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.
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 Public Services student assistantKaitlynn McIntosh, who answered a few questions about her work at Spencer.
Please provide some brief biographical information about yourself.
My name is Kaitlynn and I am a second-year undergraduate art history major and education minor. I am on the track to be a part of the Accelerated Masters Program in hopes of graduating with my Bachelors in 2026 and my Masters in 2027. After completing my program I hope to work in a museum – possibly as a curator – or go on to be a college art history professor.
What does your job at Spencer entail?
I am a student assistant in the Public Services area, meaning I interact with most of the people that come into the library. I check people into our Reading Room and gather materials for patrons that come in. I also gather materials for professors who would like to hold class inside the library. In my job I handle a lot of old materials and I find myself very lucky to do so. Whenever I am paging items I always find new things that I am interested in or would have never thought I would come across. That is my favorite part of my job at Spencer.
Why did you want to work at Spencer Research Library?
I wanted to work at Spencer because I believed it would give me some good practice for working in a museum one day. Though we are a library, we do have a gallery and exhibition space. I am also handling a lot of old and fragile materials, so this job has given me good practice in how certain items need to be handled and cared for.
What are you studying, and what do you hope to do in your future career? Has your work at Spencer changed how you look at your studies or your future career plans in any way?
I am studying art history in hopes of working in a museum setting. Since starting at Spencer I have opened up to more possible careers after graduating. I have my mind on the possibility of working in a library as a curator like some of the staff here at Spencer. I am intrigued by a lot of the work that they do, mainly that they are able to work with professors who hold class sessions here. Working at a library or museum on a college campus has never crossed my mind but by working here that new possibility has opened up to me. I love working with the public and I would love to continue that into my future career plans.
What piece of advice would you offer other students thinking about working at Spencer Research Library?
If you are wanting to work at Spencer I would say apply. There are other positions for student employees that aren’t just in Public Services. This includes University Archives and Conservation Services. It is a very fun environment and is a great job to have as a student because they are very flexible with your class schedule and are very willing to help you with anything at all.
Kaitlynn McIntosh Public Services student assistant
Check the blog each Friday for a new “That’s Distinctive!” post. I created the series because I genuinely believe there is something in our collections for everyone, whether you’re writing a paper or just want to have a look. “That’s Distinctive!” will provide a more lighthearted glimpse into the diverse and unique materials at Spencer – including items that many people may not realize the library holds. If you have suggested topics for a future item feature or questions about the collections, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
This week on That’s Distinctive! we are mixing it up a little. Having posted every Friday (except for one) since January 20th (or 38 weeks), I thought it might be fun to share a little about me and how That’s Distinctive! works.
Some background about me.
I grew up in Lawrence and went to KU for my undergraduate studies in anthropology and religious studies. I am currently pursuing my master’s in museum studies online via the University of Oklahoma in hopes of some day working at the KU Natural History Museum. When I’m not at work at Spencer, I am likely at home in Meriden cuddling with my five cats or hanging out with family. We moved away from Lawrence in 2022 to an old farmhouse in Meriden, which is about a 40-minute drive from Lawrence. You can also find out more about my position in my Meet the Staff post from 2022.
How did you come up with the idea for That’s Distinctive!?
I came up with the idea for the blog not too long after I first started working at the library. I had started sharing cool items I found with my family on Facebook under the name “fun find Fridays.” After some thought, I felt it would be better to share these materials more broadly. It seems a large portion of the public, or even the student body, does not know that the library is here and open to everyone so I thought the blog posts would help raise awareness. I didn’t know the library was here when I was studying at KU, and it is really a unique resource with something for everyone. While the library’s primary use is for research (as noted in the name), its collections are vast and cover a wide range of topic areas. I have yet to meet someone that I wasn’t able to find an item of interest for.
What does your process for picking items look like?
I honestly do not have a very rigid process. For most of this year I chose holidays or anniversaries of things for the weeks I wasn’t sure what to share. Other weeks I just chose whatever topic came to mind and did some quick researching. Once I have a topic in mind I go through our online catalog and finding aids to find collections and materials I think might fit. I then pull everything I found to view in the Reading Room and narrow down to a single item or collection. Sometimes items are not at all what I was expecting; other times I find multiple things I like, which can make it hard to choose. Then with other topics I walk away empty-handed and start all over. Once I have an item chosen, I scan it on our Bookeye and then I sit to write the post. Some posts come more easily than others as you can see by the varying length of posts (some are really long, while others are super short).
I try to keep a hefty backlog of posts, so I’m not writing them every week. I will stock up five or six weeks’ worth then when that runs down, I’ll start writing again. Sometimes when I sit to write a post, and nothing comes to mind, I simply start my process all over. Quite a few topics have been pushed aside due to lack of inspiration. Fear not, though; I keep a running list of items I like but don’t write about to be visited later.
I should also add that finding items does not always require such an in-depth process. As I spend more time in the stacks, I frequently find items of interest just by walking around. I have also highlighted items that I have shared with classes and family members on special visits.
What does the future of That’s Distinctive! look like?
I am hoping to continue That’s Distinctive! into 2024. I intend to switch it up a little and attempt to avoid holidays and anniversaries and instead just focus on random topics and finds. I also hope to collaborate with staff and students around the building to highlight some items they have interest in as well.
What are some of your favorite finds for That’s Distinctive!?
Honestly, everything on the blog is of some interest to me. Obviously, some items intrigue me more than others but I wouldn’t highlight something I didn’t think people would like. I have a hard time picking a favorite, but I have narrowed it down to three posts that I really enjoyed writing.
Kansas farmer’s diary: I found this post super fun to write because you can’t go anywhere in Kansas without driving past a field of corn, seeing cows, or running into a tractor driving down the highway. Being able to look back and see what farming was like in the 1890s is just fun. It might seem mundane and redundant but what would Kansas be without farmers?
Flood of 1951:This post was interesting to me because the flood of 1951 was something I had heard about but didn’t really grasp the severity of until I saw the photographs. The process of writing this post also sent me on a little side quest. I shared one of the photos with some friends and my friend Chris recognized a grocery store in the photo that used to belong to his family. This led me to search to see what else we had related to his family, and we actually had a collection with old family photos from when his dad was a child. I thought that was super neat.
Mexican recipes: Other than looking at all the old diaries we have in our holdings, this collection is probably my all-time favorite. Handwritten in the early nineteenth century, the recipes in the collection give a peek into what life was like back then. The process of having them translated was fun too because it was a collaboration of staff in the libraries. I think it would be neat to have the whole collection translated to be able to make the dishes in the present.
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 Public Services student assistantClaire Cox, who answered a few questions about the projects she works on at Spencer.
Please provide some brief biographical information about yourself.
I am an Accelerated M.A. student in the history department. This is my third year at KU, but my first year as a graduate student. As an undergraduate, I spent my first two years at Johnson County Community College before transferring to KU and earning my B.A. in May 2023. I majored in history with a minor in global and international studies. I started working at Spencer Research Library in August 2022.
What does your job at Spencer entail?
I am a public services employee. My job tasks include retrieving and re-shelving materials from the stacks, sitting at the reception and reference desks, and assisting researchers in the Reading Room. Occasionally I work on a shifting project in the stacks. I also get the opportunity to curate temporary exhibits located in our North Gallery.
What part of your job do you like best?
I really enjoy working in the stacks. Whether retrieving or re-shelving materials, I am usually handling new items that I have never seen before. Not only does this help me get to know the collections better, but it is also really fun and interesting. The Kansas Collection is my favorite part of Spencer. I am constantly looking at old books related to the Kansas environment from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I also like working with the patrons that come into the Reading Room, and I love hearing about their research interests/projects.
What are you studying, and what do you hope to do in your future career? Has your work in at Spencer changed how you look at your studies or your future career plans in any way?
I study environmental history of the Great Plains in the twentieth century. I look forward to continuing my research on the relationship between Indigenous peoples, rural communities, and the environment by further examining the process of artificial lake-building in the region. As an undergraduate, I studied the construction of Clinton Lake near Lawrence. I plan to build upon this research throughout the upcoming year. As an employee at Spencer Research Library, I have learned a lot about how a special collections library works from behind the scenes. This knowledge informs how I conduct my own research, and I feel more confident when visiting other research institutions or archives. I have also found a lot of very useful material in the Kansas Collection about Clinton Lake, which I used for my undergraduate thesis project.
What advice would you offer other students thinking about working at Spencer Research Library?
I highly recommend working at Spencer. There are so many different opportunities for students to find a position that suits their own interests. Contrary to the stereotypical library job, working at Spencer never gets boring! Every day comes with new and exciting challenges.
Using a finding aid might not always be the most intuitive process. I know when I started working at Spencer, the finding aids were quite confusing to navigate. Even today, I am still learning new ways to utilize them in my research. Preliminarily, I would just say to dive right in. Things are not always going to make the most sense, but you won’t learn unless you try!
While this post isn’t meant to be a be-all, tell-all to using Spencer’s finding aids, I hope it can help provide some insights to make things easier. We want our collections to be easily and readily available to all our patrons.
So, first, you might ask: What is a finding aid? Well, it’s a document created by archivists that consolidates information about and describes the contents and context of an archival collection. Some information in a finding aid can also be found in the catalog record for an archival collection. A finding aid is typically longer than a catalog record because it includes additional information about a collection.
You might also be wondering: What materials are described in – and can be found by searching – Spencer’s finding aids? It tends to be things like manuscripts, scrapbooks, diaries, etc. Mostly, it is the things we house that are not printed books. However, just as some books are not cataloged, not all materials have a finding aid. Additionally, things can get tricky because no two finding aids are the same. Some collections are processed in greater detail than others, which can make searches easier yet also more complicated.
For the purpose of this blog post I am using the Diaries of Anna Johnson (Call Number: RH MS 1421) as my example collection. The collection is a standard, processed small collection. And, as I said, processing happens on many levels, and collections come in all sizes. This post is a small example of how to navigate the finding aids. So, let’s dive in!
To begin your search, you need to identify some search terms. You can start out as vague or specific as you like, depending on your topic. For some collections, you might have to get a little creative. To find my example collection I typed “diaries” into the search bar. As you can see in the screenshot below, that search returned 1024 results, and my collection is not one of the top few choices. A short scroll later and the Diaries of Anna Johnson are listed.
Example aside, looking at the search screen, you can see that in the top right, you can sort the search results by title and year if desired. You can also filter results by an assortment of criteria to the right. Additionally, you can do a further search by using more search terms (and sometimes a year) in the box to the right. This is kind of like a search within a search. You can see in the following screenshot that I searched “Anna” within my original search for “diaries.”
Now looking at the main or home page for a collection’s finding aid (see below), there is a lot of information given. The most notable information is the collection’s title, call number, and container inventories. How in-depth the collection has been processed determines the amount of other information provided. Some examples of information given on the collection’s main screen include an overview of the collection – a brief description of what the collection contains – as well the date range of the collection, information about the collection’s creator (including a biography, if available), and conditions governing access and use of the collection, which will note any restrictions. Keep in mind, this is not a complete list of all the information that may be provided on a collection page.
If you look to the right on the collection’s main page, you will once again see that you can search within the collection by search term or year. You will also see the collection organization sidebar, which gives general information on what materials are in the collection. Items of interest can be clicked on and will link you to that item’s page. Depending on the level of processing, there will be different information available. For my example, I clicked “1922-1923,” which took me to that diary’s own page. This is where researchers can find what box within the collection the item is housed, as well as which folder within the box. You can see that the diary from 1922-1923 is housed in Box 1, Folder 3. This information is crucial when researchers are creating Aeon requests for specific materials.
It is worth noting that – while it can be important for researchers to know what folder number they are looking for – when items are pulled from the stacks, they are pulled at the box level. This means that the researcher will receive the entire box when visiting the Reading Room, even if they just want to view one folder within that box.
If we go back to the collections main page, there is a tab at the top titled “Container Inventory.” This is another way to see what is within each box in the collection. If a collection has multiple call numbers, this page is also useful in determining which box and call number a researcher truly wants. For this example, I selected Box 3. At the top of the screen in the second image below, you will see the call number and box number. Then below, you will see what materials are included in that box and what folders they are in. I find this screen especially helpful with the more complex collections that house many different types of materials.
As I said previously, these tips and tricks are not an in-depth look on how to use Spencer’s finding aids; they are simply to help you get started. Using finding aids for the first time can be a bit overwhelming, but the more you interact with them, the more neat features you will find. If you have any questions on navigating the finding aids, you are welcome to visit us in person or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our 2014 blog post “Finding Aids 101,” although it shows Spencer’s previous finding aid interface. Happy researching!
Visitors who have used collection materials in person at Spencer are familiar with the process: you create an Aeon account, check in at the reception desk, come into the Reading Room and check in with the librarian, and grab a table. Once that process has been completed, a student assistant (sometimes a staff member) goes into the stacks to retrieve your items and brings them to you.
While this seems like a simple process, many people outside of the library don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes. In fact, there are many internal processes in place to track each item’s every movement in the building and to ensure it is put back in the correct spot.
In today’s blog post we will discuss two related behind-the-scenes processes: paging and shelving. In short, paging refers to retrieving items from the stacks and shelving (sometimes referred to as re-shelving) deals with returning items to their appropriate place in the stacks. A majority of this work is done by our student workers, though staff contribute as well. Why don’t we have researchers page and shelve the materials they use? Well, with materials as distinct as ours, you can never be too careful. Spencer is a closed stacks library, which means that only staff members and student assistants are allowed to access secure collection storage areas known as the stacks. There are five levels of stacks throughout the building to house our materials. Additionally, as you may have seen in Marcella Huggard’s blog post from July 3rd, we use our own unique call number system within the stacks, and items are frequently shelved by size.
To begin paging, a call slip must first be printed. Once the call slip is printed and the item is marked as “being paged” in Aeon, the student uses our stacks locator guide to determine what room the item is in. The stacks locator guide is the document we use to indicate where every item in the collection is located. This detailed inventory, which is updated and revised frequently, helps staff keep track of where items are and when they have moved.
Once in the stacks, the student grabs a book truck and a charge-out flag. The student then goes through the stacks to the location of the item for retrieval. As the item is pulled off of the shelf, the charge-out flag containing one half of the call slip goes in its place on the shelf. You will notice in the photo below that the most essential parts of the call slip are the item name (title) and the call number. The other half of the call slip stays with the item. The item is then brought back to the Reading Room, marked as “checked out” in Aeon, and given to the patron.
Spencer staff members do not monitor Aeon requests as they come in; all paging is done when the patron arrives. Depending on the location and quantity of requests, paging can take anywhere from five to ten minutes.
When a patron is done with an item, it is marked as “to be re-shelved” in Aeon and taken back to the stacks. Shelving is not done immediately. We have an area in the third-floor stacks where we place items to be re-shelved, and students work on it as they have down time.
When a student goes to shelve an item, they hope the student who paged it wrote the item location on that half of the call slip. If not, the student who is shelving must also use the stacks locator guide to determine where the item belongs. Once the location is determined, the student takes the item back to that spot. Before placing the item in the proper location, the student confirms that the two halves of the call slip – the one that remained on the shelf and the other that traveled with the item – match identically. If this is the case, the student puts the item back on the shelf and adds the second half of the call slip to the charge-out flag along with the student’s re-shelving flag. Each student’s re-shelving flag is a different color so staff can determine who shelved an item if something is done incorrectly.
After items are shelved, Spencer Operations Manager Meredith Phares goes through the aisles of the stacks and “revises” to double check that items are in the correct space. This is a whole other process that could use its own blog post.
Hopefully, this post helps patrons better understand the processes that happen behind the scenes when using the library. Everything that happens in the library has its own process that goes with it.