What We Do

Grundwissenschaften. Auxiliary sciences. Technical skills. 

By whichever name, these skills are integral to the humanities. Yet they are underrepresented in the North American university curriculum. 

Ideas, critical thinking and lucid writing lie at the core of humanistic inquiry and liberal arts education—and rightly so. But this model alone usually entails an overly mediated relationship to evidence. Students read premodern texts in modern printed editions, severed from their original material form: manuscripts. Undergraduates can study the Chinese literary tradition without ever seeing a manuscript on silk or bamboo, or Homer’s epics without handling the Egyptian papyri that stabilized and disseminated those texts in the ancient world. 

As humanists, we aim to teach our students how to read well. But as researchers, we believe that reading means studying texts in the physical formats in which they circulated. By hiding the more “technical” sides of our research, we do our students a disservice.

Manuscript, Rare Book and Archive Studies (MARBAS) at Princeton University is the initiative of a group of faculty members and library staff who help support and develop teaching and research on original objects from global cultures before 1600, including manuscripts, documents, early printed books, papyri, coins, inscriptions and archives. Our goal is to teach students and researchers the skills and methods - codified in eighteenth-century Germany under the rubric of the “auxiliary sciences” - that will allow them to work with these objects independently. These skills include diplomatics (the study of documents and institutions), paleography (the decipherment and interpretation of old writing), codicology (understanding books as material objects) and numismatics (the study of coins)—among many others.

MARBAS aims to bring these techniques to the center of the humanities curriculum not only at Princeton, but everywhere. We want to help make premodern manuscripts, rare books and archival documents widely accessible, to develop and distribute tools for undergraduate and graduate teaching, and to make these tools scalable and replicable with or without physical access to special collections, whether due to geography, resources or travel restrictions. In these efforts, MARBAS is generously supported and collaborates with a number of partners.

What you will find on this site:

  • Graduate and undergraduate courses at Princeton using technical skills across the humanities (and some social science) disciplines
  • Digital resources for studying and teaching the material traces of the past (hyperlink to relevant page)
  • Up-to-date information on relevant events at Princeton
  • Long- and short-term training (such as one-time workshops and ongoing working groups) within and outside Princeton
  • Funding opportunities for developing or re-developing courses and modules with a focus on technical skills (still to come)

And don't forget to get involved!