A look inside Mudd Library, home of Princeton senior theses

By Amanda Koym
Madisonville, TX

Slightly brittle and yellowing with age, the pages of the 1916 edition of the Nassau Herald crinkle as they move. Within the century-old pages is a short blurb, six paragraphs long, and a photo of one of the Great American Authors, his face blank. It is F. Scott Fitzgerald, age 19.

The yearbook is stored in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, a division of Princeton’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Built in 1976, the library houses Princeton University’s 1748 charter, as well as the senior theses of politicians such as Ted Cruz and actors such as David Duchovny.  If you want to look at the files inside, however, there are some rules.

The librarian does not allow any outside papers or ink-based items—such as a pen—inside. Even without these tools, librarians closely supervise the requested item. The Mudd Library is also “closed stacks”—all documents are locked away and available only upon request. You can view up to six documents at a time, and anything bound is placed on foam cushions.

“[The] documents we have here are one-of-a-kind original, and that’s why we keep such good eyes on them … we balance [open access] out with some policies and procedures that might seem a little restrictive,” says Sara Logue, Mudd’s assistant librarian, “but we’re pretty much letting you touch and see and use anything.”

This might seem harsh, but there is a reason for each rule. The library bans outside papers to prevent mixing them with the pages of a document, and therefore losing pieces of a collection. Pens could burst and potentially ruin a piece. The foam cushions protect bindings from cracking. The policies, explained Logue, are in place to protect the documents so that future researchers will be able to view them in the same condition.

So in this digital age, why should people come from all over the country to view the documents? There are several possible reasons. Rising seniors might gain inspiration from previous theses. Experts could find primary sources for their projects. Families can view their ancestors’ records and, in some cases, debunk family myths.

However, Logue has another explanation for Mudd’s popularity. “No digital surrogate … is going to replace that feeling of touching something that was created by a certain person, or that is hundreds of years old.”

In addition to every edition of the Nassau Herald and class reunion books, files in the library appeal to scholars. There are university archives from its founding up to the present, which helps historians studying previous deans and presidents. Senior theses and dissertations from as early as 1924 are available, though those from the more recent years are on an online database. Scholars may also view public policy papers, which include Cold War-era files, American Civil Liberties Union records and Council on Foreign Relations documents.

In this age of digital dependency, you could find Michelle Obama’s senior thesis with a simple Google search. If you did, though, you wouldn’t get the same magical sense of immersion as you would holding it in your hands.

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