Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Collection Snapshot: Notes from Underground …

June 27th, 2014

If you’re interested in matters Polish and Russian or in travels in Slavic lands and in sights seen through western eyes AND if you can read this page from the manuscript diary of an Englishwoman traveling in the summer of 1828 (186 years ago!), then YOU may be the person to transcribe the contents of this little volume. You will get to know “Roberta” and “Mr. Sayer” (their real names), who were her companions on the trip. We can picture Ms. English Lady settling into the pension at night to write … Inside the front cover she begins, “The weight of the statue of Peter The Great …” You’ve seen the blurb; now read the book!

Image of a page from the diary of an English woman open to entry for Warsaw, June 22, 1828.

An English Lady: An anonymous manuscript travel-diary, a detailed account of the sights, costumes, social services, village and town life, war aftermath, travel mishaps in Russia and Poland. Warsaw-Smolensk-Moscow-Novgorod-St. Petersburg. 22 June to 21 July 1828. Call Number: MS B144. Click image to enlarge.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger

Adapted from her Spencer Research Library exhibit, Frosted Windows: 300 Years of St. Petersburg Through Western Eyes.



Finding Aids 101

June 20th, 2014

Pillsbury Family Papers finding aid

Screenshot of the top of a Spencer finding aid for the Pillsbury Family Papers. This will be
the example finding aid used throughout this blog post. The full document
is available on the Library’s website. Click image to enlarge.

Have you ever conducted research at an archives or special collections library, come across the term “finding aid,” and wondered, “what in the world does this mean?!” If so, you’re not alone. Finding aids are a standard tool for archival materials, but most people who aren’t archivists, special collections librarians, or experienced researchers are unfamiliar with the term. On the other hand, finding aids are the gateway to archival collections – for better or worse – so understanding what they are is an important component of conducting archival research.

So, what is a finding aid?

It’s a document, on paper and/or online, created by a repository’s staff members.

It generally contains the same information found in a catalog record (an overview of the collection) plus much more detailed information that the catalog record can’t accommodate.

It describes the materials in a specific collection.

It provides contextual information about the collection.

It’s an essential tool for library staff members and researchers. Without finding aids, a library would be full of collections but have nothing written down about them. Locating and understanding collections and materials within them would be immensely difficult, if not impossible.

Who creates finding aids and why?

When a repository like Spencer acquires an archival collection, a substantial amount of work is then required to prepare the materials for use by researchers. This effort, undertaken by library staff members, is called processing. It involves going through all of the materials in the collection; organizing or arranging them in a systematic way that will facilitate use; rehousing materials in acid-free enclosures, like boxes and folders; and administering basic preservation treatments and looking out for larger problems like mold or insect damage, which is harmful to materials and users. As they work, archivists make decisions and discoveries. They record this information; combine it with details gleaned from materials in the collection, provided by the donor, or acquired through additional research; and compile everything in one place, a finding aid.

How do finding aids help researchers?

The primary goal of a finding aid is to aid, or assist, researchers (including staff members) in finding the materials they need. Hopefully, information obtained from finding aids will minimize the amount of time researchers spend examining collections or parts of collections that are irrelevant to their work.

I sometimes think of a finding aid as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Each section of the document reveals additional details about the collection, and after reading each section the researcher asks him/herself: given what I now know about this collection, do the materials it contains still seem relevant to my project? If the answer is yes, the researcher will either continue reading the finding aid or decide to begin examining the materials in the collection. If the answer is no, the researcher can abandon the finding aid and begin the process again with a new one.


Click image to enlarge.

Look, for example, at the Collection Summary section of the example finding aid above (for Spencer’s collection of Pillsbury Family papers). It provides information to answer these important questions: How much time do I need to allot to go through this collection – is there one box or one hundred? Are the materials in the collection written in a language I can read? Are these the types of materials I need – or, for example, does this collection contain only photographs when I need correspondence? Are the people who created these documents the people I’m researching, or are they related or an entirely different group? Do the materials in the collection fall within the date range I’m studying?


Click image to enlarge.

Subsequent sections of the finding aid more thoroughly answer these questions or address new ones. Perhaps most significant is the Collection Description. This section identifies the contents of specific boxes and/or folders and also indicates how materials are arranged (e.g. by format, date, author or recipient name). Having determined that the collection may be relevant to his/her project, the researcher can use the information in this section to ascertain how much of the collection s/he will need to go through and where specific documents (or groups of documents) are located.

What are the limitations of finding aids?

Depending on factors like the size of a collection, the type of materials it contains, and when it was processed, finding aids generally provide some information about significant people, places, events, and topics represented in the collection. However, without unlimited time to process, staff members are unable to create completely comprehensive finding aids that list all names and topics that occur within all documents in a collection. Most, in fact, are not included.


Think of how many letters about Christmas (and other topics) might be “hidden” in these boxes!
Click image to enlarge.

The result is that a finding aid search may turn up few or no results, not because a repository doesn’t have archival materials on that topic, but because that topic wasn’t specifically named in a finding aid. When this happens, try different search terms or approach your topic from another angle. For example, if you’re looking for information about how Christmas was celebrated in nineteenth-century America, and a search for “Christmas” turns up limited or unhelpful results, you might instead search for collections containing family correspondence from that time period. The larger task would then be to read letters sent and received in December and January of various years.

Finding aids are exceptionally useful, but they can also be tricky documents to navigate, even for experienced researchers. If you encounter any difficulties using Spencer’s finding aids, don’t hesitate to contact me ( or another staff member for assistance.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Folded and Sewn: A Bookbinding Workshop

June 12th, 2014

Staff and students from Conservation Services recently led a workshop for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Mini College program, in which individuals attend a week of lectures, classes, and events on the KU campus. This year we led a group of 21 eager students in our workshop, “Folded and Sewn.”

Four structures featured in bookbinding workshop

Clockwise from upper left: sewn pamphlet, stapled pamphlet, accordion book,
Venetian blind book. Click images to enlarge.

The students in this workshop made four simple structures that were created with folding and sewing–no adhesives required. We started with an accordion book, then made a Venetian blind structure that featured a picture of James Naismith on one side and the windows of Watson Library on the other. Next we moved to folded pamphlets: first a stapled one with text about caring for books, and finished with a sewn version featuring images of historic Jayhawks (courtesy of the University Archives).

Kyle Sederstom, Roberta Woodrick, and Whitney Baker, staff of Conservation Services, took turns leading the class. Step-by-step images were also projected on an overhead screen. In addition, we enlisted three conservation student assistants and our summer conservation intern to roam the room and help participants as needed.

Conservation Services staff and students at bookbinding workshop

Conservation Services staff and students who led the Mini College workshop.

The Mini College participants finished the structures in record time! We had provided two copies of each structure, so there was time for students to review and make a second book. Other students perused examples of pamphlets and accordion structures provided on a front table.

Bookbinding workshop

The workshop featured a leader for each bookbinding structure, as well as projected images of each step.

We had a wonderful time hosting this workshop and hope to offer it again in the future.


Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services

Researchers Wanted!

June 6th, 2014

Ask any special collections librarian or archivist about her favorite collection item, and she may hem and haw (how can you pick just one favorite?!?). However, ask that same librarian about interesting items or collections that she wishes more researchers would use, and invariably she will rattle off a frighteningly long list.

This week, in the spirit of summer discovery, we present two intriguing selections that scream “researchers wanted!”

1.  Papers of William Poel, ca. 1895-1934 (

As admirers of William Shakespeare know, this April marked the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth.  And while Spencer doesn’t have a manuscript by the Bard gathering dust on a shelf (no manuscripts in his hand are known to survive), the library does hold papers for William Poel (1852-1934), an actor, writer, and theater director known for his attempts to revive the conventions of the Elizabethan stage at the dawn of the twentieth century. The collection includes correspondence with figures from the theater world (actors, writers, critics, and others), a small number of scripts, prompt books, and journals, and ephemera such as playbills and review clippings.  Pictured below is Poel’s heavily annotated prompt copy for Fratricide Punished, a German version of Hamlet of ambiguous relation to Shakespeare’s play.  Also pictured are a theater program and a lecture announcement, examples of Poel ephemera.

Picture of Poel's Fratricide Punished Prompt book, open to the list of characters and a pasted in print announcement. Plan of playscene in Poel's Fratricide Punished prompt book.
Lecture announcement for a lecture series on Shakespeare. Image of exterior of program for Poel's production of Marlowe's Faustus
Top: Poel’s prompt book for Fratricide Punished , ca. 1924. MS 31:D4; Bottom: an announcement for a series of lectures by Poel on Shakespeare, 1900, and the program for a production of Marlowe’s Faustus directed by Poel, 1904. MS 31, F6.  Click images to enlarge.

2. Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo, undated (before 1860).

This mysterious bound manuscript came to Spencer from the library of the well-known nineteenth-century art historian, bibliophile, and Hispanist, Sir William Stirling Maxwell (1818-1878).   A portion of Stirling Maxwell’s vast library was sold at auction and 1958, enabling KU to acquire a significant number of early printed Spanish volumes,  including important editions that now form the basis of Spencer’s Cervantes Collection, and this manuscript.  As far as we know, the author of this manuscript has not been identified, though the text concerns Cervantes’s famed character Don Quixote.   A note pasted toward the front gives further provenance, describing it as a “curious manuscript” sold as part of the auction of the library of “the late Don Justo de Sancha” by Sotheby’s in December of 1860.  Though the hand is later than Cervantes’s time, scholars of Spanish literature might find much to pique their interest in this 205-page manuscript.  The pictures below include the table of contents, which offers readers an idea of the matter covered.

Image of the title page (in a different hand?) giving the title, Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo Image of prologue with pasted in provenance note for Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo. Image of the first page of the table of contents of Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo Image of the final page of Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo.

Bookplate of William Stirling-Maxwell Image of the beginning of Chapter 2 in Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo.

Don Quixote, el Castellano viejo, undated (before 1860). MS C73. Click images to enlarge.

For more information on these and any of our other manuscript holdings, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  After all, the summer is an ideal time to start a new research project.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian