Princeton Ph.D. turns fellowship into Library Residency at Duke University

Adhitya Dhanapal and Ellen Ambrosone looking over materials in Firestone Library.

Adhitya Dhanapal and Ellen Ambrosone look over materials in Firestone Library. Photo credit: Sameer Khan, Fotobuddy.

For many students who make use of Princeton University Library (PUL), the concept is simple — request some books and they arrive, from Princeton’s own shelves and elsewhere, to be picked up and used for instruction, coursework, papers, and the like. 

But for Adhitya Dhanapal, the millions of items available to him and other scholars posed a question: how did they end up at Princeton? 

“As a historian working with archival material, I became curious to better understand the history of collecting practices and the creation of archives and other repositories,” said Dhanapal, a Ph.D. candidate in Princeton’s history department. “For instance, how did the ReCAP facility on the other side of Route 1 become one of the largest repositories of government publications and reports from independent India?”

Dhanapal, who earned an M.A. in Art History and a Master of Philosophy in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi had been working with the South Asian Ephemera Collection (SAE) since 2020. SAE is led by Ellen Ambrosone, the South Asian Studies Librarian at Princeton, who encouraged Dhanapal  to pursue his interest in creating a bespoke University Administration Fellowship (UAF).

Organized by GradFUTURES in collaboration with various departments on Princeton’s campus, UAFs prepare graduate students for the tenure-track job market or a career in academic administration. Through a combination of mentorship and project work, Fellows take a deep dive into aspects of higher education that exist beyond the classroom. 

In October 2020, Dhanapal couldn’t leave the US to work internationally due to the pandemic. Instead, he decided to familiarize himself with the library collection within Princeton. He leveraged his language skills in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Tamil to start generating metadata for a series of pamphlets, brochures, posters, banners, and other kinds of ephemeral items.

He also assisted with selecting materials, preparing boxes, providing scanning instructions and other kinds of triaging duties to support the process of making the material digitally accessible online to all users beyond the University.

Adhitya Dhanapal and Ellen Ambrosone looking at ephemera in the tower room of Firestone Library.

Photo credit: Sameer Khan, Fotobuddy.

“Adhitya has provided invaluable support to SAE in a number of ways,” noted Ambrosone. “The more information that I gave him about why we were doing what we were doing and the impact it would have on searchability and access, the more he dug into the work.”

Digging into the work meant thinking about ephemera beyond its functional lifecycle in its country of origin. “I have never thought of my job at the Library as simply a job — it shaped my research and transformed the way I think about the academic ecosystem as a whole,” Dhanapal said. “More importantly, working under Ellen's supervision taught me how to collaborate with a whole range of people and made me recognize the importance of patience, humility, and perseverance as important values inside and outside the workplace.”

Despite the sheer volume of items in the South Asian Ephemera Collection — the collection is home to more than 2,300 pieces — Dhanapal and Ambrosone’s work requires an interpersonal touch. At one point during the fellowship, Ambrosone had Dhanapal meet with librarians across the country to learn about ephemera at other institutions that is either undiscoverable or only minimally discoverable in current catalogs.

“Adhitya has always been a great thought partner and interlocutor,” said Ambrosone. “We have talked through inclusive terminology and ways to mitigate harm in the description of South Asian material. He has supported the discovery of items in Gujarati for the collection. I’ve also had the opportunity to see him present both about his developing research and about the UAF, and each time he has brought an original and thought-provoking perspective to these labors.”

As much as Dhanapal’s work has served to improve the accessibility of South Asian Ephemera, his presence also supported Ambrosone’s own growth as a librarian. Ambrosone remarked, “Adhitya has always encouraged me to be more direct about the ways in which I am trying to take insights from postcolonial studies and put them into practice in our library workflows.”

Assistant Dean James M. Van Wyck also noted the mutually-beneficial nature of the University Administrative Fellowship program for graduate students and host offices. “The University Administrative Fellowship experience deepens and expands the transferable skills graduate students acquire while pursuing an advanced degree, and the Fellowship enables graduate students to contribute to the missions of offices and departments within the University,” Van Wyck said. “UAF mentors can also provide compelling testimonies about their Fellow’s strengths and abilities. In some cases, it is the complementary letter of support from a UAF mentor that helps a Fellow secure their next opportunity–within and beyond academia.”

Though he’ll finish up his Ph.D. in 2024, Dhanapal and Ambrosone’s working relationship will only deepen when he begins a new role as Resident Librarian for South and Southeast Asian Studies at Duke University.

“Working at Princeton's library was super helpful in understanding the workflow of how other libraries operate and I learned the importance of building good working relations with faculty members, researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students,” Dhanapal said. “My time at Princeton has helped me understand how librarians are not simply service providers but are actively shaping the information ecosystems and are co-producers of knowledge within and outside academia.”

Published on October 26, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist 

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications