotsen Children’s Library, volunteered to host a virtual session from her home. 

“Even under quarantine, I wanted to give students a chance to see how Special Collections can enhance their understanding of the course materials,” said Gleason. “And in particular, I didn't want students to miss the chance to learn from such an insightful and resourceful member of our intellectual community.”

Drawing held in a women's hand

Chen prepared a presentation with images from the Cotsen collection and other sources related to Chinese folk culture referenced in the book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. Photo courtesy of Minjie Chen


“One advantage of the virtual experience is that we were able to record the session and post it on Canvas for students who could not attend in person to watch on their own time,” said Gleason. “So, this session will actually have the potential to reach more students.”

According to Chen, “the big takeaway for me is that the online session reminds me, when I am back to the classroom doing the traditional show-and-tell, I shouldn’t be afraid of incorporating technology more, as long as it is not used gratuitously. Traditional show-and-tell allows everybody to experience the physicality of Special Collection materials – a priceless experience – but technology can expand that experience in various ways. It is not an either-or situation. We can embrace the best of both worlds.”

Carrying on

How will this sudden, global shift to a virtual learning environment affect the way faculty, students, and researchers work with collections? 

As an upcoming senior, Shirazi hopes to work with the archives for her thesis. Last fall, she took Gribetz’s “Seminar in Research Methods,” which inspired her to write her junior paper using the David E. Lilienthal Papers at Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. 

“The experience of being at Mudd was so exciting,” said Shirazi. “The curators pulled out 12 boxes filled with press clippings, annotated letters written on pads from hotel rooms, an outline of an op-ed written two weeks later. . . Every time I opened a box, I didn’t know what would be there.” 

While the visceral enchantment of working with collections may be lost in an online environment, much work can still be done. According to William Noel, John T. Maltsberger III ’55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, “there is huge potential for further digital exploitation to make our collections more available around the world and for researchers at Princeton.”

To answer questions related to teaching with Special Collections in the fall, accessing primary sources, senior thesis or junior paper research, or just to stay in touch, Special Collections now offers “Virtual Visits,” office hours via Zoom with library specialists.

Written by Emily Judd, Communications Coordinator

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications