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.

Tips and Tricks to Using Spencer’s Finding Aids

September 13th, 2023

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!

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The homepage for the Spencer finding aid website. Here you can perform searches, and you will also see (in the ribbon across the top of the screen) browsable lists of all processed collections; subjects and names you can search with; and a list of some of our digitized items. Click image to enlarge.


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.

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The main search screen, with top results for the search term “diaries,” on the Spencer finding aid website. Click image to enlarge.

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.”

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An example of a search within a search on the Spencer finding aid website. Click image to enlarge.

Collection Pages

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.

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The main or home page for a Spencer collection’s finding aid. Click image to enlarge.

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.

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Page for the 1922-1923 diary in the Anna Johnson collection. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Container Inventories

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.

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The container inventory for the Anna Johnson collection. Click image to enlarge.
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The inventory for Box 3 in the Anna Johnson collection. Click image to enlarge.

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 You can also check out our 2014 blog post “Finding Aids 101,” although it shows Spencer’s previous finding aid interface. Happy researching!

Tiffany McIntosh
Public Services

Behind the Scenes at Spencer Library: Paging and Shelving

August 16th, 2023

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.

Color photograph of a tan door with a small window and a dark wood frame.
The door to a secure stacks, or collection storage, area at Spencer Research Library. Click image to enlarge.
Color photograph of books - different editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - lined up horizontally on a shelf.
A representative shelf of books in Spencer’s stacks. Click image to enlarge.
Color photograph of long rows of floor to ceiling shelves filled with books.
A section of Spencer’s stacks. Click image to enlarge.


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.

Color photograph of a binder standing vertically on a table, cover facing forward.
A copy of Spencer’s stacks locator guide. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Color photograph of a strip of white paper with text, sitting in a cardboard holder that hangs off a bookshelf.
A charge-out flag containing one half of a call slip. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Color photograph of cardboard boxes sitting on book trucks beneath and next to a staircase.
The re-shelving area at Spencer Research Library. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Color photograph of a strip of white paper with text, sitting with a pink slip of paper in a cardboard holder that hangs off a bookshelf.
A Spencer Research Library stacks area with re-shelving flags. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Tiffany McIntosh
Public Services

That’s Distinctive!: KU’s Potter Lake

July 28th, 2023

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 visit University Archives again and share some photos of Potter Lake at the University of Kansas. In 1910, the Kansas Board of Regents decided to construct a water source for in case of a fire on the north side of campus. That water source became Potter Lake, named after state senator T.M. Potter. Up until Lawrence built the public pool in 1927, the lake served as a swimming hole. According to the Historic Mount Oread Friends website, swimming, skating, and sledding have been prohibited since the 1970s. KU’s online places directory notes that “today, the lake is used as a storm water retention pond, and swimming is prohibited. Some classes and academic research occur at the site, and canoes and non-motorized boats are permitted in those instances. State fishing laws apply.”

Black-and-white photograph of two pairs rows in canoes, with spectators on the grassy hill beyond.
People participating in boat races on Potter Lake, 1911. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/24/1 Potter Lake 1911 Prints: Campus: Areas and Objects (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).
Black-and-white photograph of a grassy field with a stone bridge in the background.
Potter Lake drained, 1958. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/24/1 Potter Lake 1958 Prints: Campus: Areas and Objects (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).
Black-and-white photograph of a boy in a shirt and overalls kneeling on the ground near the lake with his rod and tackle box.
A boy fishing at Potter Lake, 1970-1979. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/24/1 Potter Lake 1970s Prints: Campus: Areas and Objects (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).
Color image of the lake and bridge with cattail plants in the foreground.
Potter Lake, 1985. University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 0/24/1 Potter Lake 1985 Slides: Campus: Areas and Objects (Photos). Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Be sure to check out all of the library’s digital collections, including University Archives photos. Not all photos are currently digitized, and collections can be viewed in person in the Reading Room.

Tiffany McIntosh
Public Services

Meet the KSRL Staff: Tiffany McIntosh

December 16th, 2022

This is the latest installment in a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Tiffany McIntosh, who joined Spencer Research Library in August 2022 as an Administrative Associate.

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Administrative Associate Tiffany McIntosh. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I’ve lived most of my life in Lawrence but just recently moved to Meriden, which is a small town just north of Topeka.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I primarily serve as the student supervisor and run the reception desk. I am also responsible for scheduling, supply orders, and other day-to-day administrative tasks throughout the building. Starting in Spring 2023 I will also be working at the reference desk.  

How did you come to work in Public Services?

My answer is a little less straightforward than others’ are. I graduated from KU with a Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) in anthropology and religious studies in May 2021. Since graduation I missed life on campus and had been searching for a position within KU. I browsed KU’s website for months waiting for something that seemed fitting.  When I saw the posting for the Administrative Associate position at Spencer, I knew I would be able to use past job skills to excel given my strong background in customer service. I also knew the position would be a step in the right direction considering I plan to attend a master’s program in museum studies. 

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

Currently the thing I find most interesting is a book we have by Joseph LeConte that was printed in 1895: Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought (Call Number: B17361). We also have a first edition of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Call Number: Ellis Aves B108). It’s very worn and well-loved but super cool to look at. Along with the first edition, we have a copy from 1909 (Call Number: B17375) that is, interestingly enough, Volume 11 in The Harvard Classics. Per Wikipedia, the collection “is a 50-volume series of classic works of world literature, important speeches, and historical documents compiled and edited by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot.” There are a lot of other really cool books in Special Collections that relate back to my undergraduate classes (including works by Darwin, LeConte, and Charles Lyell) that I’m super excited to work with.

I also find the children’s book collection quite interesting. Older book covers are very unique and colorful. They’re fun to look at without even opening the books. I love browsing the stacks and reading the different titles of the books and seeing the illustrations. The content of children’s books has definitely changed quite a bit over time.

I’m convinced there’s something for everyone in our collections.

What part of your job do you like best?

I would say one of my favorite things about my job is listening to the curators and librarians talk to patrons about things they’re passionate about. You can really hear the joy and excitement in their voices when they get to talk about their work. I would also say I enjoy working with the students and giving them opportunities to grow both professionally and individually. Most importantly, I love how the collection is seemingly never-ending. Every time I go into the stacks, I find new things that interest me.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I enjoy being outside (I go birding with my younger brother), spending time with my cats, and quilting. I also try to spend time with family since I don’t see them as much since moving. I start graduate school in January 2023, so I’m sure most of my time will be spent on homework (which I really don’t mind).

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?

Similar to what others have said in their “Meet the KSRL Staff” profiles, use your resources. The collections are massive, and talking to the people who work here can really improve your findings and experience. The library alone is a great resource, but the people who help build and maintain the collections have a wealth of knowledge that can really take your research to the next level.

Tiffany McIntosh
Administrative Associate

Student Spotlight: Alex Williams

July 7th, 2022

This is the second 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 student assistant Alex Williams, who started working in Spencer’s Public Services unit in Spring 2019. Alex is an undergraduate majoring in creative writing with a minor in women, gender, and sexuality studies; she is graduating from KU in Spring 2023.

Young woman standing in front of floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, gesturing to a booktruck of materials.
Public Services student assistant Alex Williams. Click image to enlarge.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I am a Public Services student employee, so my job consists of retrieving materials from our stacks to bring to patrons using the Reading Room, manning the reception desk, and returning or shifting materials in the stacks.

Why did you want to work at Spencer Research Library?

A few years ago, my first-year seminar class took a tour of Spencer Research Library. The curator leading our tour, Elspeth Healey, mentioned the library would be hiring soon and I left my name and contact information. I worked as a library aid in high school and was intrigued by the variety of materials held at Spencer. 

What has been most interesting to you about your work?

The variety of patrons that come into the library and hearing about their research projects. We get people who are local to Lawrence looking at regional history and then we’ll have someone from another country looking for Special Collections materials. There is always a chance to learn something new about Spencer when new patrons come in.

What part of your job do you like best?

I love working in the stacks. It’s fun the browse through the stacks and look at the different materials we have. Whether it’s putting back items or moving in newly processed materials, I just find it really fun to see everything. Occasionally, after I have completed all my work, I’ll make a little scavenger hunt game for myself and see how many different editions of Moby Dick or Sherlock Holmes I can find in Special Collections. The science fiction collection is another area I frequently investigate. I may even be doing my own research project with the sci-fi materials in the future.

What piece of advice would you offer other students thinking about working at Spencer Research Library?

This seems like a very basic piece of advice: ASK QUESTIONS. I don’t mean just to the supervisors. Ask the patrons about they’re research projects. Ask the curators about classes, exhibits, or collection areas. Not only does it help you engage with the collections, but it creates community. I think that’s why I enjoy Public Services so much because I get to interact not only with the Spencer’s materials but the individuals who utilize them.

Alex Williams
Public Services Student Assistant