Harvey S. Firestone Library.
Photo by Denise Applewhite, Princeton University

On a dark autumn evening in 1932 Princeton undergraduate engineering major Tom Jackson pursued his passion of prowling the stacks of the university’s library in Chancellor Green/Pyne libraries. Back at his favorite table he laid his musty treasures chosen from the library’s one million volumes — selections of mostly history and literature. In those days, a lucky student might crack open a volume with the quill-penned signature “Aaron Burr” (Sr. — the university’s second president) or some other colonial notable.

Upon graduating, the young Jackson pursued a career in engineering and management. Yet he always swore that his greatest education, and fondest Princeton University memories, came from his endless explorations in its alluring library. Those Princeton alumni with similar recollections are legion. (Full disclosure: Tom Jackson Sr. was the father of this writer.)

Fast forward to a hot August afternoon in 2019 in the Cotsen Children’s Library on the first floor of the Harvey S. Firestone Library on Princeton’s campus at the corner of Nassau Street and Washington Road. Wriggling out from under a huge hollowed tree, a young patron named Wendy strides purposefully past two giant green rabbits, over to the shelves, and begins making her selections. Hefting her stack of books onto a nearby table, she rapidly flips through the volumes with a practiced eye. Hoisting up one sporting a smiling, tiger-striped fish, Wendy jabs her finger at the title, “A Trip to the Aquarium,” turns to her father and announces, “This is my favorite.” The exploration continues.

Since its founding in 1750 Princeton University’s library has labored to aid curious individuals in their search for wisdom. The latest renovations, completed earlier this year, have made it easier to explore for the Tom Jacksons of the world. Ease of navigation is increasingly important as the sheer magnitude of its collection continues to expand. Today the library’s collection includes 10 million books, 2 million of which are at the main library; 5 million manuscripts; 400,000 rare or significant printed works; thousands of journals; and 2 million non-print items, not to mention access to vast computerized databases.

The completion of a decade-long project renews the university library system’s centerpiece, the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library. Launched in 2009 under the oversight of longtime university librarian Karin Trainer, a team of librarians, architects, designers, and administrators worked to highlight the building’s most valuable aspects and blend them with new research needs and methods of library science.

The library provides the tools — that accumulated lore built up from countless generations — to help patrons discern inner qualities and essential relationships, or perhaps just grab a quick kickoff quotation for a term paper.

The Gothic exterior, the lofty, cathedralesque spaces, and many historic details were left untouched by the renovations. Where possible environmentally sustainable adaptations were employed. Patrons’ search and navigation has been improved by centralization of materials and new organization methods. Display areas have been centralized onto the first floor and greatly enlarged.

Study areas have been brought into the 21st century with oceans of natural light filling flexibly bordered meeting places. There are more at-hand tech resources, and inviting furniture now fills those old cozy reading nooks. And there is much more besides.

Erected in 1948, Firestone Library was literally the model of post-World War II modernity, as it was the first large university research library built after the war. It set the standard for libraries everywhere with its open-stack system, warm wood paneling, and spacious reading rooms. It housed the 1.2 million volumes to which all students and faculty had daily access. Depending on the proximity of exam time, it even boasted as many regular devotees as the Nassau Tap room.

Successive expansions in 1971 and again in 1988, pushed its usable space to 430,000 square feet. This latest renovation has sought not to enlarge, but to make the best use of Firestone’s current footprint.

In 2016 director Karin Trainer passed the torch, and all the renovation momentum, onto the new Princeton University Library director Anne Jarvis. Since 2009 Jarvis had served as the Cambridge University librarian, directing that university’s largest (8 million volume) research library — the first woman to hold that post in Cambridge’s 650-year history. During her Princeton tenure so far she has emphasized such innovations as a conservation lab for rare materials preservation, high tech classrooms for e-learning, and shelving improvements.

The Trustee Reading Room.
Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University.

The Patron’s Eye View

Five years ago, this writer, under the guidance of Karin Trainer, toured Firestone Library when this major overhaul was in progress (U.S. 1, February 5, 2014). Trainer and her willing staff kept explaining in the future tense and kept asking me to envision upcoming wonders. Now, with the labors of so many brought to fruition, I was invited to return and view PUL’s very impressive re-creation.

What struck me instantly and constantly was how much better the great variety of library patrons was being served. Student, faculty member, researcher, sojourning scholar from abroad, local visitor satisfying his quest for Victorian poetry — each group had been taken into consideration.

First, your search just got easier. Firestone Library’s more than 70 miles of shelves have become more browseable and more easily navigated. Clusters of associated volumes that cut across traditional disciplines may be found near one another.

New signage, displays, and arrangements lead readers to see that those who find their minds sparked by one book may also find inspiration from others nearby.

At the same time, many of the single-topic study rooms that held special caches of materials in far flung corners of the building have been brought back to the stacks. This move was not entirely popular for those subject majors and graduate students who had found a study-club atmosphere in such side areas. And I must say that it is good to hear that my favored Hellenic studies corner still exists.

The End of ‘SHH!’

The very pathway to invention has changed in our society. That traditional vision of the lone researcher tucked deep in the stacks, pondering weak and weary o’er books of forgotten lore, and guiding some innovative idea into final form unaided, if it ever really happened that way, has yielded to a greater appreciation for the collaborative approach.

Businesses are knocking down cubicle walls and replacing them with the open offices, hoping that Eureka idea gets brainstormed into something even brighter. Likewise, academia and libraries have seen the benefits of research created in chorus. Enter Firestone’s first floor Discovery Hub. In this broad and sunny space, wheeled tables and chairs may be rolled into octagons or any size chat-grouping that suits. Massive and moveable video screens may be brought into the discussion. They can be connected to each participant’s laptop, affording a visual record of the contributions as the projects get urged forward. Here is a not-so-silent haven for cooperative study and creation.

Of course, courteous quiet is maintained in the large, high-ceilinged reading rooms including the William Elfers ’41 Reading Room on the third floor. Students by the score come to plug in laptops, grab selections from the stacks, and dig in. A brief roam down hidden byways or up into elevated lofts can still take you to those sanctuaries of solitude — the study nooks.

But what would have set student Tom Jackson’s eyes blinking as he returned from the stacks with his pile of treasures would be the light. From cozy book carrel to the widest reading room, the Harvey S. Firestone library now floods with natural and deftly arranged artificial lighting. New, masterfully engineered clearstories and windows lift the eyes to reflection and contemplation.

And speaking of solitary sanctuary, as a nod to history, two of Firestone’s historic metal study carrels remain intact. A cross between the cells of a medieval monk and a prisoner in punishment, these sequestered closets were reserved by undergraduate seniors and graduate students who required academia’s version of an office while paying their dues toward some advanced degree. The cramped but functional study spaces were replaced starting in 2012 by 500 single-person open wooden carrels, with students given lockable storage space for their research materials.

Another historical recreation is the old wooden card catalog. At the dawn of the digital era, in the early 1980s, these artfully cross-indexed 3×5-inch file cards guided patrons to the right materials. Today they stand immortalized, forming a 17-yard long wall, with all the wooden drawers’ frontpieces rising in floor-to-ceiling rows.

As a postscript, one vital skill that has not changed is that of the library cataloger whose intuitive artistry leads the searching patron into ever broadening avenues of information. Next time you’re in the library, thank your lucky stars for this unseen cataloger — or search him/her out in person.

Displaying the Wares

Not all of Princeton University’s visual treasures lie in the Art Museum. On February 28, 2019, as part of the renovation, Ellen and Leonard Milberg cut the ribbon on the gallery bearing their name. Set just inside the entranceway, this new expansive exhibit area is part of PUL’s outreach program, seeking to share many of its rare and intriguing holdings with the public.

By March the “Welcome Additions” exhibit of Selected Acquisitions from 2012 to 2018 revealed to guests the broad array of marvels entrusted to PUL’s care. From the university’s Public Policy Papers came President Lyndon Johnson’s statement on signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From the Scheide Library were displayed samples of Johann Sebastian Bach’s manuscripts.

The Rare Books collection treated visitors to “Description of a Slave Ship” published in 1789 by London abolitionists and Ptolemy’s Geographicae translated and printed in 1525. The Cotsen Children’s Library took the opportunity to display its 1830s “The Game of Siege” from Germany. Eighty unique and thought-provoking items filled this inaugural Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery display, with such future exhibitions in planning as “Gutenberg & After: Europe’s First Printers 1450-1470,” scheduled to open on September 12.

Going High Tech

Down on the B level in the glass arena of the Center for Digital Humanities, sits the center’s founder, Dr. Meredith Martin, planning her team’s next project. The CDH epitomizes the active blending of academic disciplines with PUL’s resources and facilities to help scholars rethink, re-view, and gain understanding of our past.

Following World War I, the famed Lost Generation — writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and a host of artists — took refuge and inspiration at Sylvia Beach’s bookstore/library in Paris. Using the talents of the Princeton community’s software developers, historians, designers, and researchers, along with the resources of Rare Books and other PUL sources, the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) has launched Mapping Expatriate Paris, helping discover, to a much greater depth, the culture, times, and individuals who re-shaped this era of Western thought.

Similar full-power CDH scrutinies are brought to bear on everything from the sixth century Justinianic plague to the targeted marketing seductions of menthol cigarette sellers. PUL is joining that library trend to not merely preserve the generational lore, but to partner with patrons in generating knowledge anew.

Meanwhile, in the in tech centers professors find presentation aids. Students seeking ways to literally put their senior papers on the map find digital gurus capable of presenting their work in a several media.

The Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery.
Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University.

All Things Rare

When former CEO/Chair of the Neutrogena Corporation Lloyd Cotsen was casting around for places to share his lifelong collection of children’s literature and historic folk arts, Princeton University seemed a natural fit. He was, after all, an alumnus and past trustee. But it was scarcely a knee-jerk decision. Cotsen’s private librarian Andrea Immel recalls his remarking to her after a long investigation that he thought he could truly get the best value out of Princeton’s system.

In 1994 Cotsen pledged to Princeton more than 100,000 items of children’s literature, artworks, prints, toys, in more than 30 languages, dating back to the 15th century. The collection was transferred between 1995 and 2006. And Immel joined the PUL staff as Cotsen Library curator. “I guess you could say that I came with the collection,” says Immel, who had worked with Cotsen’s eclectic and valuable gatherings since 1987. It is truly a scholar’s dream, containing the largest collection of Chinese children’s literature outside of Asia, and of Japanese children’s literature outside of Tokyo.

“He always referred to himself as an ‘accumulator’ rather than a completer,” Immel says of Cotsen. She says the accumulator was driven by his appreciation for each piece chosen at the time. Cotsen’s style led to his acquiring scrapbooks assembled by Hans Christian Andersen, picture letters by Beatrix Potter, and early editions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, to name a few. Thus, while Wendy and a host of other children gleefully find fun and learning in Cotsen’s library-turned-fantasyland on Firestone’s first floor; scholars with an equal, if less boisterous sense of fun make discoveries from Cotsen’s contributions to the rare books collection.

With a similar sense of trust, philanthropist and musicologist William Scheide in 1959 chose to initially house the family’s three-generation collection of rare printed books and manuscripts in PUL. Then, upon his passing in November, 2014, at the age of 100, he bequeathed his entire 2,500-item collection to Princeton University.

Appraised at nearly $300 million, Scheide’s generosity formed the largest gift in the university’s history. The Scheide Library became the only library outside Europe to house all 18 of the pre-Luther German Bible editions. It is also home to more than 260 incunabula (books printed pre-1501, when printing was in its infancy,) and unique manuscripts from J.S. Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is a collection that Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber describes as “breathtaking.”

Gaining Access

Princeton alumni may apply and receive a no-cost access card renewable every five years, which opens the library’s physical doors as well as its library-licensed electronic resources.
Access is open to everyone at all libraries except Firestone Library and the Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. A valid Princeton University ID or visitor access card is required at all times to enter Firestone and Marquand.

Princeton Public Library cardholders are also welcome. Simply visit www.princetonlibrary.org, click on “Services” and then “Museum Pass” to reserve your free, one day pass. (While there, don’t miss free passes to other cultural offerings in the region, including Grounds For Sculpture, the Frick Collection, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, the Battleship New Jersey in Camden, and more.) Passes must be picked up from the public library’s information desk on the day of use. This pass gives you access to all nine university library buildings, most of PUL’s online resources, and even the rare books collection. However, you may not check materials out.

Individual researchers seeking borrowing privileges and a longer connection can do so for a fee. Learn more about access at library.princeton.edu/services/access or call 609-258-5737.

Caveat: Regardless of whatever affiliation you claim, visitors may not borrow more than 50 items at one time. An Access Office employee said this rule has to occasionally be enforced.
Taking Advantage

In addition to Firestone Library’s several collections the Princeton University Library system includes eight other libraries located around the campus.

Architecture Library – Architecture Building
East Asian Library – Frist Campus Center
Engineering Library – Friend Center
Lewis Science Library – Lewis Library building
Marquand Art Library – McCormick Hall
Mendel Music Library – Woolworth Center
Mudd Manuscript Library – Mudd Library building
Stokes Library – Wallace Hall

By way of example, a quick walk from Firestone, down William Street, brings you to the Engineering Library, where the current “Creativity of Cuban Thin Shell Structures” gives visitors an excellent explanation of what makes the Tropicana Nightclub so haunting and yet so enticing a building. In the reading room you can also set your fingers to an array of substances ranging from aerozero rolled film used in space capsule insulation to reholz 3d plywood deftly contorted to make a variety of modern furniture. Why not let the exploration go on?

No doubt 1932 Princeton student Tom Jackson would stand slack-jawed before all the expansions and explosion of services provided today’s students by his alma mater. And he would be envious at the many more avenues available to young Wendy in pursuit of her latest passion for marine life.

But despite its completion of this immense renovation, Princeton University Library is not at all finished. True to its Presbyterian roots, PUL stands as an institution newly reformed and ever reforming. Look for the upcoming Tiger Tea Room, which will offer the now ubiquitous touch of sips and munchies to accompany scholarship. And as library science discovers new ways to guide patrons on their individual quest for wisdom — prepare to be amazed.


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