In Memoriam: William Noel, the John T. Maltsberger III '55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections

A memorial service to celebrate Will's life will take place on Friday, June 28, 2024 at 11:00am eastern time at the Princeton University Chapel. The service will also be available by livestream. A reception at Firestone Library will follow the service.

William (Will) Noel, the John T. Maltsberger III '55 Associate University Librarian for Special Collections at Princeton University Library (PUL), passed away on April 29, following a tragic accident in Edinburgh, Scotland earlier in the month. Will helped shape the field of early book history and brought the subject of medieval manuscripts to hundreds of thousands of people. His immense impact on the world of special collections grew with each day’s energetic work. A visionary leader and scholar, and champion for open access, Will's influence on his colleagues and on Princeton's special and distinctive collections will continue to shape the way scholars and the public interact with Princeton's treasures for generations. 

Man in blue shirt and glasses standing in a hallway

Will Noel. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Born in the UK, Will received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in art history from Cambridge University. His dissertation, “The Making of BL. Harley Mss. 2506 and 603,” examined scriptorium practice and illustrated textual transmission in the Middle Ages. He then spent three years as a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow before he moved to the United States to take up the post of Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. He held a number of posts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, including Associate Vice Provost for Strategic Partnerships, Director of their Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, and Founding Director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. 

Will designed and led a major project to retrieve overwritten texts in the Archimedes Palimpsest that led to groundbreaking scientific research across numerous fields in both the humanities and sciences. This project culminated in Will delivering a TED talk in 2012 “Revealing the lost codex of Archimedes,” which has been viewed by over a million people.  Many of the protocols and methods developed during this project continue to advance research in the retrieval of overwritten texts. Will was also recognized as a White House Open Science Champion of Change by the Obama Administration in 2013. He was chair of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) from 2018-2022. His expertise was also recognized when he was invited to give the Sandars Lectures in Bibliography at Cambridge University Library in 2019, which he gave on the topic of “The Medieval Manuscript and Its Digital Image.”

Man teaching a group of students with a manuscript on a table

Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

 

Will joined Princeton in March 2020 and his commitment to the reshaping of Special Collections was transformational. Ever present at library gatherings, public programs, and online events, Will led from within. As the infectiously welcoming host of the biweekly MARBAS (Manuscript, Rare Book and Archive Studies) talks, dazzling co-instructor of the Rare Book School’s course on ‘Fifteenth-Century Books in Print & Manuscript,’ or developing a close relationship with the Friends of PUL and acting as shepherd of the Student Friends of PUL, he offered himself entirely and selflessly, providing others with the necessary tools and voice to make their own impact. With Will, despite all of his administrative responsibilities, no time was a bad time to teach someone more about medieval manuscripts, contemporary archives, or new ways to make digital resources accessible. While his energy, warmth, and generosity will be profoundly missed, we take some comfort in the fact that he instilled the same spirit in many of his colleagues.

Man teaching a group of students with a manuscript on a table

Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Ever a champion for innovative ideas and approaches that leveraged technology to transform access to medieval culture for the academy and beyond, Will partnered with colleagues across the library to advance digital access and approaches to special collections, leading to the digitization of approximately 1,700 codices from the Islamic world as well as numerous other digital projects. In particular, he increased the visibility and accessibility of the library’s collections through its digital library platform (DPUL) and championed the development of sustainable approaches to ensuring that the diversity within our collections continues to be celebrated and shared widely and openly. Will also advocated for new ways to engage digitally with collections, leading the Library’s expansion into multispectral and other advanced imaging techniques.

Will successfully defined and championed major acquisitions that also reflected his strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These included a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary (11th century), one of only four existing manuscripts of this important text by Ali ben Israel; African American History in Newspapers – a uniquely comprehensive collection of 300+ full issues covering essential historical events from the 17th to the 21st century; a complete run of the National Era (1851-52), featuring the entire serialized text of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; the Theodotu Collection of Byzantine coins; ‘The Four Kings,’ 17th-century engravings portraying four Native American leaders; and an ink drawing by Jacob Lawrence for Westchester Graduation Ball program, 1951.

Man in glasses, wearing a blue suit and pink tie, smiling at the camera.

Photo credit: Shelley Szwast

As Head of Exhibitions at PUL, Will played a central role in shaping the programming and development of exhibitions for the Milberg Gallery. Utilizing his subject expertise, stewardship, and diplomatic approach he shaped and led the production of highly successful exhibitions including “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison,” and “Records of Resistance: Documenting Global Activism 1933 to 2021.” Furthering his dedication to democratize access to information, these exhibitions were designed to not only display treasures but to serve as opportunities to teach with collections, which he did with great enthusiasm, and promote access to a wider audience.

Will made such an incredible impact on those of us who were fortunate enough to work with him. Even with his many talents and accomplishments, Will carried himself lightly and was quick to laugh and see the humor in situations. He was a joyous and caring person whose boundless curiosity and kindness made all of us better people for having had him in our lives. The impact of his vision, energy, and leadership for Special Collections at Princeton and beyond will be felt for years to come. 

Will was very proud of his family, and we offer our heartfelt condolences to Lynn Ransom and Henry Noel, his wife and son, and to his brother Robert Noel, his sister Emma Kennerley, and other members of his extended family. 

Written by:
Anne Jarvis, Dean of Libraries and Robert H. Taylor 1930 University Librarian
Jon Stroop, Deputy Dean of Libraries
Wind Cowles, Associate Dean for Data, Research, and Teaching
Eric White, Scheide Librarian and Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Published May 8, 2024.