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.

Student Spotlight: Sarah Jane Dahms

June 6th, 2023

This is the latest installment in a series of posts introducing readers to student employees who make important contributions to the work of Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Conservation Services student assistant Sarah Jane Dahms, who answered a few questions about the projects she works on at Spencer.

Conservation Services student assistant Sarah Jane Dahms sits at a workbench in the conservation lab while scoring a piece of board for a tuxedo box.
Conservation Services student assistant Sarah Jane Dahms at work on a tuxedo box.

What is your role?

Here at the Spencer, I work in the Conservation Department. We work in a lab setting to stabilize and repair books and materials throughout the KU library system. As a student I work with materials that are in circulation. I do anything from stapling music pamphlets into pamphlet binders, securing dust jackets within archival plastic covers, and housing delicate books and materials in custom boxes to mending and rebinding books. It is a job full of conversation, collaboration, and problem solving. Each item has its own needs and desires, and it is our job to pay attention to the material and work with it, instead of overcorrecting or forcing a repair. No two days in the lab are the same.  

What are you studying, and what do you hope to do in your future career?  Has your work in at SRL changed how you look at your studies or your future career plans in any way? 

I recently graduated this Spring with degrees in both English and Visual Arts. Working in the Conservation Lab gives me a unique space to combine both aspects of my study. Here, I constantly work with books, but I have an opportunity to get to know the materials creatively. Over the course of a few minutes to several hours, I collect clues about the history of the material to create a repair that supports the overall environment of the material. If I do my job well, then my repair should exist within the same world as the original did. Working here has honed my creative hand skills. We work on multistep processes where a millimeter makes all the difference, but we have the chance to create things that are aesthetically pleasing. Because of my experience here, and my time studying for a book arts certificate at KU, I will continue combining English and Art in a Master of Fine Arts this fall. Through the University of Alabama, I will study book arts in their Library and Information Sciences Department. This path was entirely inspired and supported by my time at the Spencer over the last two years. Through repairing and rebinding books, I have completely fallen in love with book structures and creation. I am honored to continue creating books artistically and focusing on their quality and longevity.  

What part of your job do you like best? 

One of the most important factors of my job is flexibility. Yes, our schedules are largely flexible, but the position itself allows for each student to shape the role. Over the course of the first six months every Conservation Student learns around fifteen multi-step treatments. These treatments range on a scale of technical hand skill and creative potential. Every student who comes through the lab falls in love with one, if not several of these creative processes. We each do all treatments, but many of us specialize in one or two of these areas. Because of this flexibility, students from all areas of campus thrive in the work environment. It allows us all a space to shape our job, and to get to know other students with different backgrounds and skills from our own. Separately from this day-to-day flexibility, we often work on long-term projects as a group. Sometimes the projects last weeks or months, as we move collections around the library. These projects give us time to explore the library and walk amongst hundreds of unique books and materials.  

Sarah Jane Dahms
Conservation Services student assistant

Ringle Conservation Internship: Cornish Studio Collection

May 23rd, 2023

Becoming the Ringle Conservation Intern has been an incredible learning experience both on its own and as an expansion of the work I have been fortunate enough to do during my two years as a student employee at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library Conservation Lab. Since September of 2022, I have assessed, lightly cleaned, and re-housed over 900 individual glass plate negatives, and at least 100 flexible negatives, taken by the George Cornish Studio (based in Arkansas City, Kansas) between 1890 and 1945. With the guidance of Marcella Huggard, Charissa Pincock, Whitney Baker, and Roberta Woodrick, I have contributed 833 entries to the ongoing finding aid that include the subject of the photo (if identifiable) and the condition of each plate. My hope is that, when the collection is complete with its partner collection (the Hannah Scott Collection), history and photo enthusiasts will be able to enjoy the wide range of portraiture, landscape, and urban life photography contained within the collection.

Inventorying the Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Creating a spreadsheet with information about the negatives in the Cornish Studio collection.

The Ringle project began with a massive shifting project. Roberta Woodrick, Grace Awbrey, Hannah Johnson, Rory Sweedler, Sarah Jane Dahms, and I moved the Cornish, Scott, and several other glass plate negative collections in advance of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) updates in the stacks. During this shifting, we saw how both age and the heat from the old furnace, located under the floor where the glass plates had been held, had affected the collections. There were clear indicators that re-housing these collections was necessary. On some glass plates there was flaking emulsion and discoloration, and some flexible negatives were experiencing “vinegar syndrome” (the strong smell of deteriorating acetate film) and leaving liquid residue on the shelves (from the chemical separation of the emulsion on the plastic).

Boxes of glass plate negatives in the stacks of Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Glass plate negatives from the Cornish Studio collection housed in boxes in the stacks.
Damage to a glass plate negative. Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Flaking emulsion on one glass plate negative in the Cornish Studio Collection.

The Cornish Studio was located in Arkansas City, Kansas, 8 miles north of Chilocco, Oklahoma, where the Chilocco Indian School operated, and about 200 miles southwest of Lawrence. The studio was opened by George Cornish in 1905 and was run jointly from 1912 onward by Cornish and his assistant Edith Berrouth (to whom he would leave the practice in 1946 after his death.) In 1993, attorney Otis Morrow, whose practice was in the building that had once been Cornish’s studio, donated the 8 boxes of glass plates, photo registrars, and even George Cornish’s autobiography of running the studio (called “My Life on Fifth Avenue”) to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. (More about the history of the collection can be found at the Collections Overview.)

Many of the glass plates in the Cornish collection have some degree of damage – they’ve existed through a wide range of temperature and humidity fluctuations – but at over 100 years old for many of them, they generally look remarkably good. The subjects in the photos are almost all visible, and the excitement on their faces in these century old photographs endures. It’s clear that the people who went to the Cornish Studio for their portraits, or for the portraits of their young children (babies make up a significant portion of the plates from the 1910s-20s), were happy to have the opportunity to have their photos taken. They couldn’t have known that their likeness would be preserved for longer than them, but I like to think it would make them happy to know their investment in a photograph might provide returns to scholars today.

Negative and positive images of Letha Thomas and baby, Cornish Studio Collection, Kenneth Spencer Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Negative and reversed positive image of Letha Thomas and baby, circa 1919, Cornish Studio Collection.

Before me, several Ringle interns worked on an impressive collection of projects over timespans of six weeks to three months. So far, I have been working with the Cornish Collection for nine months and will continue to do so for another two. Having almost a full year has been immensely valuable – each plate must be placed individually into a four-fold wrapper before being re-housed in boxes, and many plates between 1917 and 1930 have subjects that could be researched (which I did, especially when there might be the opportunity to identify the women in couples’ portraits who were usually identified as Mrs. (Man’s Name.)). Having now completed the 5 x 7 plates, I continue to work on the 8 x 10 plates which represent a shift from traditional studio portraiture and into street scenes in Ark City and the surrounding area. These images, and this collection, offer a valuable slice-of-life view of Southwest Kansas across a period of American history with rapid changes.   

Registers from the Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Cornish Studio ledgers that record information about some of the subjects featured on the negatives in the collection.

Brendan Williams-Childs
2022-2023 Ringle Conservation Intern
Conservation Services

Adjustable Conservation Book Support: An open-design conservation tool arrives at KU Libraries

May 16th, 2023

The conservation lab at the University of Kansas Libraries is now home to a pair of Adjustable Conservation Book Supports, or ACBS’s. The ACBS is a hinged cradle that supports a book during conservation treatment; fiberglass rods gently hold the book open in almost any desired position, a feat that can be difficult or impossible to achieve with our usual system using weights and fixed cradles or foam wedges, or other rigged-up arrangements. The ACBS was designed and developed at Northwestern University by conservator Roger Williams in collaboration with students in Northwestern’s School of Engineering. Williams wrote about the process in this blog post: Collaborating with engineering students to create an open-design conservation tool – LIBRARIES | Blog ( We learned about the ACBS when Williams presented a webinar about the project during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when many conservators were unable to work in their labs. We and our colleagues around the world spent much of our pandemic work-at-home time learning and sharing on online platforms, saving up the new knowledge to try out when we were back in our workspaces.

One of Williams’ goals when creating the ACBS was to make it freely available and customizable  – an open-design tool that could be built with readily available supplies and that could be adapted and improved upon by the conservation community through use and experimentation. Conservators at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand took up this challenge and created an (also open access!) alternative design for the two clamps that sit at the top of the ACBS. The 3D-printed Auckland clamp design increases the range of motion of the fiberglass rods, adding even more functionality to the ACBS. (See their blog post: Newest Trick in the Book – Blog – Auckland War Memorial Museum (

We wanted to build an ACBS for our lab, and we definitely wanted those clamps! We knew that KU Libraries had a 3D printer in our new Makerspace, so we reached out to Associate Librarian Tami Albin for her help. The Makerspace was in its early days, and Tami had been experimenting with the 3D printer, getting to know its capabilities and the properties of different filaments. We downloaded the files for the Auckland clamps and sent them to Tami. While Tami worked on the clamps, collections conservator Roberta Woodrick ordered the rest of the parts we needed for our ACBS’s (we had decided to build two), and she and I assembled them up to the point of adding the clamps. A few weeks later, Roberta and I visited the Makerspace to see the results of Tami’s first tests. Tami described how the 3D printer works, showed us the printed clamp parts, and explained how the type of filament affects the finished 3D print. She had printed an assortment of sample parts for us; we brought them back to the lab and examined each one to find those that had the look, feel, and weight that suited us, and to test the fit on the ACBS’s.

Two people whose faces are out of the frame stand next to a table laid with 3D printed samples of clamp parts for an adjustable book cradle.
Reviewing test prints of the clamp parts with Tami Albin at the Makerspace. Click image to enlarge.

After we’d selected the samples that we liked best, we reported back to Tami and she set to work printing the final pieces. We were excited to get the email from her letting us know that the parts were ready! We gave Tami free rein to choose the filament colors, and she came through with a selection of bright, cheerful colors that add some fun and personality to our ACBS’s.

Close up image of colorful 3D printed clamps on an adjustable book cradle.
Detail of the clamps in their beautiful colors. Click image to enlarge.

With the clamp parts in hand, we had a few more steps to go before the ABCS’s would be ready to use. I put together the clamp assembly and found that our off-the-shelf bolts were about 1mm too long, preventing the clamps from being fully tightened. I found my set of jeweler’s rasps (saved from a metals elective I took back in art school – conservators love to appropriate tools of many trades!) and used one to file down the ends of the bolts until they fit correctly.

Two black metal bolts, each with a small silver hex nut and large red-and-yellow 3D printed nut on its end, sit on a table next to a small metal rasp. The end of the bolt on the left has been filed down smooth.
A too-long bolt, left, and a filed-down bolt, right. Click image to enlarge.

With the clamps assembled, the last step was to fill in the sides of the ACBS’s to bring the surfaces level with the thick hinges. Per Williams’ instructions, I filled the lower boards of the ACBS’s with scraps of binder’s board, a heavier material, and the upper board with corrugated plastic, a lighter material, to help balance the ACBS. I then covered each side with blotter and sealed the edges all around with Tyvek tape.

A split image: on the left, two adjustable book cradles atop a workbench with a utility knife, a triangle, and a ruler; on the right, a close-up of an adjustable book cradle lined with corrugated plastic.
Filling in the lower board with scraps of binder’s board, left, and the upper board with corrugated plastic, right. Click image to enlarge.

Conservation is always a collaborative effort, and we are so grateful for Tami’s contribution to this project. We are looking forward to all the ways that we can put these new tools to use in our work caring for KU Libraries’ collections.

Two adjustable book cradles sit atop a workbench in a conservation lab.
Our two new ACBS’s! Click image to enlarge.
A thin Japanese book is held by fiberglass rods in an adjustable book cradle.
The fiberglass rods are strong but gentle enough for delicate materials. Katsushika Hokusai, Denshin kaishu Hokusai manga. Call Number: C22291. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

Improving Energy Efficiency in Collection Storage in Spencer Research Library

February 21st, 2023

KU Libraries was awarded an implementation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, under the Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections program. The purpose of the grant is to act on the findings of environmental consultants from a planning grant under the same program, with the goal of improving the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system in collections storage areas of Spencer Research Library. The ultimate goal is to better preserve our collections while also finding ways to save energy.

While we have run into pandemic challenges, such as global shipping delays on key equipment, we are happy to report that the project is now in full-swing. Thirty-six heating units in the HVAC system that were identified as malfunctioning or underperforming are currently being replaced. Spencer Library’s HVAC system is largely still original to the building, which opened in 1968. The heating units are controlled pneumatically, which is not the standard today. Fewer and fewer HVAC technicians are trained to service pneumatic systems, so that when individual units break it is difficult and costly to fix them. This project upgrades the heating units to electrically-controlled, modern ones.

After walking the building with the contracted engineering firm, staff in Conservation Services covered collections storage shelving in areas near the heaters to be upgraded. Sometimes getting into the ceiling and removing equipment can result in emergent dust, so we wanted to preemptively protect the collections.

Collections stacks covered with plastic to protect them from construction work.
Collections in the stacks covered with plastic, in preparation for new heater installation in the ductwork.

The contractors first removed ceiling tiles under the heating units to be upgraded in order to have the best clearance to de-install the old heaters and install the new.

Original heating unit in the ductwork
1968-era heating unit in the ceiling of a collections storage area.
Gap in ductwork where old heater has been removed, before new heater has been installed.
Old heater removed; new one still to be installed.

The new heaters are currently being installed, with an engineering firm partnering with electricians to hook up the new heaters and update circuitry where necessary.

HVAC installer on ladder, with head in the ceiling ductwork.
Contractor installing a new heating unit in the ambulatory area of the second floor North Gallery stacks.

After the heaters are installed, we will conduct testing and balancing to confirm that air is flowing and the heaters functioning properly. We will continue to monitor the temperature and relative humidity in collections areas long-term to ensure that the equipment properly controls the environment in collection spaces.

New heater installed in the ceiling ductwork.
New heater installed in ductwork

Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services
KU Libraries

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. “Improving Energy Efficiency in Collection Storage in Spencer Research Library” has been made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections.

Fall Exhibit 2022: Keeping the Books: The Rubinstein Collection of the Orsetti Family Business Archive

September 15th, 2022

In 1974, the University of Kansas Libraries acquired a remarkable collection of bound business manuscripts from the Orsetti family of Lucca, in present-day Tuscany, Italy. Containing 294 bound volumes; 84 individual, hand-drawn maps; and five boxes of unbound accounting and family records, the Rubinstein Collection, as it is now called, comprises a rich archive of business accounts and legal documents of the Orsetti family’s commercial enterprises of agriculture, real estate, and textiles, as well as personal expenses. The collection of account books, business letters, legal documents, and inventories spans the late 12th century to the early 19th century, with the heaviest concentration dating from the 16th to 18th centuries.

The Orsetti family originated in San Donnino di Marlia, a rural village located near the Tuscan city of Lucca, where they relocated at the beginning of the 15th century. Lucca was a center for silk production and trade. By the mid 17th century Orsetti family members owned the second-largest textile workshop in Lucca, with ninety-five looms. Their companies thrived in Italy, as well as in Germany and Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Their silk trading company, Filippo Orsetti e Compagnia, flourished between 1695 to at least 1744. As the silk market declined in the 18th century, the Orsetti liquidated those assets and focused on their land holdings. Other noble families acted similarly, transforming the ruling class of Lucca in the 18th century from a group of merchants into wealthy landowners.

The Orsetti family crest features a golden eagle in profile wearing a crown in the top half, and a shock of wheat flanked by two gold stars in the lower half.
The Orsetti family crest features a golden eagle in profile wearing a crown on a blue background in the top half, and a shock of wheat flanked by two gold stars on a red background in the lower half. This ink-drawn version adorns the covers of a series of legal books in the Rubinstein Collection. Call number MS E133 v.4 of 6, Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, KU Libraries.

The Orsetti family of merchants used the accepted practices of their time to record their business and personal expenses and revenues. In 1494, Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan friar and mathematician, published his description of the Venetian double-entry accounting system, the treatise “About Accounts and Other Writings,” in Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita. Pacioli’s work was translated into many languages, and that the style of bookkeeping became standard practice across Europe. In many ways, his descriptions of double-entry accounting are still used today. Pacioli recommended different types of books for different accounting purposes, and that practice is reflected in the Rubinstein Collection and in this exhibit.

Large ledger open to columns of accounting notations.
Ledger H for the Altopascio estate. The red arrow points to a credit posting for a grain transaction with the Biancalana family of Carraia, Tuscany. Call number MS J15:6, Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, KU Libraries.
Front cover of an Italian manuscript book, dated 1698.
Bound book of copies of business letters for Filippo Orsetti e Compagnia, a silk business that operated from 1695 to at least 1744. Call number MS E136 v.3 of 11, Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, KU Libraries.

In addition to serving as an example of accounting practices in early modern Italy, the collection provides a rare opportunity to study bookbinding attributes from one family’s archive over centuries. From January to June 2022, I was awarded sabbatical leave to study the bindings in the Rubinstein Collection. A University of Kansas General Research Fund grant provided funds for raw materials to create bookbinding models to further understand how the books were constructed. Some of the models are also shared in this exhibit.

Model of a book in Spencer Library's collection, featuring a parchment cover with leather bands. Title and date are hand-written on the top cover.
Parchment account book model made by Whitney Baker, based on MS E145 (Contracts of Goods from the Altopascio Estate), Special Collections, Spencer Research Library, KU Libraries.

The Rubinstein Collection honors Joseph Rubinstein, the first curator of the Department of Special Collections at KU Libraries, from 1953 to 1963. After Rubinstein left KU he entered the rare book trade and was instrumental in helping the University of Kansas acquire the Orsetti family papers. Rubinstein died in 1973, while purchase negotiations were ongoing. When the Orsetti family papers finally came to Spencer Library the following year, the collection was named in honor of KU’s first special collections librarian.

Man holding book, in front of bookshelf
“Joseph Rubinstein examines books, 1956,” call number 41/0, University Archives, Spencer Research Library, KU Libraries.

Keeping the Books will be featured in Spencer Library’s main gallery from September 9, 2022 to January 13, 2023. An online version of the exhibit may be found here:–the-rubinst

Visual Communications (VISC) 440/740 (Book Arts) students meeting with exhibit curator Whitney Baker in a gallery tour, September 14, 2022.

Whitney Baker
Librarian / Head, Conservation Services