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.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, Joseph J. Pennell photographed life in Junction City, Kansas, and the nearby Army base, Fort Riley. It is my belief that the strength of the collection is that Pennell wasn’t content to just stay in his studio, taking portrait photography. He went out into the community to photograph its people, businesses, activities, groups, and families. And Pennell was inclusive of community members from diverse groups, revealing a more complete representation of Junction City history. Because of his work, we are provided with a comprehensive view of life in a moderately-sized Midwestern army-post town on the Great Plains at the turn of the century.
April 16th is “National Librarian Day.” In honor of all library faculty and staff on KU’s campuses, here is a look back at Carrie Watson, a librarian at the University of Kansas from 1878 to 1921.
Caroline “Carrie” Morehouse Watson was born in Amenia, New York, on March 31, 1857. The following year, her family moved to Lawrence, Kansas Territory. They did so, like the abolitionist settlers who came before them, to ensure that Kansas would enter the Union as a free state. When she was five, Confederate guerilla chief William Quantrill and his band of men raided Lawrence, killing approximately 200 men and boys. Carrie attended survivor reunions and can be seen in group photographs.
Carrie graduated from the University of Kansas in 1877. Several months later, Chancellor James A. Marvin (whose tenure lasted from 1874 to 1883) appointed her Assistant to the Librarian of the University. At that time, the position of “Librarian” was held by a faculty member chosen annually by the chancellor. The holdings of the library consisted of about 2,500 books – mostly government documents – housed in a room in old Fraser Hall (located roughly where modern Fraser Hall currently stands).
Carrie earned the title of Librarian in 1887, under Chancellor Joshua Lippincott (1883-1889). She had taken courses in librarianship as she could, mostly over summer breaks, and traveled to the Boston Athenaeum, Harvard Library, and Boston Public Library to gain additional training. KU’s new library building was ready in 1894, and the holdings were moved from Fraser Hall to Spooner Library (now Spooner Hall).
Throughout her career at KU, Carrie oversaw the expansion of holdings such that when she retired in 1921 the library had about 140,000 volumes, 1,185 periodicals, and 121 newspapers. After her retirement, Carrie continued to serve in the KU Library, mostly as an unpaid volunteer.
Thirty years after moving into Spooner, the library, again, had outgrown its space. A new building was approved by the Kansas Legislature. It was completed in 1924 and named Watson Library, forever honoring KU’s first true librarian.
In a December 1943 article for The Graduate Magazine, author Margaret Lynn wrote:
What Miss Watson had inherited of pioneer spirit went into the library. She did not merely take what was put into her hands and make a temporary best of it. She saw the needs of a University library and fought for them, sometimes with authorities who did not see what an investment a library should be. She faced regents and chancellors and professors. She carried on with a staff too small, and quite untrained except in what she taught it. She managed with inadequate or crude equipment. When in 1894 the library was moved from the rooms in Fraser Hall to the new building, the gift of W.B. Spooner, it was a great day. At last there was enough space! But not one assistant had been added to the small staff. Miss Watson had a share in the development of her state also. She was a pioneer in state library work. She was ready to carry what she had learned to those who were still at the beginning. She assisted in state organizations. She was on state committees. She spoke at conferences. She helped librarians-to-be with fundamental instruction. She lectured [to] high school libraries, to education classes in the University. She lectured on bibliography to history classes. She had not only a task but a mission….The three institutions which in childhood she saw beginning – the State, the University, the Library – she lived to see established and developed. She could not have guessed how important a part she was to have in them.
In the fall of 2007, Air National Guard Sergeant William Leggett was doing his laundry. He was serving a third tour of duty in the Middle East, this time in Iraq. As he walked past a trash bin, he glanced into it and saw a large envelope addressed “To Any Soldier.” Never one to resist a possible trash treasure, he opened the envelope to find a packet of “Dear Soldier” letters, written by fifth- and sixth-grade students from Oil Hill Elementary School in El Dorado, Kansas.
Sergeant Leggett was my brother, five years younger than me. From this point on I will call him Bill. Growing up together in Pennsylvania, he was the typical little brother. He chased me with Cicada shells from his bug collection, ditched me when we had chores, and announced on the school bus that I wore flowered underwear. On long car rides, he annoyed me by looking out of my window or breathing on me.
Nevertheless, we were close, despite our age difference. We made bike ramps out of old scrap wood our Dad had in his workshop, and we rode our bikes up and down our long driveway, trying to best each other’s jumps. I taught him how to make a bridge for his Tonka toys out of books and a rug, but he sometimes forgot the “trick” for getting the books to stay in place, so he asked me to show him again…and again…and again. We played baseball, taking turns pitching. On some of those long car rides, if I was feeling a little motherly and he didn’t smell too badly, I let him put his head on my lap to sleep (this was before seatbelts laws). He shared a bunk bed with our youngest brother, and many nights, after he had gone to bed, I heard him crying over something. We talked it out until he felt better, while I stood on tip toes on the bottom bunk. After I moved away, we wrote letters to each other throughout the rest of his childhood. I still have them.
Bill lived in Pennsylvania, with his family. He had been to Kansas to visit me a few times, and I saw him whenever I went to Pennsylvania. But we didn’t see each other, or have opportunities to talk, very often. He called me on my birthday and sang to me, badly on purpose. I wish I would have kept at least one of those voicemails. While he was in Iraq, we emailed each other almost every day. It was wonderful to talk again. He told me about the packet of letters he had found. I was excited to learn that the school was in Kansas, just off I-35, only two hours from my house.
He told me that he planned to hand-write letters to each student, individually. While I found it rather over the top that he would actually take the time to respond to each child, rather than just writing to the class as a whole or using email, I wasn’t surprised that he would do that. He told me that he felt the students deserved individual letters because THEY were the ones who had written individual letters in the first place, and it would be a shame if they each didn’t get a response. Besides, it gave him a project to pass the time.
So, for the rest of his tour of duty, he wrote to them, and they wrote back. He asked them to call him Bill. The students wrote of family members, pets, favorite sports, and things of childhood and school. They sent him artwork. They asked Bill questions about his life, what it was like to be in the military, and what his favorite things were. They closed by asking him to please write back. Bill wrote about his boys, Peanut Jelly the cat, and NASCAR. He described Iraq, its people, and the places he had been. He talked about life in the military, his job, and things like what food the soldiers ate. He wrote of what he missed back home. In each letter, he made sure to include encouragement. He reminded the students to do their best, to study hard, and to pursue their dreams. And he often included a smiley face when he signed off.
As the time to come back to the States got closer, Bill and I started talking about a visit to Kansas and the school. I contacted the teacher who had given the letter writing assignment about the possibility, and she took it from there. All we had to do was get him there. The visit was a surprise for the students, and it went beautifully. He hand-delivered his last letters, gave out some gifts he brought back from Iraq, held a question/answer session, played basketball with them at recess, and ate lunch with them. Students had their picture taken with him. He was presented with a school t-shirt and a flag that had been signed by the students and teachers. Bill was treated like royalty. When he left, there were hugs and tears, and promises to keep writing.
The students are in their mid-twenties today. They probably don’t know that Bill has passed. He died in 2020, in a work-related accident, just fifty-five years old. I hope they know, or someday know, that their letters are now the “Sergeant William J. Leggett Correspondence with Students of Oil Hill Elementary School, El Dorado, Kansas” collection, in Kenneth Spencer Research Library. When I asked Bill if I could make copies of the letters and donate them, he asked me why anyone would be interested in them. I explained that the best parts of the collections in Spencer are the personal stories that put history in context and make it real. He wasn’t convinced, but he let me do it anyway. He kept the originals because he wasn’t ready to part with them yet. I believe the letters meant as much to him as they did to the students.
This week we’re honoring the one-hundredth birthday of Charles Sheldon Scott, a native of Topeka, Kansas, and a prominent lawyer who focused on civil rights. The most famous case he argued was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. Scott, then only thirty-three years old, was one of the attorneys arguing for the plaintiffs. In this landmark case, argued before the United States Supreme Court, the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The case became a foundation of the civil rights movement and set the precedent that the doctrine of “separate-but-equal” in education, and other such services, was discriminatory and not equal at all.
In May 1984, thirty years after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Charles Scott visited McCarter Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. He spoke to the second- and third-grade classes about the case. These letters illustrate the importance of passing on the significance of that decision to future generations. What follows are a few of the thank you letters he received from the students. Private information has been redacted.
Charles Scott was born in Topeka, Kansas, on April 15, 1921. His father was attorney Elisha Scott, who argued several prominent civil rights cases throughout his career. Charles attended Topeka public schools and graduated from Topeka High School. During World War II, he served with the 2nd Cavalry Division and the Red Ball Express Transportation Unit of the United States Army. After his war service, he returned to Kansas and earned his Bachelor of Law degree in 1948, and then later his Juris Doctorate in 1970, both from Washburn University in Topeka. Charles joined his brother, John, in their father’s law firm Scott, Scott, Scott, and Jackson. During his law career, Charles Scott worked for the integration of schools in Johnson County, Kansas, and equal access to theaters, restaurants, and pools in Topeka. Throughout his law career Scott volunteered his legal services to the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, and in this work he traveled to Mississippi to assist the civil rights workers. He provided legal services to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He served as a staff attorney and hearing examiner for the Kansas Civil Rights Commission. In addition to his law practice, Charles was a part-time instructor for the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and served as chair of the Topeka Branch’s Legal Redress Committee. Charles was married to Louise Crawford, and together they had two children. Charles died on March 3, 1989.
Dog owners love their dogs. This was as true one hundred years ago as it is today. Below are some portraits from the Joseph J. Pennell Collection that feature human subjects who have chosen to include their dog – or dogs – in their photo portrait. If you pay close attention to things like body positions and facial expressions, you will see how these human subjects feel about their pets.
From the 1890s to the 1920s, Joseph J. Pennell photographed life in Junction City, Kansas, and the nearby Army base, Fort Riley. The strength of the collection, in my opinion, is that Pennell wasn’t content to just stay in his studio, taking portrait photography. He went out into the community to photograph its people, businesses, activities, groups, and families. And Pennell was inclusive of community members from diverse groups, revealing a fuller and richer story of Junction City. Because of his work, we are provided with a comprehensive view of life in a moderately-sized Midwestern army-post town on the Great Plains from the 1890s to the early 1920s.