Virtual teaching with collections: 'A History of Words'

Published on Tuesday, June 8 2021

How have "revolutions" in communications' technologies altered the course of human history? Is it true that the printing press made the Reformation possible? Are social media platforms destroying democracy?

To explore these questions and dive into the latest advances in communications’ technologies, students in the spring 2021 Humanistic Studies course, “A History of Words: Technologies of Communication from Cuneiform to Coding (HUM 331/HIS 336),” examined cutting-edge digital archives and applied new tools that are transforming how historians engage with the past. 

Melissa Reynolds, lecturer in the Council of the Humanities, History, and Humanistic Studies and Perkins-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows, designed this new interdisciplinary digital humanities course with support from the Humanities Council’s Magic Project.

“Digital tools have made it possible to access so much more evidence from the past,” said Reynolds. “We are able to ask new questions of these sources using new tools, and quantitative analyses can be conducted on sources when that was almost impossible before. ” 

Guest speakers spoke about the digitization of archives, open access, and new possibilities for research, including Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History, William Noel, associate university librarian of Special Collections, and Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and professor of history. 

Rustow shared her work on the Princeton Geniza Project, an open-access database designed to make the unpublished materials from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo between the 11th and late 19th centuries available to researchers worldwide.

“Digitization means that historians from all backgrounds, without a lot of funding to travel the world, can do more work,” said Reynolds. “Anybody can participate now.”

For a final project, Reynolds asked students to develop their own digital humanities projects and publish their findings on an open-access github website.

Sophie Goldman, a member of the Class of 2023 and a computer science major, collaborated with Hope Perry, a member of the Class of 2024, to create the project, “Manifest Destiny,” using two digitized journals from Princeton University Library (PUL)’s Collections of the American West.

“While starting the final project, I hoped to find a source that highlighted a woman’s perspective on a historical period whose primary sources do not often represent women’s voices,” said Goldman. “This led me to the Western Americana Collection, and I was excited to find Nellie Martin Wade's journal on her 1906 expedition to Alaska. Through working with the digitized journal and a number of other digital sources, I learned about Wade’s unique perspective and clear recognition of the role of gender in her journey. I was also interested in learning more about Wade's life outside the journal, and newspaper archives were crucial in this research.”

Story Platform "Journey to Interior Alaska"

Goldman and Perry contextualized Nellie Martin Wade's journey by providing a visual, geographic representation of the earliest sections of her journal using the StoryMap platform published on the course's github website.


The students compared Wade's journal with the journal of Thomas Adams and juxtaposed their different perspectives by reciting the journals out loud and publishing via podcast.

“It’s exciting to see the Nellie Martin Wade journal find immediate use in the classroom,” said Gabriel Swift, curator of Western Americana. The journal was acquired at the beginning of the year, and students in two courses explored the material in digital projects this term. “Use straight away in multiple courses presents a compelling argument for digitizing acquisitions upon arrival.”

José Pablo Fernández García, a member of the Class of 2023 and a French and Italian major, focused his project on “Princeton Lives and Legacies.” 

“Every stone or brick on campus has a storied past,” said García. “And one part of this past is, of course, legacies since so much of this campus was built and named in honor of various people.” As an editor for The Daily Princetonian, García appreciated digging into the Princeton archives to see “how different the University was well over a century ago and even just a few years ago.”

 Toni Morrison

García’s digital, interactive platform allows viewers to explore Princeton’s campus to uncover the history behind campus memorials.



“The digital humanities aspect of the course introduced me to new tools and methods I could use in my academic work,” said García, “and that helped shift how I approach and try to answer humanistic questions.”


How will digitization influence new research questions? To what extent will greater accessibility lead to a deeper understanding of the past? And what new tools will researchers apply? 

“Digitization is critical to the further exploration of PUL’s collections,” said Noel. “As a leading academic library, we have a responsibility and deep interest in opening access to researchers and communities around the world. We still have much to learn.”

Related story: Princeton Open Access Fund expands for 2020-2021 fiscal year 

Published on June 8, 2021

Written by Emily Judd, Publicity Manager

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications