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.

Meet the KSRL Staff: Molly James

October 27th, 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 Molly James, who joined Spencer Research Library in 2022 as a Manuscripts Processor.

Headshot of a young woman in front of green foliage.
Manuscripts Processor Molly James. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I’m from Kansas! I was born in Wichita, then lived for a brief time in Salina before my family moved to Eudora, a small town just outside of Lawrence. After graduating high school, I moved to Manhattan, obtaining both my bachelor’s and Master of Arts in English before returning to the Eudora-Lawrence area.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I process incoming collections for Spencer’s various collecting areas. This includes maintaining the original order that the materials’ donor or creator had them in, or creating an order that makes sense if there wasn’t one before, and then creating a finding aid to make these collections easily searchable online. Sometimes it also means identifying and sending a damaged item to Conservation and Preservation to stop something from deteriorating so it can be referenced in the future.

How did you come to work at Spencer Research Library?

Before working at Spencer, I spent six years with the Eudora Community Library, first as a volunteer then as a circulation assistant. Then, while I was working on completing my undergraduate degree, I was briefly introduced to Library Science by a K-Stater who was going to Simmons University to complete their Master of Library Science degree. Before this, I hadn’t known there was an entire field dedicated to library science and spent some time researching it. This exploration led me to learn about archives and libraries in a broader sense, so when I graduated with my master’s, I knew I wanted to return to a library to keep learning about how libraries and archives operate. I’m incredibly lucky to be here with the Spencer Research Library!

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

While I haven’t interacted with a terribly large number of collections, the most interesting thing I’ve come across so far is a lock of hair in a baby book from 1919. I wasn’t expecting it! Otherwise, the most interesting thing that I’ve seen (but didn’t process) is the Hugo Award currently on display in the North Gallery.

What part of your job do you like best?

I feel like I learn something new every day – either about how libraries and archives work or history! I consider myself a lifelong learner, so having constant interactions with a continuously growing knowledge resource is fantastic.

What do you have on your desk?

I’ve got a small assortment of companions to help with processing – notably Gander the Magnetic Goose who holds on to the paperclips I find. Additionally, I’ve got both Calcifer the Fire Demon and Howl’s Heart from Howl’s Moving Castle, a magnetic Totoro, and a good luck tribble, if tribbles can be good luck signs.

Five small items in front of a sign that reads "Inking Station; No Original Materials on This Surface!"
Items on Molly’s desk. From left to right: Gander the Magnetic Goose, Howl’s Heart, a tribble, Calcifer the Fire Demon, and Totoro. Click image to enlarge.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I enjoy reading – primarily science fiction and fantasy – when I’m not at work. I’m currently trying to work my way through a rather large to-be-read pile that I had started before pursuing my undergraduate degree. Besides reading, I enjoy spending time with my dogs, writing, and playing board and card games.

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

Sometimes unexpected connections between collections appear, and when they do, don’t be afraid to explore those opportunities! They might be the key to expanding your research horizons or unlocking something previously unknown.

Molly James
Manuscripts Processor

Meet the KSRL Staff: Jaime Groetsema Saifi

October 4th, 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 Jaime Groetsema Saifi, who joined Spencer Research Library in 2022 as Assistant Librarian and Special Collections Cataloging Coordinator.

Young woman standing in front of trees, bushes, pink flowers, and a black wrought-iron fence.
Special Collections Cataloging Coordinator Jaime Groetsema Saifi. Click image to enlarge.

How did you come to work in Special Collections?

At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I studied in the Visual & Critical Studies department and engaged with theories in art history, social theory, and aesthetics that brought into question the meaning of visual objects. As a student worker in the John M. Flaxman Library, I learned about the importance of special collections and research libraries, like the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, then run by the great Doro Boehme, and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.

After graduating, I started my library career at the Newberry Library, an independent research library dedicated to the humanities. This experience gave me a firm grounding in what it means to work with unique, rare, and scarce materials; to engage with an international scholarly community; and to consider the ethical responsibilities librarians and archivists have to the public in supporting access to these materials.

Since then, I’ve continued working with special collections materials and archives at libraries in Chicago, Denver, and Boulder. I am excited to continue to work with special collections materials in Lawrence at the Spencer Research Library!

What does your job at Spencer entail?

As the Special Collections Cataloging Coordinator, I support a team of four rare materials catalogers and manage workflows for our Special Collections Cataloging Unit. I enjoy working across the Spencer Research Library with Curators and colleagues in Conservation and Public Services, to ensure our collections are well-described and accessible.

A row of book shelves; many have books or archival boxes on them.
Collection materials at Spencer Research Library waiting to be processed and cataloged. Click on image to enlarge.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on the epistemological intersections of materiality, artifact, and environment and is concerned with the ways that (visual) evidence and language work together to transmute meaning. I am most interested in how pairings and double-meanings shape and question memory. To that end, I work with materials from antiquity through the contemporary period that come out of counter-cultural movements, very broadly defined.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I love to play pinball, draw, drink coffee, watch art films, and read.

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

My advice to a researcher visiting Spencer Research Library for the first time is to take a stroll through the North Gallery and Exhibit Space to view our permanent and rotating exhibitions. They will give you a small glimpse into the expansive, important, and complex collections, both new and old, that the Spencer Research Library provides public access to. On your way out, pick up a Spencer 50th Anniversary exhibit catalog to learn more and celebrate your visit.

Jaime Groetsema Saifi
Special Collections Cataloging Coordinator

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

Student Spotlight: Mileiny Hermosillo

November 9th, 2021

This is the first installment in a new 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 Mileiny Hermosillo, who started working in Spencer’s manuscript processing unit in Fall 2018. Mileiny is an undergraduate majoring in English with a minor in business; she is graduating from KU in December 2021.

Young woman sitting at a table and holding up a sepia-toned headshot photograph of a woman in profile.
Manuscripts processing student assistant Mileiny Hermosillo working with glass plate negatives, Spring 2021. Click image to enlarge.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

My job as a manuscript processor involves getting collections ready for researchers to use and creating finding aids so researchers can access the information.

Why did you want to work at Spencer Research Library?

During high school I worked at a public library as a page and, later, a circulation manager. I loved the atmosphere (especially the quietness), but my favorite aspect of the job was the organizational element. When the day was slow, I would head over to the shelves and alphabetize books. It was a fun way to explore the library’s selection of books and discover titles I never would have thought of reading.

When I was searching for a job at KU, I sought out library positions because of my experience. The role of a manuscript processor seemed intriguing. I genuinely did not know what type of materials I would be working with, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.

What has been most interesting to you about your work? 

Every project is like a puzzle, especially the larger collections. At the start of each project, it is hard to see the connections. With each document and photograph I slowly understand the intricate details of an artist’s work or the special moments of a person’s life. I feel a connection to each project because I catch a glimpse of past personal lives and experiences.

What part of your job do you like best?

One of the most satisfying parts about my job is completing a collection project and feeling invested in the final results. One of my favorite projects was collaborating with a staff member on the Leonard Hollmann photograph collection. I sorted through over a thousand cabinet cards and stereoviews (also known as stereographs) of towns, settlements, and people across Kansas. It was such a large collection that it took me two semesters to finish! Later I got a chance to help put some of the photos on exhibit in a temporary display case in the North Gallery. Seeing each photograph was like seeing an old friend.

Young woman standing behind a large table covered with stacks of stereoviews, which are turned upside down.
Mileiny sorted thousands of cabinet cards and stereoviews by photographer name for a collections project in February 2019. Here are the sorted stereoviews! Click image to enlarge.

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

I recommend applying because getting to work with the collections is rewarding. I get to process photographs from photography studios, documents of people’s personal lives, and even records of KU professors. Working at Spencer does not seem like a job. It is a place to discover stories from KU, Kansas, and the Midwest.

Mileiny Hermosillo
Manuscripts Processing Student Assistant

My Life with Lillian: The Year (And Then Some) I Spent Transcribing MS B173

July 14th, 2021

Last July, I mentioned in our ‘Spencer Public Services Working from Home’ blog post that one of my work from home projects was creating transcriptions of some of our handwritten collection materials. Well readers, a year later here is the follow-up on one of those transcriptions – the Lillian North diary – and a bit of the story of how a New York suffragist helped me through the pandemic.

Photograph of the first page of Lillian North’s diary with entries from January 1 and 2, 1915.
The first page of Lillian’s diary with entries from January 1 and 2, 1915. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

Who was Lillian North?

Lillian was born on August 17, 1881, in Stafford, New York, to parents George and Mary Thomas Radley. On September 26, 1906, Lillian married Frank North, a farmer. They were married for fifty-seven years before Frank’s death in October 1963.

Lillian’s diary entries span from January 1, 1915, to May 14, 1917, and detail her day-to-day life as a homemaker and farm wife. Her days were full of activity: cleaning and improving the house, washing and mending clothes, baking bread and pies, canning pickles and strawberries, and churning her prize-winning butter. I can confirm that I was motivated to clean on more than one occasion after working on this transcription; you would be, too, after reading about Lillian cleaning daily while your dishes stared at you from the kitchen sink.

Photograph of the entries in Lillian North's diary from September 21 and 22, 1916.
Entries in Lillian’s diary from September 21 and 22, 1916. She mentions spending the day at the suffrage tent at the fair and her butter being named first premium. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

Outside of her work managing the home and helping on the farm, Lillian attended social engagements and community events almost every week. In her diary she recounts automobile rides and dinners with friends, visiting with her mother and sisters, weekly church, and listening to various speakers and concerts in the area. She frequently attended meetings for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Ladies Aid Society, and The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well – attending meetings and talks and even campaigning for the cause. It was her work as a suffragist that initially introduced me to her diary while I was conducting research for other projects related to the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Photograph of Lillian North's diary entry from October 13, 1915.
Photograph of Lillian North's diary entry from October 13, 1915.
Lillian’s entry from October 13, 1915, highlights a suffrage lecture given by Mrs. Phillip Snowden of London and Mrs. Keating from Colorado. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click images to enlarge.

Where did this project take me?

Working on this transcription took me on a bit of a journey; I found myself embroiled in some side research projects I was not expecting to do when I started. While the diary provides extensive details about Lillian’s day-to-day life for over two years, there was so much more I wanted to know about her and her family beyond 1917 when the diary ends. I began researching, trying to find whatever I could find based on the information in the diary, our published finding aid, and our records from when the diary was acquired. Eventually, I tracked down obituaries for Lillian, Frank, and Lillian’s mother Mary Radley via Newspapers.com.

In addition to wanting to know more about Lillian, my curiosity was piqued about some of the acronyms and abbreviations in the diary. What did all of them mean? Several of them I deciphered fairly quickly with the help of some online resources. Others were not so easy to interpret or did not seem to be related to any organizations I could find. By taking clues from the context in which these acronyms appeared and some additional research, I was able to make some guesses about possible meanings, but questions still abound.

All of these side projects did lead somewhere beyond satisfying my own curiosity: The additional information gleaned from the obituaries allowed us to update the biographical information in our online finding aid – providing a more accurate picture of Lillian’s life and family. We also added the list of possible meanings for the acronyms and abbreviations in hopes that this would help future researchers who are interested in the diary and Lillian’s many activities and organizations.

Photograph of Lillian North’s obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), December 19, 1963.
Lillian North’s obituary in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), December 19, 1963. Courtesy Newspapers.com. Click image to enlarge.

Why did it take over a year to transcribe one item?

Now, I know many of you are probably wondering how I am just now finishing the transcription of Lillian’s diary – a full year after that initial blog post. After all, this is not the first item I have transcribed so this should be a faster process, right? Well, here are a few details to consider:

It’s a long story: Lillian’s diary is not quite like the other items the staff at Spencer have transcribed. We typically focus on transcribing shorter documents, primarily letters. Lillian wrote daily in her diary for over two years; there are over 700 entries and roughly 200 pages to transcribe. It was only because of the pandemic and working from home that I even had time to take on a transcription project of this scope. No matter how fast I worked, this was going to be a long project.

Handwritten = hard: Reading someone’s handwriting can be a challenge (how many of us frequently wonder if our doctors are writing actual words on those prescription pads?). Add in factors like age, access, and series of acronyms and abbreviations and, suddenly, handwriting can become practically indecipherable. You have to learn to look for patterns in how someone shapes their letters and rely on context clues frequently – a process that takes time to do.

Photograph of entries in Lillian North's diary from June 23, 25, and 27, 1916.
Entries in Lillian’s diary from June 23, 25, and 27, 1916. These more crowded pages show some of the reading difficulties associated with this transcription, including Lillian’s use of abbreviations. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

There is only one of me: Working on transcriptions was only one of my work from home projects during the pandemic. I was also revising training documents, updating instruction plans, participating in professional development opportunities, and conducting research and creating content for other projects, most notably other blog posts and an online exhibit – to name a few things. Some of these activities had scheduled times and due dates; creating a transcription for general use did not so it was the project to fill hours and provide breaks instead of the top priority.

Opening up: Spencer Research Library re-opened at the beginning of the school year in August! With the re-opening came an end to my full-time work from home status. I was back in the building several days a week and helping with paging, shelving, reference, and instruction. Even though I was still working from home some days, my focus shifted to other projects that supported what was happening onsite. Again, a transcription without any specific deadline was moved to the back burner more often than not.

Saying good-bye: The world turned upside down in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unimaginable stress, trauma, and heartbreak to so many. In the last year and half many lost their lives, their livelihood, and their loved ones. I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to continue working and that my family and friends were largely spared from any serious health issues related to COVID-19. However, that does not mean 2020 was without difficulties for me – particularly related to mental and emotional health.

I live by myself in a one-bedroom apartment. Honestly, I am quite the homebody and pretty introverted so prolonged periods of time in my own space and on my own are welcome. But despite my introverted tendencies, I also have people I enjoy seeing and spending time with regularly – family, friends, colleagues. And then poof! I really could not see anyone, especially not frequently, for quite some time. That gets lonely after a while and I could feel the effects. All of this was on top of the anxiety I was feeling about work and school and life in general during the pandemic.

During that time Lillian’s diary became a distraction from the uncertainty and isolation I was experiencing. After reading increasingly grim outlooks on public health, I could turn to this diary and read about Lillian taking the family horse to get re-shoed or working on a sewing project with a friend. Reading and transcribing Lillian’s diary was like talking with one of my friends about their week when our lives were not consumed by COVID-19; it was a welcome break. As time went on and I became more invested in Lillian’s life, I began to procrastinate on this project – prolonging the point when I would finish the transcription and lose this source of comfort at a time when I really needed it.

Photograph of the last page of Lillian North’s diary, 1917.
The last page of Lillian’s diary, written on the inside of the back cover. Lillian North Diary. Call Number: MS B173. Click image to enlarge.

At the end of Lillian’s diary, she ran out of pages and began writing on the inside of the cover. Why? The reason is likely pretty practical – to save money, to use up all the available space, etc. – but the appearance gives the sense that she was trying to put off saying good-bye to this little book for as long as possible. It is a feeling I am all too familiar with as I reach the end of this project and, more importantly, my life with Lillian.

Emily Beran
Public Services