Will Noel: A Tribute

With an abiding sense of gratitude, Rare Book School remembers our much beloved colleague and faculty member Will Noel, who died on April 29 of injuries, after being struck by a van in Edinburgh on April 10. Profoundly saddened by this tragic loss, we nonetheless remember with great admiration Will’s consummate wit, his spirited intelligence, and his pioneering work—all generously shared with so many. Again and again, Will’s largesse enlarged the bookish community and made it better.

Honored by the White House in 2013 as a “Champion of Change” because of his advocacy for and creation of accessible information and open data, Will worked to make the Republic of Letters more democratic for all.

Will was administratively creative and intellectually intrepid. He brought estimable vision and intellectual verve to his work as a librarian, first as Curator of Rare Books at Walters Art Museum (Baltimore), then as Director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at UPenn, and finally as Associate Librarian for Special Collections at Princeton.

A member of the RBS faculty since 2005, Will taught 18 times for Rare Book School, most often with Paul Needham (“Fifteenth-Century Books in Print & Manuscript,” which recently has also included his Princeton colleague Eric White), or with Dot Porter (“The Medieval Manuscript in the Twenty-First Century”)—partnerships that typified his deeply capacious and collaborative approach to the study of the historical record.

Will Noel was a brilliant teacher: passionate, funny, learned, and entertaining. His intensity was contagious. He cared so much about the possibilities of historical recovery in the archive that he made his students care deeply as well. His sense of fun and playful subversiveness helped him to wear his considerable learning lightly, even as he worked to overthrow the dusty status quo in libraries and in academic research. His love of learning and the relish he took in the abilities of others were evident in all that he did.

His splendid 2012 TED Talk, “Revealing the lost codex of Archimedes,” has been viewed more than one million times. As the Sandars Reader in Bibliography at Cambridge University (2018–19), he delivered three lectures on “The Medieval Manuscript and its Digital Image.” Those Cambridge recordings beautifully capture his informal signature style, an easy manner that belies the vast knowledge he conveys. Variously subtitled “Collections,” “Interfaces,” and “Tools,” they also are the single best distillation of his pioneering philosophy and his relentlessly practical approach. In the midst of our sadness, we are heartened by the prospect that these videos—a model of the open access to information that was his passion—will help new generations to experience something of his brilliance, even if they have been robbed of the privilege we enjoyed of knowing the warmth, incisiveness, and the great kindness of the man himself.