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A Hope and A Hypothesis: The Curious Case of the Sonia Sotomayor ’76 Interview

Briana Christophers ‘17, a rising senior at Princeton University, made a discovery in the University Archives that solved a mystery we archivists didn’t know existed. In March, Briana visited us at the Mudd Manuscript Library, a visit arranged by Mudd’s Assistant University Archivist for Technical Services, Alexis Antracoli, in response to a petition Briana helped author and circulate through the Latinx Collective. Alexis coordinated the visit to respond directly to the petition’s section about the lack of Latinx presence and history at Princeton. In that section, the Collective stated the following needs, to:

1) Compile information on the contributions of students of color to this campus and beyond.

2) Organize the Mudd Manuscript Library resources related to students of color and the Third World Center/Carl A. Fields Center.

3) Collect information from alumni to create a permanent Students of Color at Princeton archive.

Thus, the purpose of Briana’s visit—which I attended as did my colleague, Lynn Durgin—was to affirm the truth behind the Collective’s observation, brainstorm about different ways for the Archives to do better, and allow Briana a chance to comb through the sparse records we do have pertaining to the history of Latinx students at Princeton. In the course of her perusing the Historical Subject Files, Briana stumbled upon something that few current undergraduate students have ever seen before: a 3.5’’ floppy disk.

3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers '2017.
3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers ’17 in AC109, Historical Subject Files.

Because the floppy disk went unlisted in the inventory of the collection’s finding aid, it escaped a comprehensive survey done last summer by Mudd’s summer Dulles Fellow Elena Colon-Marrero. The floppy disk had simply been tucked away amongst papers in a folder entitled “Interviews with Latino Alumni.” The four of us—Briana, Alexis, Lynn, and I—took turns thumbing through the papers within the folder and we agreed that the papers were likely printed copies of whatever was on the floppy disk.

But this likelihood wasn’t good enough for me as a digital archivist. Furthering my curiosity was the sad reality that the finding aid, at the time, had no basic descriptive information about the interviews; without viewing the paper copies in person, researchers wouldn’t know whom was interviewed, by whom, when, and why. In fact, the paper copies lacked any contextual information about the purpose of the interviews, and consisted only of summarized notes of conversations between an unknown interviewer and a known interviewee, one of whom happened to be United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ‘76.

I chased my curiosity and used a USB-powered 3.5’’ floppy drive to connect the disk to a laptop running the open-source operating system BitCurator. I was disappointed to discover, however, that the system could not recognize the disk’s file system. I managed to glean, though, that the floppy disk had been titled “princeton companion,” a fact that made no sense to me whatsoever at the time.

Failed attempt to read 3.5'' floppy disk.
Failed attempt to read 3.5-inch floppy disk in BitCurator.

Slightly discouraged at the inability to read the disk, I considered giving up on investigating its contents. The University Archives did not own a device, such as a KryoFlux, that could detect the magnetic flux of a floppy and make an exact copy of its contents, regardless of whether the main operating system recognized the filesystem. But I kept my curiosity alive by hypothesizing that the floppy disk was previously formatted to work on Apple computers from the 1990’s. With hope and a hypothesis, I powered up my personal MacBook Pro laptop, manually write-protected the floppy disk, and convinced myself this would work.

* * * * * *

My hope and hypothesis were affirmed when the disk’s files became recognizable to my laptop! Now that I could safely read the contents of the disk, I finally had a chance to uncover the core contextual information lacking in the finding aid. But my optimism soon turned to despair, again, as I noticed that none of the files contained file extensions, so double-clicking them from the file browser would get nowhere.

File browser view of "princeton companion" 3.5'' floppy disk.
File browser view of “princeton companion” 3.5-inch floppy disk.

At this point in the exploration, Briana had since moved on to consulting other collections, and I had taken the mystery disk back to my office for further analysis and failure. I used a software application created by the UK National Archives, DROID, to identify the files, from which I discovered that each of the 20 files on the disk was a Microsoft Word 95 file. I knew that I wanted to append the extension “.doc” to each file, a move that would enable researchers to double-click them and open them on their machines.

Rather than changing each file name manually through the file browser, I made a copy of the disk to my local machine (remember, the original disk was manually write-protected!) and found a quick-and-dirty way to execute this task on the Unix command line:

Command-line script to add missing file extensions.
Command-line script to add missing file extensions.

This command tells the computer: “Take every file in this folder and add ‘.doc’ to the end of the filename.” The command worked like a charm, and instead of expending 5 minutes to change filenames, I ran this command in 5 milliseconds and was able to start my lunch 5 minutes earlier.

* * * * * *

Feeling good about myself after lunch, I contemplated whether it made sense to convert these Word 95 documents into a more recent Word version (.docx) or to convert them into PDF files. Each archive approaches this question differently, but at the Princeton University Archives we typically do not convert any file format during our digital curation procedures, and the ensuing sequence of events explains one reason why.

It’s worth noting that although I had overcome a number of technical hurdles, I still didn’t have anything to show for it in terms of added contextual information about the interviews. You will recall from earlier that the name of the disk was “princeton companion,” and I noticed that a file on the disk had been named “companion,” so I opened it to have a look at its contents.

View of files with correctly added file extensions.
View of files with correctly added file extensions. Notice the file “companion.doc.”

From the “companion” file, I gained more information but had less understanding. The file made little sense in its connection to the others, as these other documents contained summaries of conversations and the companion file was written in a more formal, historical tone. I once again thought the trail had gone cold, and was finally ready to quit for about the sixth time.

But, I paused, and I remembered that Microsoft Word files opened with the Microsoft Word application can be further explored using the File >> Properties tab. So, with another hope and hypothesis, I opened the “sotomayor.doc” file and explored its properties, at which point I found the clue that cracked the case completely open!

"Properties" view of Sotomayor interview transcript.
“Properties” view of Sotomayor interview transcript.

The “Summary” tab of the file’s properties indicated that Nydia I. Mancini authored the document, which begged the obvious question: who is this author and how can I find them? I turned to Google, which was unhelpful in providing any solid leads. So I took another hope and hypothesis to Mudd’s database of Undergraduate Alumni, 1921-2015 to enter the last name “Mancini,” a search that revealed Mancini graduated Princeton in the Class of 1999. I could only connect these dots because I refrained from reformatting the original, obsolete file into a more modern one, and continued to posit hope and hypotheses.

* * * * * *

The discovery of Nydia’s name and class year still didn’t get me the final piece of information I needed, which is why these interviews were conducted in the first place, nor did it clarify the usage of “companion” the disk and file names. Refusing to surrender, I tracked down an email address for Nydia and briefed her on Briana’s discovery of the floppy disk and my journey retrieving its files. I asked, perhaps pathetically, whether she had indeed authored the documents and, if so, whether she remembered their context.

Nydia responded enthusiastically and cheerfully with the full story behind the interviews. As an undergraduate, Nydia worked at Firestone Library for Peter Johnson, the library’s then-bibliographer for Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. Nellie Gorbea ‘88 (who was then an officer with the Association of Latino Princeton Alumni) coordinated an effort with Peter and Nydia to compose an entry to be added to a new draft of Alexander Leitch’s A Princeton Companion. The “companion” file is a draft of that entry, which was tentatively titled “The History of Latinos at Princeton University.” The interviews Nydia conducted via phone aided in the completion of the draft. Leitch’s original 1978 compilation, a proverbial if incomplete encyclopedia of University history, neglected to incorporate the experiences of Latino students, other racial minorities, and women, but unfortunately an updated version never made it to print.

The added contextual information behind the files as well as the files themselves can be found in the collection’s finding aid. The entry as well as the interviews are well worth your read. In them, you will find stories spanning three decades that cover nearly every aspect of student life, which taken together offer a unique insight into experiences of Princeton’s first Latino students. For Princeton undergraduates interested in a senior thesis about the topic, this group of records require your attention.

To summarize this saga: Nydia Mancini ’99 conducted and transcribed interviews with several Latino alumni, including Sonia Sotomayor ’76, and saved the transcripts onto a 3.5-inch floppy disk found fortuitously by Briana Christophers ‘17. I’ve written this post about my hopes and hypotheses, but the ones that matter stem from the people most responsible for bringing these narratives to light. The Latino students who stepped onto Princeton’s campus in the late 1960’s also brought with them their shared hopes and hypotheses. They hoped to create a life and legacy for themselves at one of the country’s most storied sites of higher education, and they hypothesized that they would need each other and others to realize that dream. Briana, and the Latinx Collective more broadly, inherited the hopes and hypotheses of the first generation of Latinx students, as they published their petition with their own set of hopes and hypotheses for a more representative reflection of Princeton’s history and a more inclusive university archives. I have a hope and a hypothesis that the Princeton University Archives will answer that call and continue to become the active, inclusive, and responsive space that current Latinx students and alumni—and all Princeton students and alumni—desire and deserve.


Historical Subject Files (AC109)

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