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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.

A Conservator Working From Home Part 3: Approaching “Normal”

July 20th, 2021

Over a year ago, I wrote about how working from home was going for me, about three months into the COVID19 pandemic. I was spending my time doing a lot of online professional development, attending Zoom meetings, interacting on social media, and working on small hands-on projects. 

A split-screen image showing a screenshot of a Zoom call on the left, with a small child visible in the window next to the author, and a kitchen table at the right, with a school-age child working on an iPad next to the author's laptop and notebook.
Two familiar working from home scenes: small children in Zoom calls, and co-working with a remote-schooler.

Soon after that post was published, the Conservation Services team began our careful transition back to working on-site. In mid-June of 2020, I began going to the lab for a single 4-hour shift each week. Starting very slowly allowed us to establish safety practices and get a sense of our comfort level with in-person work at a time in the pandemic when it seemed there were still more questions than answers about how the virus was transmitted. We wore masks and put an extra focus on hand hygiene, and staggered our lab shifts to reduce the number of people working at a time. Our large lab space also made it possible to keep a safe distance from one another. Even with all the uncertainty, I was grateful not only to still have my job, but to be back in the lab, working directly with the collections once again.

The following month, I increased my lab time to four 4-hour shifts per week, and maintained that schedule through the rest of 2020. I continued my professional development activities during work-at-home time, attending hundreds of hours worth of webinars and lectures, in addition to lots of reading. The annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) was held completely online last year, so I was able to attend many more presentations at this conference than I would have if it were held in person. In addition, I filled much of my at-home time from September through December working on an online Chemistry for Conservators course.

In January 2021, I added a fifth 4-hour shift to my schedule, bringing my lab time to 20 hours per week. At-home time continued to be filled with emails, meetings, lots of reading, and more online professional development, including another virtual AIC annual meeting. Then, in May, I moved to working four full days in the lab and one day at home per week. The types of activities I do at home are the same, I’m just doing less of them – and I’m so happy to be working in the lab more. It’s very satisfying to be filling my log sheets with treatment records, and to see my production statistics adding up again. For reference, here’s a comparison of my second quarter statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021. I was able to complete a small number of treatments after our part-time return toward the end of June 2020, but my 2021 numbers are much closer to normal – a welcome and hopeful development.

Three circle charts comparing second quarter production statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Three circle charts comparing second quarter production statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021. Stats for Q2 of 2020 show the impact of working from home for all but about two weeks of that quarter.

While questions remain about what the fall semester will look like this year, and the pandemic is not over by any measure, the experience of the last 15 months has shown that it’s possible to adapt conservation work to extraordinary circumstances. Now that I’m back in the lab nearly full-time, I have a new appreciation for the privilege of being able to do this work, and especially for the people I work with and the supportive environment that they create in our workplace. 

Angela Andres, Special Collections Conservator

Spencer Public Services Working from Home

July 14th, 2020

Spencer Research Library has been closed since March due to the coronavirus, with in-person services unavailable and staff members working from home with little or no access to physical collection materials. So, what do librarians in a unit with “public” in it’s title do when the building is closed to the public? The answer is to continue serving patrons remotely as best as we can while working on myriad behind-the-scenes projects that will hopefully benefit users long after the current pandemic.

Even though we have not been able to interact with our library patrons face-to-face for several months, our underlying purpose remains the same: providing high-quality services that encourage and welcome users to engage with Spencer librarians and collections in ways they find interesting, exciting, thought-provoking, and meaningful.

Read on to see what each member of the Public Services team has been working on from home.

Caitlin Donnelly Klepper, Head of Public Services

What have you been working on?

Since March, I have taken over the daily monitoring of Spencer’s reference email account (, answering some research queries and forwarding others to colleagues. Like my coworkers, I’ve also attended a good number of KU, KU Libraries, and Spencer Research Library meetings, town halls, and virtual updates. While some are new since covid-19, most others are Zoom and phone versions of the in-person meetings I would normally attend.

My other projects have included cleaning up statistics and corresponding reports, updating the Spencer website, catching up on a backlog of professional reading, and clearing out my email inbox. I’ve also attended many webinars and other online professional development opportunities. This month, much of my focus has shifted toward working with colleagues to develop plans for reopening Spencer’s Reading Room and providing instruction this fall.

Why is this work important to the library?

Much of my work at home has directly or indirectly helped maintain some of Spencer’s core operations; other projects have contributed to new initiatives at the Libraries and improved my personal ability to better serve our users.

What will you miss about working from home when we return to Spencer?

My husband and I purchased our first home in early March, and despite the current circumstances I’ve appreciated getting to spend so much time enjoying our new space. I’ll miss things being able to do things like eating at my desk and taking periodic breaks throughout the day to tackle some housework or walk on the treadmill.

Photograph of the view from Caitlin's home workspace
The view from Caitlin’s home workspace. Click image to enlarge.

Meredith Phares, Spencer Research Library Operations Manager

What have you been working on?

I have been working on a legacy project of our individual photo collections in the Kansas Collection. There are roughly 2,500 images that do not have a finding aid or catalog record. Patrons can only access these photos by reviewing a three-inch three-ring binder full of dividers and charts that is located in our Reading Room. I’ve been entering the details about these images into our ArchivesSpace database; from there, Manuscripts Coordinator Marcella Huggard and her team can take the information and create finding aids and catalog records. 

When I have had enough of data entry, I have been working on a training manual for our Public Services student assistants, along with data cleanup in our Aeon system, which tracks the circulation of Spencer materials. 

Since late April, I have been able to work in Spencer a couple of hours each week. I have kept up on my temperature and relative humidity monitoring of the stacks and have been able to get some stacks projects accomplished.

Why is this work important to the library?

Entering our individual photo collections into ArchivesSpace gets us a step closer to having our photograph collections more accessible. Data cleanup in Aeon allows me to be sure everything has been re-shelved correctly after it’s been used by researchers and staff members. Regular monitoring of our stacks environment is essential for the safety and preservation of our collections.

What will you miss about working from home when we return to Spencer?

I commute from Topeka, so I will miss the quick commute to my living room, the flexible work schedule, and spending time with my newly-adopted dog Edgar. He has been my companion and entertainment since March. 

Photograph of Meredith with her dog Edgar
Meredith with her dog Edgar. Click image to enlarge.

Emily Beran, Library Assistant

What have you been working on?

While Spencer Research Library has been closed, I have had the opportunity to work on projects that I normally would not have time to do. One of the most notable ones has been creating transcriptions for some materials in our manuscript collections. Transcriptions are typed copies of handwritten documents. Currently, my favorite transcription I am working on is for the diary of New York suffragist Lillian North. The diary covers her daily life from 1915 into 1917; it not only provides great insight into her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement but also gives readers such a fun look at her life and what she considered important.

Why is this work important to the library?

While our manuscript collections are invaluable sources of information, some of them can be hard for researchers to read and work with because the documents are handwritten. Transcriptions provide a more readable version of these handwritten documents, making the information more accessible for researchers. Additionally, by having transcriptions, we can utilize these documents for more activities (classes, tours, etc.) where being able to read something quickly is necessary because time is limited.

What will you miss about working from home when we return to Spencer?

I am not a morning person so the ability to sleep in and start working later in the day has been great for me. Also, the schedule flexibility really has allowed me to work on projects when I can be the most productive and focused – evenings, weekends, when I can’t sleep, etc. So while I am excited to be back in Spencer, I will miss the extra sleep and that scheduling freedom!

A portion of Emily's transcription project
A portion of Emily’s transcription project. Click image to enlarge.

Kathy Lafferty, Copy Services Manager

What have you been working on?

Since Spencer closed in March, I’ve processed fifty-six copy requests submitted by patron and fourteen inter-library loan requests by going in to the library building once, and sometimes twice, each week.

Additionally, I created an online version of “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic at KU,” which began as a temporary exhibit in Spencer’s North Gallery. I was able to add a lot more information because I had more space and time to do extensive online research. I have also written two blog posts, one for Mother’s Day and another for Father’s Day. For the Father’s Day blog, I used photographs from the Joseph Pennell Collection that are available online and did some online research to find out more information about the subjects in the photographs.

Up next is completing a new online version of the Library’s twenty-fifth anniversary exhibit catalog.

Why is this work important to the library?

The Libraries are trying hard to minimize obstructions to research support and provide access to library materials during the pandemic shutdown. By working from home and going in when I can, I am doing my part to contribute to that effort.

What will you miss about working from home when we return to Spencer?

I will miss my cat, Knick, snuggling next to me while I work. I will also miss eating at my desk and setting my own schedule. I will miss working from home, but it will be good to be back in the library full-time.

Photograph of Kathy and her cat Buzz
Kathy and her cat Buzz. Click image to enlarge.

Shelby Schellenger, Reference Coordinator

What have you been working on?

I’ve been working on all sorts of things…which is largely part of my job in any case. I’ve been working with digital reference, reviewing training documents, watching professional development webinars, and more. One of the things I do now that I don’t enjoy is telling people that we’ll be later than usual in getting their research questions answered due to decreased access to the physical collections. 

Why is this work important to the library? 

This work is important to the library because serving the research and reference needs of students, faculty, and the public is an integral part of library operations. What I’m doing from home is that reference or working to improve our ability to do that reference. 

What will you miss about working from home when we return to Spencer?

I think I will miss being able to do my daily work with music playing. I like being able to play music to match my mood/activities and that isn’t practical in the quiet Reading Room environment! 

Photograph of Shelby's at-home coworkers Nikolai and Wallace
Shelby’s at-home coworkers Nikolai and Wallace. Click image to enlarge.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Working from Home Without Manuscripts or Rare Books

June 24th, 2020

During Covid-19 isolation, our team in the cataloging and processing department at Kenneth Spencer Research Library has been busy working from home. Instead of working hands-on with the rare books and manuscripts, like we normally do, we have been working on our databases and other online sources to ensure that our all of our material is easily searchable and discoverable for researchers and scholars, not only here in Kansas, but worldwide. This work is important to the mission of the library.

Five professionals from the cataloging and processing department share their working-from-home experience.

Marcella Huggard, Manuscripts Coordinator

What are you working on?

I am continuing to coordinate my team’s projects of data cleanup or data creation for legacy collections that never had online finding aids; I’m also coordinating other folks’ work on legacy data projects. One of my own cleanup projects—consolidating finding aids that had been separated when they were first put online, due to descriptive decisions made at the time that no longer hold true—is something I’ve been wanting to focus on for a couple years now. I have also been working on a research project to document the history of the Menninger Foundation’s archives.

Why is this work important to the library?

The projects that I’m coordinating and working on myself continue to enhance access to our manuscript collections, so that when researchers request materials they’ll have a better sense of what we have available, and they’ll be able to find that information that much more easily in an era where expectations are that information will be discoverable online.

What will you miss from home when we go back to work in the Spencer building?

Sleeping in an extra hour! I will also miss the scheduling flexibility.

Photograph of Marcella and Salty Bear
Marcella’s new co-worker, Salty (short for Salted Caramel) Bear. “My spouse, a teddy bear himself, likes to buy me teddy bears; he got me this one soon after I started working from home.” Click image to enlarge.

Mike Readinger, Special Collections and Manuscript Cataloger

What are you working on?

I am working on ArchivesSpace database clean-up and creating bibliographic records for the legacy finding aids. In the early 2000s, we switched from using card files. Thousands of records in Voyager (the old, though still in use, KU Libraries online catalog) were created using these bibliographic cards. Those records were brief, so now I am using this time to create more complete records.

Why is this work important to the library?

These completed records will be put on OCLC WorldCat. The work done in cataloging and processing is the first step in letting the whole world know what we have. We make the information known, then our great reference staff can serve the scholars and researchers.

What will you miss from home when we go back to work in the Spencer building?

Right now, I have my home office set up in our basement. I can run upstairs to get dinner started, then come back down and keep working. I like the ease of doing those kinds of things.

Photograph of Mike and his supervisor
Mike and his supervisor look out the window in Mike’s home office. Click image to enlarge.

Jennifer Johnson, Manager of the Non-Manuscript and Inventory Unit

What are you working on?

I am editing and creating personal name authorities and name/subject headings for the library catalog. Plus, I have been removing duplicate records from the catalog.

Why is this important to the library?

Authority control is important because it creates organization and structure of information resources, making the materials more accessible, allowing better researching for the users.

What will you miss from home when we go back to work in the Spencer building?

I love working from home! I really enjoy being able to go grab something to eat or drink. I work by a window that I can open. I’ll also miss being able to switch tasks, for example, I can do the dishes at lunchtime. And I love getting to see my son more often!

Photograph of Jennifer and her dog

Jennifer’s loyal co-worker. Click image to enlarge.

Mary Ann Baker, Special Collections and Manuscript Processor

What are you working on?

I have been working on the Access database listing of The Miscellany part of the English Historical Documents Collection. Almost all the manuscripts in this collection were acquired in the late 1960s. Over all the decades that these collections have been worked on, data transference from one program to another has resulted in some data corruption. For example, the pound symbol (£) turned into an umlauted u (ü). So, I have been cleaning up the errors and expanding abbreviations to prepare the database for publication as part of the finding aid for the Miscellany Collection. 

Why is this important to the library?

Working on this collection contributes to making Spencer Library’s holdings known globally and accessible to all, one of the goals of the KU Libraries.

What will you miss from home when we go back to work in the Spencer building?  

Naps at their will. I will not miss Zoom meetings.


Lynn Ward, Manuscripts Processing

What are you working on?

I have been working on projects to clean-up and refine the information in our archives database, ArchivesSpace. I added “containers” to hundreds of the earlier resources that lacked box or volume information. I also have been adding collection inventory information directly to the ArchivesSpace resource; this information had previously only been available via a link to a separate scanned PDF document.

Why is this important to the library?

Adding “containers” makes it possible for researchers to request the material, which helps our reference staff to connect researchers with what they need. Adding the inventory information from the PDF to the resource makes the information more discoverable for researchers and scholars when they search online.

What will you miss from home when we go back to work in the Spencer building?

I have really been enjoying the extra time with my family, so I will miss that when I go back to working in the building.

Photograph of Lynn and her dog

Lynn’s co-worker requires daily walks. Click image to enlarge.

The work described above is important to the library’s mission.

All of the faculty and staff working at the Spencer Research Library share one mission: to connect scholars in varied disciplines with the information that is critical to their research, while providing excellent services in a welcoming and comfortable environment.

The work in the cataloging and processing department is an important step to that mission. Even while we are enjoying different aspects about working from home during Covid-19, we are continuing to work hard to make sure scholars and researchers can search, find, and connect with the information contained in Spencer Research Library’s collections.

Lynn Ward
Processing Archivist

A Conservator Working from Home, Continued

June 9th, 2020

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since we began working from home. Since March 18, most University of Kansas employees have been working away from campus as we do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. I wrote about how I filled my time for the first month of work-at-home back in April; it’s now June, so I thought I would check in with an update. 

Much like the first month of working from home, I’ve spent most of my time doing online learning, development, and outreach activities, with Zoom meetings and some hands-on work rounding out the mix. 

In the professional development area, I’ve attended or viewed no fewer than 18 webinars, online forums, and recorded talks on topics ranging from preservation and conservation, of course, to social justice, wellness, and all things COVID-19 related. Highlights for me have been the series of conservation webinars sponsored by ICON, the professional organization for conservators in the UK; these talks have given me lots of ideas to follow up on when a more “normal” way of working returns. I have also been enjoying attending the virtual AIC – that is the American Institute for Conservation – annual meeting. And an especially powerful Zoom panel hosted by USC on supporting black employees and colleagues provided an intensely personal view, unfiltered by media accounts or editorializing, of how the culture of racial injustice in our country affects black people every day. This most recent national outpouring of emotion about racial injustice has led me to commit consciously to doing my own work to educate myself about racial inequality and to seek out ways in which I can be an anti-racist ally in both my personal and professional life.

Three infographics showing statistics related to the productivity of student employees in Conservation Services department of KU Libraries.
I created these infographics (using the free online software Piktochart) to celebrate the amazing contribution that our student employees make to the work of Conservation Services and the Libraries. Click image to enlarge.

I have also been spending time online posting to social media (you can find me @midwestconservator on both Instagram and Tumblr) about what I’m working on at home, and following other conservators and library professionals who are also sharing their remote work activities. Preservation Week was April 26-May 2, and I had a lot of fun designing a series of special infographics to share during that week, focusing on the incredible volume and variety of work done by student employees in the Conservation Services department. I’ve stayed in touch and engaged with my colleagues in the Libraries and the conservation field through a lot of Zoom meetings as well as good old-fashioned emails and phones calls!

A small book lies on a cutting mat; the book is bound in the limp binding style, with a laced paper case, green and yellow endbands, and a fore-edge tie closure.
One of the limp binding models I have made while working from home, this one with a laced pastepaper cover and green and yellow endbands. Click image to enlarge.
A handmade cloth face mask sits on a tabletop next to a sewing machine and other sewing supplies.
One of several face masks that I made in preparation for an eventual return to working in the lab. Click image to enlarge.

To balance all that online time, I’ve kept up with some hands-on projects, with my kitchen table serving as both office and workbench. I’ve been making some small models of limp bindings, and doing a lot of reading to go along with those. I’ve sewn some denim covers for bag weights, and made a small book futon to use at my bench in the lab. I also made myself a pile of masks to wear when I return to working in the lab. The return to campus will be phased, and early stages will certainly require use of face coverings in shared spaces such as the conservation lab. 

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services

What Remote Work Looks Like for a Conservator

April 30th, 2020

Working at home has become the new normal for many of us since around mid-March, when a national state of emergency was declared because of the novel coronavirus (COVID19) and many states, counties, and municipalities began to issue stay-at-home orders. Essential workers have been doing an amazing job keeping services functioning and supplies in stock, and of course health care workers are fighting the virus at great personal risk every day. 

For those of us deemed non-essential, staying home and following public health advice is the number one thing we can do to support our essential workers, and to combat the spread of COVID19. After that, the next best thing we can do is take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors while maintaining good hygiene and safe distance. After THAT, we can help by continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability in these challenging circumstances. For some people, work at home might not look a whole lot different from how it looks in their workplace. Others, including many of us conservators, are finding our days looking radically different from a typical day in the lab.

In pre-COVID19 times, a regular day for a conservator probably consisted mostly of doing treatment and other hands-on work at the bench, with a smaller amount of time spent on an assortment of other activities such as email, research and reading, writing, outreach, meetings and committee work, collection surveys, and so many more “other duties as required.” In our new work-at-home reality, the “other duties” now make up the bulk of our work days. Some conservators may have the space and equipment to do treatments at home; I have seen examples of this on social media, although in these cases the treatments are limited to general collections materials. Conservators who work on rare books, special collections, and archival materials (or on museum collections of almost any kind) do not have the option to bring those materials home. There are other hands-on activities that conservators can do that do not require access to collections, such as practicing sewing end bands or making bookbinding models. Many conservators have put their hand skills to work sewing masks for donation to health care workers and community organizations. 

Prior to the emergency declaration, when it was becoming clear that widespread closures were likely, the conservation community began to collect ideas for activities that conservators could do while working from home. Conservators from around the world contributed ideas – everything from webinars and professional development opportunities to free online learning resources and links to articles and video tutorials. I have referred to this list often as I put together my daily work-at-home tasks. 

So, what does working at home look like for me? I will say that the one thing that working at home has in common with working in the lab it that every day is different! About five weeks in, I have fallen into something of a rough routine, but because I have a three-year-old, a first grader who is doing remote learning, and a spouse who is also working from home, it’s necessary to keep my schedule flexible to adjust to the needs of my “coworkers.” 

On the first day of remote work, I took that list that my conservation colleagues had compiled and spent some time sorting it into categories – webinars, online courses, lectures, articles, wellness, and so on. I deleted things that I’d already done or were not applicable, and highlighted those that were of greater interest. I also added a few projects that were already underway and could be continued (at least partially) from home, and brainstormed some new ideas for projects that I could start. 

Working from this list, I set about making a to-do list for each day that includes basics like checking email and posting to social media, and a few items from the master list of activities. It’s a good day if I can get everything checked off that day’s list, and most days I do. I’m an early riser, and now that I don’t have a commute, I’m able to start my day earlier to get ahead of things. Once the kids are up and fed, my first grader and I sit at the table and work side by side; he’s mostly gotten the hang of the online learning technology so I just help keep him on task and guide him when he’s stumped. When he’s done for the day, I usually have about an hour more of work time until lunch, and family lunches are definitely a highlight of working from home, especially now that the weather is pleasant enough that we can eat outside on the patio. In the afternoon, I’ll continue to work on my list of activities while navigating sibling politics and keeping them supplied with snacks and activities of their own. The mute function on Zoom is certainly my good friend these days! 

Two children color with pens and crayons at a kitchen table.
My kids often keep me company while I work at the kitchen table.

That’s how I’ve been working – but what have I been working on? By my count as of Friday, April 17, I’ve watched 9 webinars and 4 archived videos of past presentations or conferences, attended 10 Zoom meetings, read 15 book chapters and 3 articles, posted to social media 39 times*, taken 3 online courses, sewn 26 masks to donate, and followed along on 2 e-forums. I have also been working on 4 projects in various stages of development, including writing up instructions for an oversized book enclosure and a custom cradle for digitization of manuscripts; a research project about training students who work in special collections; and a possible book arts video series. Later this week I will be going in to Spencer when my colleague will be there doing a regular building check; it will be good to see the lab, and I plan to collect some tools, materials, and books to help with some projects I am dreaming up, including models of some binding structures I haven’t tried before.

A pile of handmade cloth face masks.
One of my work-at-home activities was sewing cloth face masks to donate to local health workers. I followed a tip to use round shoelaces for ties due to the difficulty obtaining elastic.

Somewhere in each day, whether it’s after lunch, early in the morning, or at the end of the work day, I’ve been making time to walk, run, take a bike ride, or do yoga; these activities help me enormously when it comes to managing the stress and uncertainty of this time. I’ve been grateful for the wealth of self-care resources that colleagues have shared, and for all the personal accounts of how people are dealing with this situation; knowing that I am not alone when I’m feeling a little at sea is so helpful. While I miss my colleagues and at the lab very much, I am heartened by the collective effort we are making along with the rest of the world – to have even a small part in a truly global effort is really quite inspiring. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are staying safe, taking care, and keeping your sights set on what’s good in the world.

A father and two children on a walk in a residential neighborhood.
Most work-at-home days end with a family walk around the neighborhood.

*There is a robust and lively social media community of libraries, archives, museums, conservation professionals, and other cultural heritage institutions and workers. Find me on Instagram and Tumblr as @midwestconservator. Spencer’s Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher, N. Kivilcim Yavuz, is also on Instagram as @manuscriptsetc, posting about Spencer’s manuscript collections every day while we are closed. Be well, y’all!

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services