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.

Plants Between Leaves: The Long Lives of Preserved Plants in Library Shelves

July 2nd, 2024

Every rare books library, at its heart, is a graveyard of forests long lost: paper has dominated the process of making books since the 15th century in Europe, and earlier in Asia and the Islamic world, so that almost every shelf holds the lives of hundreds, thousands of different trees and plants that were repurposed into a different sort of leaves entirely.

But in a handful of volumes on Spencer’s shelves, we might find something closer to nature than wood and flax linen pulped and lined into thin sheets for writing: we can find actual plants. These volumes preserve the past between their pages in a particularly literal sense, sometimes containing once plentiful plants that are now endangered, even extinct, serving as a testament to the lost flora of centuries past. These books were created not only by botanists but by farmers and shopkeepers as well, spanning the breadth of relationships that people have with nature: as scientists, their efforts to dissect, study, catalog, and document them so perfectly and completely; as farmers, their efforts to tame them and domesticate them; and as artists, to transform them into new forms of beauty and preserved life.

Image of Cross sections of the American Chestnut from Romeyn Beck Hough's The American Woods (1888)

Cross sections of the American Chestnut, from Hough, Romeyn Beck. The American woods: Exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text. Lowville, N.Y.: Published and sections prepared by the author, 1888; Call Number: Pryce C11. The American Chestnut, once one of the most plentiful trees in the United States, was decimated by a fungal blight that killed 3-4 billion trees beginning in 1904, and now fewer than 10% of its original number survive.

Romeyn Beck Hough, author of The American Woods, took the idea of making a forest into a book quite literally: his work is not only a comprehensive representation of over 350 different species of trees that flourished across the late 19th- and early 20th-century American landscape, but a demonstration of a new technology of his own invention: he developed a cutter that could slice wood to 1/1200th of an inch, making slices of wood so thin they were translucent. The American Woods became a manifesto of wood samples: for each of the 350 species he included three different slices together with details of their botany, habit, medicinal and commercial uses. In total, the work consisted of 13 volumes, with a fourteenth published by his daughter using his notes after his death. Scientific illustration in Natural History already sought to recreate the details of living specimens in perfect detail and accuracy; through his wood samples in The American Woods, Hough took the next step in perfect replication.

Page containing specimens of Meadow Barley, Meadow Cattail (now called timothy hay), and Marsh Bent from Swayne's Gramina pascua (1790)

Specimens of Meadow Barley, Meadow Cattail (now called timothy hay), and Marsh Bent from Swayne, George. Gramina pascua: or, A collection of specimens of the common pasture grasses, arranged in the order of their flowering, and accompanied with their Linnæan and English names, as likewise with familiar descriptions and remarks. Bristol: Printed for the author, by London.: S. Bonner, Castle-Green; and sold by W. Richardson, Royal-Exchange, 1790; Call Number: Pryce H1. Timothy hay is now a common grass for cattle and horses, as well as small, domesticated pets, thanks to its high fiber content.

The Gramina Pascua, or A collection of specimens of the common pasture grasses, arranged in the order of their flowering was published in 1790 by Reverend George Swayne, a farmer, rather than a scientist. Swayne was a learned man, with two degrees from Oxford. In addition to serving as a vicar in Gloucester, England, he was active in the agricultural societies of the early 19th century, clubs that consisted of farmers and scientists dedicated to discussing practical and theoretical farming. Gramina Pascua had a more practical purpose to its scientific exploration of botany, however, as it was borne from a broader interest in the early 19th century in cultivating grasses in the meadowlands and pastures of Britain for grazing animals and harvesting for food. Between 1700 and 1850, agricultural output quintupled thanks to technological advances and studies that sought to understand and optimize farming, as was the case for Reverend Swayne and his Gramina Pascua.

ressed Flowers from Gethsemane, from Boulos Meo's Flowers from the Holy land. Carefully arranged (1888).

Pressed Flowers from Gethsemane, from Meo, Boulos. Flowers from the Holy land. Carefully arranged. Jerusalem: Printed and bound by Joseph Schor, 1888; Call Number: Pryce AK1. Gethsemane was a garden of olive trees across the Kidron Valley, where Jesus was said to have prayed before his arrest and crucifixion.

Boulos Meo was neither scientist nor farmer – no, he was a shopkeep in Jerusalem, at Jaffa Gate, one of the seven main gates of the Old City walls. Technically, neither was Boulos Meo an artist – he was merely the publisher and seller of Flowers from the Holy Land, whose artist remains unknown, whether it was Boulos himself or perhaps someone he knew.  Boulos Meo sold, at first, rugs, beginning in 1872, but eventually expanded to sell antiques, religious icons, jewelry, and souvenirs to tourists and pilgrims from around the world visiting the city. Christian pilgrims had brought tangible items back from their journeys for centuries – stones were among the most popular souvenirs from Jerusalem, with one stone from each holy site in the Stations of the Cross, a processional route across fourteen sites in Jerusalem, but fragments of flowers and plants were also common. Flowers from the Holy Land took that practice and transformed it into an artbook tied closely to the place of its making, where the descriptions of the flower arrangements included not the names of the flowers, but the names of the holy sites where they were gathered, to connect the physicality of the book – the flowers themselves, and not merely their visual nature – intrinsically with places of religious meaning. As a result, the book became an embodiment of the places named in the text, its flowers an echo of its pilgrim owner’s memories of the places they visited.

One beauty of these books is that no two are perfectly alike, for each slice of wood, every pressed flower is distinct from its brethren in another copy, even when the texts are identical. Some two hundred copies of The American Woods survive in libraries, but like fingerprints, their thin slivers of wood cannot perfectly match one another. A little more than ten copies of Gramina Pascua are held on library shelves, and twelve of Boulos Meo’s pressed flower books still survive in public collections, though perhaps more are tucked away on the shelves of descendants of the pilgrims who visited Palestine at the turn of the century, their flowers still delicately pressed between the pages.

On July 24th, and throughout the coming Fall and Spring semesters, the KU Libraries will be hosting a range of events focused on plants, botany, and gardening, including a Plant Swap event on July 24th, which will feature several books from Spencer making a voyage of their own from their shelves to 3 West in Watson to be featured side by side with their living, breathing plant counterparts. Visitors will be able to pick up a potted lavender plant and then browse a 1640 illustrated herbal to see how lavender has been a part of human life and study for over 400 years. And perhaps, if you are so inclined, you might pick a few leaves of your own plants, and press them between the pages of a book at home, for future generations to see how plants still interleaf with knowledge and learning today.

Eve Wolynes
Special Collections Curator


Brett, Jim. “Gramina Pascua,” in Collection Update, no. 15. Edited by Carol Goodger-Hill. Guelph, Canada: University of Guelph Library, 1992.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Gethsemane.” Encyclopedia Britannica, June 14, 2024.

Limor, Ora. “Earth, stone, water, and oil: Objects of veneration in Holy Land travel narratives,” in Natural Materials of the Holy Land and the Visual Translation of Place, 500-1500. Ed. By Renana Bartal, Neta Bodner, and Bianca Kühnel. Routledge: 2017. Pp. 3-18.

Pizga, Jessica. “Hough’s American Woods.” The New York Public Library, March 12, 2012.

Sharar, Adam Abu. “The Shop and Bab al-Khalil,” in Jerusalem Quarterly File, no. 15, Winter 2002. pp. 32-38.

Van Drunen, Stephen G.; Schutten, Kerry; Bowen, Christine; Boland, Greg J.; Husband, Brian C. (September 2017). “Population dynamics and the influence of blight on American chestnut at its northern range limit: Lessons for conservation”. Forest Ecology and Management. 400: 375–383.

From the Stacks to the Internet: Making Spencer’s Japanese Collections Accessible Through Digitization

March 20th, 2024

Projects in Spencer are rarely the work of a single individual; instead, they often involve drawing in individuals across all corners and departments of the library. And when you’re very lucky, you can even call in the cavalry and recruit outside help. This has been the case in one of our ongoing projects centering around digitizing – or creating online digital reproductions – of a subset of our Japanese materials.

Spencer is home to an exceptional collection of materials dedicated to Natural History and particularly to ornithology and the study of birds. Thanks to several substantial acquisitions in the 1960s, we now have an exciting and unique range of Japanese works of falconry and artwork of birds spanning from the early 16th through the early 20th centuries that stand as a bright jewel within our ornithological crown. Our ongoing digitization project aims to help bring these materials to a wider audience and to connect our collection to researchers across the globe.

Woodblock prints No. 5 and 6 showing two small and one large white bird from Keinen kachō gafu by Imao Keinen, 1891-1892; Call Number: Ellis Aves G21

Woodblock prints No. 5 and 6 from Keinen kachō gafu by Imao Keinen, 1891-1892.
Call Number: Ellis Aves G21

To achieve this goal, we have been hard at work both within the KU libraries: the project was conceived by KU Japanese Studies Librarian Michiko Ito, and throughout the project, she has dedicated substantial time towards helping us enhance the depth and detail of many of our catalog records for these items – in doing so, she ensures that researchers who search our catalogs will be able to find the materials more easily, and will know more about the items in terms of their content, their artists and authors, when and where the book was made, and more. Michiko’s language and subject expertise have been bolstered by the cataloging skills of our Head of Cataloging and Archival Processing, Miloche Kottman, who has helped Michiko with the unique challenges that rare books and materials can present in cataloging them.

Part of this process has also involved tracking down the provenance of these materials – the history of how they came to have a home on Spencer’s bookshelves. M own work as one of Spencer’s Special Collections curators has come into play in tracking down old purchase records in our files, to help us trace the physical migration of books across space and time, so that we can add this information to our catalog records and metadata.

And Michiko reached out across oceans, contacting the National Institute of Japanese Literature about the possibility of linking our digitized materials with their international database of digitized Japanese literature so that when scholars search the database, they can find and view Japanese rare books from libraries across the globe. As part of this collaboration, one of their affiliated scholars, Dr. Kazuaki Yamamoto, flew here from Japan to further decipher the many exciting details of our collections. He helped identify ownership marks to trace the history of these items over the centuries, dated materials, and identified arcane and obsolete vocabulary and handwriting.

Woodblock prints of birds from vol. 1 of Bunrei Gafu by Maekawa Bunrei, 1885; Call Number: Ellis Aves E241

Woodblock prints from vol. 1 of Bunrei Gafu by Maekawa Bunrei, 1885. Call Number: Ellis Aves E241

Meanwhile, our Conservation team’s representative, Angela Andres, has been involved in reviewing the items to ensure that they are in safe and stable conditions and ready for digitization. Japanese paper, called washi, is renowned for its soft texture, but its softness can leave it fragile, and their book covers are sometimes coated in powdered mica to give a metallic sparkle, but it leaves the covers vulnerable to friction and wearing away over the centuries. Her work has involved crafting new protective enclosures for some of the more delicate materials, which will help support the softer paper when it’s shelved upright and minimize any friction and rubbing that might wear away the mica coating. Doing so helps us protect and preserve the originals so that they survive together with their online copies.

Selected page featuring drawings of birds from Shasei. Kincho bu, by Yoshiki Gyokei, 1853; Call Number: MS G49, with a custom box and interleaved acid-free paper to protect the delicate pages.

Selected page from Shasei. Kincho bu, by Yoshiki Gyokei, 1853, with a custom box and interleaved acid-free paper to protect the delicate pages. Call Number: MS G49

The next step, hopefully coming soon, is to send the items down to our digitization team helmed by Melissa Mayhew, where they will be scanned into high-resolution TIFF files and with the help of our Digital initiatives librarian Erin Wolfe, they’ll be uploaded onto the online platforms of both the University of Kansas and the National Institute of Japanese Literature’s database with relevant metadata to help researchers connect our collections with books and manuscripts from other libraries around the world.

In many ways, this project embodies all the work and challenges that can go into Special Collections libraries and the efforts we make toward making delicate and rare materials accessible to as many people as possible. From cataloging to preserving, to digitizing and uploading them to the greater internet, no librarian works alone!

Eve Wolynes
Special Collections Curator

Meet the KSRL Staff: Eve Wolynes

August 29th, 2023

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 Eve Wolynes, who joined Spencer Research Library in June 2023 as an Assistant Librarian and a Special Collections Curator.

Special Collections Curator Eve Wolynes in the reading room of Spencer Research Library with MS E256

Eve Wolynes, Special Collections Curator, in Spencer Research Library’s reading room with MS E256. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I’ve hopped around a fair amount. I was born in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, and moved to San Diego when I was ten. As an adult, I’ve lived in Berkeley, Houston, South Bend (Indiana), and Dayton (Ohio) before finally making my way here.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I’m a Special Collections Curator. While other curators and archivists at Spencer tend to have specific subjects, regions or materials they work with, Elspeth Healey and I cover everything in the Special Collections, which includes a huge range of materials — from Roman funerary stones, to medieval manuscripts, to modern poetry, science fiction and artists books, and spans the entire globe, from Guatemala to Italy to Japan. My responsibilities include collection development – helping to build the collection through purchasing new items and coordinating donations – as well as instruction with undergraduates, answering reference questions and supporting use of the items by researchers and users, and engaging with outreach through things like exhibit design and public events.

How did you come to work in libraries/archives/special collections?

As with so many stories, it began with a very sickly dog. While I was in grad school, working on my Ph.D. in medieval history, my dog had a health emergency and needed surgery, but I couldn’t afford to pay the vet bill on my graduate student stipend. To pay off the debt, I took on a job at my university’s library, and eventually moved into their Special Collections department when a position opened. Eventually I paid off the vet bill but realized I still wanted to work at the library; I felt like I had found a sense of community, that the work was a fun series of puzzles, challenges and mysteries, something different to learn every day. I started considering it seriously as a potential career direction. After I defended my dissertation straight into the pandemic, I took the shutdowns as a moment of contemplation to evaluate what I wanted to do; I decided to get my MLIS and to commit to Special Collections – and the minute I got back into a library I knew it was the right choice; I was at home again.

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

Lately I’ve been enamored with MS E256, Hippiatria by Giordano Ruffo; it’s a veterinary text on medicine, anatomy and training for horses dating to the 13th century. The manuscript gives you a sense of the relationship people had with their animals over seven-hundred years ago, and how our relationships with horses have transformed over time. Plus, it has a very cute little sketch of a pony on the first page. Which is the best part, really.

I also just love all the medieval manuscripts; there’s a special kind of love, work and dedication that goes into producing an entire text by hand, visible in the meticulous (and sometimes not so meticulous) handwriting, in the very pages themselves. They’re so human, from the shape of their letters to the scratches and scribbles in the margins, as every word embodies the person who took pen to page.

A manuscript copy of Giordano Ruffo's Hippiatria (MS E256) open to a leaf containing an illustration of a horse or pony.

A manuscript copy of Giordano Ruffo’s Hippiatria open to a leaf containing
a sketch of a pony. Italy, approximately 1290-1310. Call Number: MS E256. Click image to enlarge.

What part of your job do you like best?

I always love the strange and unique reference questions that lead me to fall down rabbit holes trying to hunt down an answer and make unexpected discoveries about materials in the collection; I love, too, when researchers and patrons can teach me something new in turn, or when I can help or watch them make a connection with the past – with their communities, cultures, experiences and memories, as embodied in the materials from our collections.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

When I’m not living up the librarian life in the real world, I dabble in playing as a lore librarian in fantasy settings and video games like Baldur’s Gate 3 and Pathfinder Wrath of the Righteous, along with smaller indie games like Scarlet Hollow, Pentiment (a game practically made for medievalists and librarians), and The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow.

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

If you’re worried about looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re talking about – we’ve all been there, even the librarians! My first time in a special collections library was terrifying and confusing, too. The only reason librarians make everything look old hat and obvious is because we’ve had years or even decades to learn the often-labyrinthine logic and secrets from behind the scenes. But because we know all the twists and turns of our library and collection, we’re the best people to help guide you through it!

Eve Wolynes
Special Collections Curator