Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Meet the KSRL Staff: Beth Whittaker

June 8th, 2015

This is the third installment in what will be a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. In this post we posit questions to Beth Whittaker, Assistant Dean for Distinctive Collections and Director of Spencer Research Library.

Beth Whittaker portrait

Beth M. Whittaker

Where are you from?

I grew up in Overland Park, KS, attended KU, and have lived several different places before returning to Lawrence.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

My position description says I “provide leadership, vision, and direction for the distinctive collections programs, services, and resources of the Libraries, enhancing and promoting the unique research, teaching, and learning opportunities these collections offer.”

Essentially I am here to help my colleagues get what they need to make our collections available for students, scholars, and the public. I set priorities and help get exciting initiatives off the ground.

How did you come to work in special collections and archives?

I actually began working in special collections as a student assistant here at the Spencer over twenty years ago. I came in one day to examine a manuscript for my master’s thesis, and I saw a job announcement. Within a year, I decided that special collections libraries were where I wanted to be. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in several different libraries before returning to where it all began, the Kenneth Spencer Research Library!

What part of your job do you like best?

I get to tell the story of the Spencer Library every day, in some way or another. I love talking to people; no one who knows me would argue with that!

What are your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I love being outdoors, and am an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer around the house. I spend most of my time outside of work with my family. I’m also very excited when I can get somewhere on my new scooter.

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

Probably what I’m sure most of my colleagues have said in previous posts: we are here to help. I remember what it’s like the first time you walk into a research library like this. These are YOUR collections as much as they are ours.

Beth M. Whittaker
Assistant Dean for Distinctive Collections
Director of Spencer Research Library


Spencer Library Guest Book

May 1st, 2014

Many visitors to Spencer Research Library walk straight into the Marilyn Stokstad Reading room, a classroom, or the exhibit space, bypassing the elegant furnishings of the Spencer Lounge and missing completely the large and imposing ledger nestled in an 18th century secretary desk on the north wall. This book has served as the library’s guest book since the opening of the building in 1968.

Guest book at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Spencer Library guest book, located in the Spencer Lounge. Click image to enlarge.

Researchers who come to use the collections at the Spencer Library now use our Aeon system to register and make requests, and before that, a number of different paper forms recorded names, addresses, and call numbers. So the guest book was never an official document required for using the collection, but instead a ceremonial record of visitors.

The first page, with beautiful calligraphy attributed  to librarian Jim Helyar, marked the building’s opening on November 15th, 1968. Entries continue through 1974, when it was set aside from daily use. After a few blank pages, names, messages, and the occasional doodle resume, coinciding with its “rediscovery” and reinstatement in 2002.

Detail of guest book at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Guest book calligraphy on the first page. Click image to enlarge.

The first entries were clearly in pen, probably the same pen used throughout the opening celebration.  At least since 2009, and probably earlier, an iconic green “Spencer pencil” has sat aside it, although many guests do sign in (presumably their own) pen. We are in the process of ordering some pigment based pens to place conveniently at hand so that the inscriptions will endure as part of the history of the building.

Detail of guest book at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.     Detail of guest book at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Examples of guest signatures, including “Jesus Christ” (L) and an enthusiastic video gamer (R).
Click images to enlarge.

Like so many things in this inspiring building, the guest book is humbling. Distinguished visitors, scholars, and schoolchildren have walked through this place and left their mark. The pages are filling up again, and I hope to be able to place another, equally impressive volume, in its place. I began this project thinking I would highlight some of the most interesting entries. I was charmed by the young child from “SUMSET HILL” [sic] and intrigued by non-Roman scripts I could not even identify. I wondered what would motivate a person to draw a big heart around their name in such a formal setting, and I spent a lot of time looking for the name “Don Johnson,” who allegedly signed the book during his days as a student here at KU. In the end, although I could not pick a favorite, I spent much time leafing through the pages and I encourage you to do the same the next time you visit the library.

Beth M. Whittaker
Assistant Dean of Distinctive Collections
Director, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

The Littlest Researchers

May 23rd, 2013

For the last two years, I’ve had the joy of leading a tour for a group of very energetic library users, a group that will not need to create Aeon accounts, but does need to be reminded to use their walking feet. I’m talking about the Lawrence Community Nursery School, a cooperative preschool that has existed since the 1940s. In addition to being the school where my children attend(ed) preschool, LCNS has another special relationship with the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Like many community and civic organizations, the co-op gives their historical archives to the Kansas Collection. In fact, during the school’s last parent work day, I picked up a new accession of records that will soon be added to our collection (RH MS 616).

Lawrence Community Nursery School visit

Students from the Lawrence Community Nursery School examine historic
photograph albums from the Kansas Collection.

It’s always exciting, when giving a tour of the building, to see what holds a particular group’s attention. This is even more the case when the group in question has an average age of 4.5 years old. This year, fewer children wanted to touch the 4000 year old clay tablets than to page through the photo albums to see what the playground used to look like. The horn books, which generally elicit audible squeals once their purpose is understood, seemed strangely uninteresting this time around. And, of course, the 100 Years of Jayhawks: 1912-2012 exhibit, complete with cardboard Jayhawks, was hard to compete with.

I always remind our visitors that the collections we hold are theirs to use. And in some cases, such as the many community groups with which we work to document their essential work, the collections would not be possible without them in the first place. Looking at the faces of these eager children as they examine photographs of their beloved school from decades past, it’s hard not to feel excited about the future of our mission.

Beth M. Whittaker
Assistant Dean for Distinctive Collections and Director of Kenneth Spencer Research Library

History in a Bottle

April 18th, 2013

Those of you who have visited the Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the past few months have discovered that we are in the midst of another small renovation project. This time, we are renovating our processing spaces, where books, manuscript collections, and other items are described and prepared for use. Our collections keep growing, while the space we have for these essential activities does not, so we are removing some interior walls and opening up some spaces to allow us to house materials more efficiently before and during processing, and also to refresh staff spaces. There has been some noise and some other disruption, but work is well underway, and we look forward to great results.

As part of this process, the in-wall exhibit case that had once welcomed visitors into the  space when it was the Kansas Collection reading room was removed. One day a few weeks ago, KU Libraries Associate Dean Kent Miller arrived at my office door with a small glass bottle. The demolition crew had found it in INSIDE the wall as they took down the case, so it was obviously placed there during construction.

Image of whisky bottle found during construction at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.

This bottle of Grant’s Stand Fast Scotch (8 years old) is empty, but still has the tax sticker, and you can see a yellow notation of “238.” I have no idea what a half-pint of scotch costs now, so I’m not sure this would reasonably have been a price in the late 1960s—perhaps it means something entirely different. I am certainly not a historian of alcohol, international commerce, or product design. But I have been keeping this bottle in my office and thinking a lot about it lately as we continue to rethink the physical spaces that we inhabit.

First of all, this bottle was empty, so I’m wondering who drank it, and when. Was it a construction worker who brought it from home as a lark? Or was it consumed in situ? I have been told of a tradition where building workers leave behind something, like a mark that will be covered by paint, to claim their work. If this is the case, who could this bottle of scotch have served as a signature? Or perhaps a prankster staff member snuck it in during construction? Is the person who did this still in Lawrence, and have I unknowingly seen them at Dillon’s?

Forbidden substances, of course, have a colorful history in libraries, and the Spencer Library is no exception. We still prohibit food and drink in most areas, although we maintain a robust schedule of catered events, and our staff members have a comfortable break room as well. We are scrupulous about removing trash every day to discourage pests and protect collections even from a seemingly harmless glass of water. Smoking has been prohibited for decades, but I remember sneaking a smoke in what is now one of our classrooms when I was a student assistant, something that is inconceivable now. We certainly never would have expected whiskey-drinking construction workers to leave behind evidence, but we do still need to remind visitors that their Cokes and Skittles should be consumed outside.

I spend a lot of time imagining how these amazing spaces may evolve, and this small time capsule forces me to consider how it once was. The care and dedication and craftsmanship that led to this beautiful building reflects a time when even a utilitarian item like an alcohol bottle seems to have been created a little more carefully. The processes for printing both the duty stamp and the label itself were much more labor-intensive than in the computerized present. And while I celebrate the changes we have brought to make our library more functional, more inviting, and more comfortable, I’m tempted to raise a glass to the people who put that bottle in the wall forty-five years ago, reminding me of where we have been as we look towards where we want to go.

Beth M. Whittaker
Head of Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Vivat Liber!

December 13th, 2012

Here at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, we take for granted that when you say “Sandy,” people know who you mean. Alexandra (Sandy) Mason (1931-2011) was a distinguished librarian who served the University of Kansas from 1957 until her retirement in 1998. She built special collections of extraordinary research value, guided generations of scholars and librarians, was a leader in the Rare Books and Manuscript Section of the American Library Association, and received numerous awards for her lifetime of accomplishments. More information about her is available here.

In May, 1999, many of her colleagues and friends gathered in Lawrence to mark Sandy’s retirement with a series of tributes appropriately titled Vivat Liber (“Long live the book!”). Upon Sandy’s death, the idea of publishing these tributes again came to mind as a way to honor her memory. It is with great joy and pride that I announce the publication of Vivat Liber: Reflections Marking the Occasion of Alexandra Mason’s Retirement from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, which was made possible with the assistance of Stuart Roberts, Courtney Foat, Marianne Reed, and Brian Rosenblum.

Image of Cover of Vivat Liber Photograph of Sandy Mason, 1998
Left: Vivat Liber: Reflections Marking the Occasion of Alexandra Mason’s Retirement from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Editor: Beth M. Whittaker. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Libraries, 2012. Right: Sandy Mason. 8/14/1998. University Archives. Call Number: RG 41/0: Mason, Alexandra.

Click here to read Vivat Liber through KU Scholarworks.

Beth M. Whittaker
Head of Spencer Research Library