The University of Kansas

Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Books on a shelf

Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Even More Simplified Binding workshop with Karen Hanmer

June 4th, 2024

Bookbinding models are something of a theme for us this spring; in February, we installed our exhibit Object Lessons: Selections from the Conservation Services Historic Bookbinding Models Collection in Spencer Research Library’s main gallery. Creating and studying bookbinding models helps us to hone our hand skills and to better understand how books are made, which in turn improves the level of care we can provide for materials in KU Libraries’ collections

Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.
Four finished Even More Simplified bindings created in our workshop with Karen Hanmer.

Then in March, Conservation Services hosted book artist, fine binder, and bookbinding teacher Karen Hanmer for a two-day workshop to learn a new (to us) binding structure. Karen’s “Even More Simplified Binding” offered us – that is, Whitney, Angela, and Kaitlin, the three book and paper conservators here at KU – an opportunity to brush up on techniques and to learn some new approaches to bookbinding that we can apply to our work.

Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing - shaping the spine of a book - on a job backer.
Conservators watch as Karen Hanmer demonstrates backing – shaping the spine of a book – on a job backer.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.
Checking sewn text blocks to see how well they open.

Karen describes the Even More Simplified Binding as “stripped down to only the essential elements;” it is elegant and minimal in appearance. But because the structure of the binding is easily discernible, great care must be taken at each step to ensure a pleasing result. This structure was a good choice for our group of conservators with a range of bookbinding experience; we all found something to hold our interest, and we all came away with new skills. Karen came prepared with lots of examples of other bindings, so in addition to the fun we had making our books, we also had lots of great discussions and digressions along the way.

Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Conservators gather around to watch as Karen shows how to mark the spine wrapper before attaching it to the book.
Detail view of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.
Detail of the Even More Simplified binding with spine wrapper laced on, before attaching boards.

Speaking for myself, I know that my approach to re-binding a book – on the rare occasions that it happens – has become much more conservative over the years. I’m interested in doing the most possible good for a book with the least possible intervention, and studying this binding has got me thinking about how I can apply its bare-bones-yet-structurally-sound engineering to projects that may come my way in the future.

Four people stand in the lobby of Spencer Research Library displaying books completed during a workshop.
Kaitlin, Karen, Whitney, and Angela with their finished books.

Angela Andres, special collections conservator

From the Stacks to the Internet: Making Spencer’s Japanese Collections Accessible Through Digitization

March 20th, 2024

Projects in Spencer are rarely the work of a single individual; instead, they often involve drawing in individuals across all corners and departments of the library. And when you’re very lucky, you can even call in the cavalry and recruit outside help. This has been the case in one of our ongoing projects centering around digitizing – or creating online digital reproductions – of a subset of our Japanese materials.

Spencer is home to an exceptional collection of materials dedicated to Natural History and particularly to ornithology and the study of birds. Thanks to several substantial acquisitions in the 1960s, we now have an exciting and unique range of Japanese works of falconry and artwork of birds spanning from the early 16th through the early 20th centuries that stand as a bright jewel within our ornithological crown. Our ongoing digitization project aims to help bring these materials to a wider audience and to connect our collection to researchers across the globe.

Woodblock prints No. 5 and 6 showing two small and one large white bird from Keinen kachō gafu by Imao Keinen, 1891-1892; Call Number: Ellis Aves G21

Woodblock prints No. 5 and 6 from Keinen kachō gafu by Imao Keinen, 1891-1892.
Call Number: Ellis Aves G21

To achieve this goal, we have been hard at work both within the KU libraries: the project was conceived by KU Japanese Studies Librarian Michiko Ito, and throughout the project, she has dedicated substantial time towards helping us enhance the depth and detail of many of our catalog records for these items – in doing so, she ensures that researchers who search our catalogs will be able to find the materials more easily, and will know more about the items in terms of their content, their artists and authors, when and where the book was made, and more. Michiko’s language and subject expertise have been bolstered by the cataloging skills of our Head of Cataloging and Archival Processing, Miloche Kottman, who has helped Michiko with the unique challenges that rare books and materials can present in cataloging them.

Part of this process has also involved tracking down the provenance of these materials – the history of how they came to have a home on Spencer’s bookshelves. M own work as one of Spencer’s Special Collections curators has come into play in tracking down old purchase records in our files, to help us trace the physical migration of books across space and time, so that we can add this information to our catalog records and metadata.

And Michiko reached out across oceans, contacting the National Institute of Japanese Literature about the possibility of linking our digitized materials with their international database of digitized Japanese literature so that when scholars search the database, they can find and view Japanese rare books from libraries across the globe. As part of this collaboration, one of their affiliated scholars, Dr. Kazuaki Yamamoto, flew here from Japan to further decipher the many exciting details of our collections. He helped identify ownership marks to trace the history of these items over the centuries, dated materials, and identified arcane and obsolete vocabulary and handwriting.

Woodblock prints of birds from vol. 1 of Bunrei Gafu by Maekawa Bunrei, 1885; Call Number: Ellis Aves E241

Woodblock prints from vol. 1 of Bunrei Gafu by Maekawa Bunrei, 1885. Call Number: Ellis Aves E241

Meanwhile, our Conservation team’s representative, Angela Andres, has been involved in reviewing the items to ensure that they are in safe and stable conditions and ready for digitization. Japanese paper, called washi, is renowned for its soft texture, but its softness can leave it fragile, and their book covers are sometimes coated in powdered mica to give a metallic sparkle, but it leaves the covers vulnerable to friction and wearing away over the centuries. Her work has involved crafting new protective enclosures for some of the more delicate materials, which will help support the softer paper when it’s shelved upright and minimize any friction and rubbing that might wear away the mica coating. Doing so helps us protect and preserve the originals so that they survive together with their online copies.

Selected page featuring drawings of birds from Shasei. Kincho bu, by Yoshiki Gyokei, 1853; Call Number: MS G49, with a custom box and interleaved acid-free paper to protect the delicate pages.

Selected page from Shasei. Kincho bu, by Yoshiki Gyokei, 1853, with a custom box and interleaved acid-free paper to protect the delicate pages. Call Number: MS G49

The next step, hopefully coming soon, is to send the items down to our digitization team helmed by Melissa Mayhew, where they will be scanned into high-resolution TIFF files and with the help of our Digital initiatives librarian Erin Wolfe, they’ll be uploaded onto the online platforms of both the University of Kansas and the National Institute of Japanese Literature’s database with relevant metadata to help researchers connect our collections with books and manuscripts from other libraries around the world.

In many ways, this project embodies all the work and challenges that can go into Special Collections libraries and the efforts we make toward making delicate and rare materials accessible to as many people as possible. From cataloging to preserving, to digitizing and uploading them to the greater internet, no librarian works alone!

Eve Wolynes
Special Collections Curator

Spencer’s March-April Exhibit: “From Shop to Shelf”

March 5th, 2024

Conservators often say that what draws them to this work is the variety – every day is different! Always something new to learn! Never a dull moment! In my role as special collections conservator at KU Libraries, I am fortunate to work on interesting items from all of the collecting areas within the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and my day-to-day experience bears out the truth of those clichés. Each book, document, and object I work with wears evidence of its own unique history. Physical condition, materials, marks or repairs made by persons past – sometimes these features tell a clear story about the life an object has lived, and sometimes the picture is murky, fragmented, or confusing. In the new short-term exhibit on view in Spencer Library’s North Gallery, I returned to the subject of a 2016 blog post to explore the ways that a book’s binding might provide information about who owned the book and how it was used.

Spencer Library’s three copies of Thomas Sprat’s A true account and declaration of the horrid conspiracy against the late king, His present Majesty, and the government: as it was order’d to be published by His late Majesty are displayed in the first exhibit case. This book relates Sprat’s official account, as Bishop of Rochester, of the failed 1683 Rye House Plot to assassinate King Charles II of England and his brother (and successor) James, Duke of York. The horrid conspiracy, as we’ll call it, was printed in London in 1685 by Thomas Newcombe, “One of His Majesties printers; and … sold by Sam. Lowndes over against Exeter-Change in the Strand.”

Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in the exhibit From Shop to Shelf in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
Three copies of The Horrid Conspiracy on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

After leaving Lowndes’ shop these three edition-mates embarked on separate journeys, only to arrive back together again in our stacks over three hundred years later. The books’ differing conditions and binding styles invite speculation about their adventures (and misadventures!) in the intervening years. The exhibit compares the physical characteristics and evidence of use seen on the three volumes and considers what these features might tell us about who owned them and how they were used. We cannot know for sure, but it is so fun to wonder!

A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library's North Gallery.
A selection of books from the exhibit From Shop to Shelf on display in Spencer Research Library’s North Gallery.

In case two, we expand our examination of different binding styles to include a small selection of bindings from Spencer Library’s rare books collections. The display includes books in original paper bindings or wrappers from the publisher, books custom-bound for private owners in either a plain or a fine style, and others bound simply and sturdily for use in a lending library. Spencer Library’s collections are rich with examples of bookbinding styles across the centuries; this assortment of volumes represents just a fraction of the many ways that a book might have been bound either by bookseller, buyer, or library.

Meet the KSRL Staff: Kaitlin McGrath

December 1st, 2023

This is the latest installment in a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Today’s post features Kaitlin McGrath, KU Libraries’ new General Collections Conservator/Preservation Coordinator. Welcome, Kaitlin!

General Collections Conservator/Preservation Coordinator Kaitlin McGrath sits at her workbench in the conservation lab.
KU Libraries’ new General Collections Conservator/Preservation Coordinator Kaitlin McGrath.

Where are you from?

I’m from Michigan and I grew up just outside Detroit. I went to school at Western Michigan University and here at the University of Kansas. Before I started this job in August, I was living in western Massachusetts.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I am the new General Collections Conservator/Preservation Coordinator for Conservation Services. I have a lot of different roles. If any book from one of the circulating libraries on campus is damaged, it comes to me, and I assess what treatment it needs. Some things will be sent out to a commercial bindery to be rebound, but many things will be treated in-house in our conservation lab. Some of the common treatments we do include tipping in loose pages, repairing torn paper, adding protective covers, and building new cases and boxes for books. I supervise the student workers who complete most of the treatments on general collections materials. I also order the archival supplies needed for Conservation Services and Spencer Research Library. As Preservation Coordinator, I work on preservation projects in Spencer such as object housings and long-term storage improvements.

How did you come to work at Spencer Research Library?

I was a student worker in the conservation lab from 2018-2020 while I was attending KU for my master’s in museum studies. I worked under Roberta Woodrick and learned the different treatments that are done in the lab. I really enjoyed working in the lab and the problem solving that came with determining different treatments and creating custom housings for objects. After I graduated, I moved away and worked in a couple of museums. I was just finishing up a two and a half year cataloging project at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Massachusetts when I heard that Roberta was retiring. I thought this was a great opportunity to come back to KU and work in the conservation lab in a new role.

What is one of the most interesting items you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?

KU’s collection of class banners from every graduating year are some of my favorites! I was able to work on a housing project for them when I was a student, and it was so interesting to see all of the different designs. Many of them were hand-made which gave them a creative and unique quality.

What part of your job do you like best?

I like the variety of what I do here. I don’t know what will come through the lab next. It makes work interesting!

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I like to play tennis, bake, and knit. I also enjoy trivia and board game nights.

Kaitlin McGrath
General Collections Conservator/Preservation Coordinator

HBCULA Preservation Internship, Summer 2023

August 3rd, 2023

Aryana Derritt served as KU Libraries’ fourth HBCU Library Alliance Preservation Intern in the summer of 2023. She spent six weeks taking classes online with her cohort, who were each assigned to U.S. research libraries with conservation departments for four concurrent weeks of on-site internships. In this post, she describes her experiences at KU Libraries.

Interning at Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the conservation lab as the 2023 HBCU Library Alliance Intern has been an amazing experience. I have learned so many ways to preserve books and papers from different collections. I performed treatments on the Sumner High School collection which is a part of the Kansas Collection. I chose to do this collection because my grandmother and great-uncle went to Sumner High School.

Page from high school year book.
The Sumnerian, 1965, Sumner High School yearbook. Call Number: RH Ser D1286 1965, Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

During my four weeks at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, I have learned how to mend, rehouse, and humidify materials. I mended a folder of papers, made a tuxedo box for a book, and humidified papers for the Sumner High School collection.

Sumner High School is in Kansas City, Kansas, and was founded in 1905 under the enactment of Bill No. 890. This school was named after Charles Sumner who was described as a courageous and open-minded individual. The school started with six girls and four teachers and soon grew the year after. Most of the collection consisted of ruled paper and many items had small tears that needed to be mended. Sadly, I did not finish working on the collection, but I am happy to have been given permission by Ms. Deborah Dandridge (Field Archivist/Curator, African American Experience Collections, Kansas Collection) and Mr. Phil Cunningham (Curator, Kansas Collection) to work with the different items.

(More information about the Sumner High School collection can be found at

Typed piece of paper with weighted mending boards on top. Microspatula, tweezers, Teflon folder to the right of the paper.
Mending item from the Sumner High School collection. Call Number: RH MS 1137.

Also, I learned how to make phase boxes from Ms. Angela Andres (Special Collections Conservator), and Ms. Roberta Woodrick (Collections Conservator) taught me how to make tuxedo boxes. I appreciate their patience in teaching me how to use the tools and going at my pace.

Person demonstrating a conservation technique to another person.
Roberta Woodrick instructing Aryana Derritt in making a tuxedo box, Conservation Services, KU Libraries.

In the first week, I was taught by Ms. Whitney Baker (Head, Conservation Services) how to make an accordion book, which was quite fun. This activity took skill and technique. I was also taught by Ms. Angela Andres and Ms. Whitney Baker how to bind a book. When I first started bookbinding, it was new to me, but I conquered that challenge and am delighted that I learned that skill to take home with me.

Group of seven people holding up small handmade accordion books.
Conservation Services student employees and staff with their handmade accordion books. Conservation Services, KU Libraries.

This internship taught me about the role of libraries and the importance of preserving history. I explored things from Medieval manuscripts which are made with parchment to African American literature. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to learn about the details of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.  

Cover of Black Poetry from Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Cover of Black Poetry. Call Number: C23704. Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

The biggest challenge for me was learning the time and effort it takes to complete a task such as mending and splicing tape in the audiovisual preservation department. I enjoyed the challenge and learned that it is rewarding when you finally finish the task at hand.

On the final day of the internship, I reflected on and learned not just the skills of conservation and preservation but also what it means to have a family work environment and how to function as a team. There was even a storm on my final day but to me, it was a bittersweet ending, and I value everyone that poured their knowledge into me.


Sumner High School, n.d, School – Misc “The Story of Sumner High School” by Anita P. Davis, RH MS 1137, Box 2

Sumner High School (KCK), 1955, Events – Commencement, RH MS – P

Sumner High School (KCK), 1958, Events – Commencement, RH MS – P

Sumner High School (KCK), 1965, Events – Commencement, RH MS – P

Sumnerian 1965, Sumner High School collection, RH Ser D1286

Aryana Derritt
2023 HBCU Library Preservation Alliance Summer Intern