Meet Kate Mitchell, 2022 Summer Fellow for Firestone Library

Princeton University Library’s (PUL) offers the Special Collections Summer Fellowship for Firestone Library to one graduate student or recent graduate each year. This summer, Kate Mitchell filled the fellowship, and spent the summer working with the Library’s archives, creating a digital exhibit, and devising a strategy to address the types of language used in finding aids.

Kate Mitchell stands in front of Firestone Library

Kate Mitchell stands in front of Firestone Library. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson, Library Communications

Tell us a bit about your background as it relates to libraries.

I graduated from Rutgers University with my master’s in information science with a concentration in archives and preservation studies in May. Before that I had some research jobs, including research in archives, and I also worked at the Zimmerli Art Museum (at Rutgers) on a cataloging project. I was going through box after box of un-inventoried, uncataloged artifacts, and essentially creating a working finding aid so that the curators could identify any materials of interest that they wanted to acquire from the Jersey City Museum collection. 

My interest started when I majored in history in undergrad. I had always really liked story-telling and being able to touch history and make it tangible. Doing historical research is what first brought me to archives. I thought archives could be a way of continuing to do historical research and be in the field without having to do a Ph.D. 

Are you fond of any particular field or era within archival work?  

Before this fellowship, most of my experience has been with audiovisual materials. I worked at the Institute of Jazz Studies, where I created metadata for audio recordings of the Benny Goodman and Benny Carter collections. Getting to handle digital material was great, but there is something really special about manuscripts, like seeing people’s handwritten letters. I also like really strange things you can find in archives. 

When I was cataloging at the Zimmerli I found these cricket dolls. They are little stuffed bugs and they were arranged to be playing mahjong or dominoes. It’s like finding hidden treasures.

What have you been doing this summer?

I’ve been working with three departments in Special Collections: Public Services, Technical Services, and the Curatorial Department. With public services, I’ve been doing reference requests — responding to researchers who have questions about the materials at Princeton and working in the reading room. With technical services, I’ve been doing a lot of processing, which is something I've found I’ve really enjoyed. That includes getting to describe and arrange collections as well as single items that have just come in. 

One thing I’ve processed is the Pluto Press archives, which contains a collection of publisher files. I’m currently working on a collection of letters written from a man in the Soviet Union to a woman in California in which they write to each other in Esperanto. (Esperanto is an international auxiliary language created in 1887.)

I’m also working on a research project with Quin DeLaRosa, our 2022 John Foster and Janet Avery Dulles Fellow. We’re working together to create a user testing model for reparative description in Princeton’s finding aids. Through reparative description, Special Collections has been seeking to correct outdated language, remove offensive terms, and/or address the presence of inequalities in archival description. After doing considerable research, we found that there isn’t a standard approach to measuring the effectiveness or impact of reparative description on user groups, so that’s what our model hopes to accomplish. 

I also curated a small exhibition for the website that’s about how alphabet books handle the letter “x” beyond the usual words like xylophone and x-ray.

Are there any materials that you have come across that have surprised you? 

One funny thing in the Esperanto letter collection is a photograph that this man, Sergei from Siberia, sent to his Esperantist pen pal in America. He’s naked, holding a watering can, and he’s pouring it over himself while standing outside in the snow. I was very surprised when I saw it, and I really wished I could read Esperanto so I could understand the context of this photograph!

There’s also a diary from a teacher during the Civil War and a diary from a student who wrote this entry about how tired her eyes are from reading all day and sewing by night to get ready for the first day of school. 

Sergei Alekseyev stands in a field in a photo from his correspondence to his American pen pal. Manuscripts Division, Department

Sergei Alekseyev stands in a field in a photo from his correspondence to his American pen pal. Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

How does working at PUL compare to some of your past roles?

At the other places I’ve worked, resources are more limited than they are at PUL, and everyone has to do a bit of everything in the day-to-day to keep up with the workflow. At PUL, though, where there is more funding, there’s less overlap among the different departments. Here, I get to experience the different workflows of separate departments and can better understand everyone’s individual role in making archival materials accessible to the researchers. 

Have there been any colleagues of yours from whom you’ve learned a lot? 

One of my supervisors, Amy Vo, who is a processing archivist, has been incredibly helpful. She’s taught me about the software that we use. She’s been a great mentor. 

What are your career goals?

Ideally, I’d like to keep working in an academic archive or library. Usually these institutions have the resources to support all kinds of projects and library initiatives.  They also have extensive archival collections with all different kinds of materials and hidden treasures, which I would love to continue exploring. 

But more specifically, I’m interested in doing processing work and describing and arranging materials. 

Do you have any advice for someone coming into a position similar to yours here? 

Say yes to any learning or working experiences being offered. If someone asks if you have time to work on a project, make time for it because it would be a shame to let that opportunity go to waste. 

Published on September 06, 2022

Interview by Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications