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.
Information about KU’s past can be found in Spencer collections beyond University Archives. This week’s photo, for example, comes from our Kansas Collection.
North College was located roughly where Corbin Hall now stands, between Tenth and Eleventh streets. The notation on this photograph states that it shows the view looking west from North College. However, a cursory exploration of maps and other photos – plus a portion of the Kansas River in the background – suggests that the view might actually be looking north from the building, likely up Louisiana Street.
Spinsters Books and Webbery, Inc., originally named Spinsters Books, was founded in 1979 in Lawrence, Kansas. The store and community center was organized by a group of Lesbians “to meet the social, educational, and informational needs of the Lesbian and women’s community.” When the store opened in March 1980, it consisted of one bookshelf in a private residence before later moving to a storefront.
Besides selling printed materials, music, and jewelry and crafts on consignment, Spinsters included a free lending library, speaker’s bureau, lesbian archives, and community and resource center and hosted support groups.
The collective also worked closely with other community and KU campus groups such as Women’s Coalition and Women’s Transitional Care Services. Not only was Spinsters unique due to the nature of the store and the services it provided, but it was run largely by the organizers, a group of dedicated volunteers, and part-time employees.
The Spinsters Collective also published a newsletter called the Monthly Cycle. The purpose of the newsletter, as stated in the first issue, was “for sharing skills, services, thoughts, and ideas.”
Any submission by or for Lesbians was accepted. The goal was to foster communication within the Lesbian community, especially in more isolated areas of Kansas and the region.
In August 1988, Judy Brown, Elsie Hughes, Dana Parhm, and Paula Schumacher, members of the Spinsters Collective, made the difficult decision to sell or close Spinsters Books and Webbery. A store sale notice was published on August 18, 1988. The asking price of $7000 did not include the contents of the library, archives, and furniture, nor did it include the name. In November 1988, the store’s office supplies, fixtures, and décor were sold at auction.
The Spinsters Collective donated the archives and business records to Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the spring of 1990. Researchers interested in the Women’s and Gay Rights Movements should look at the materials in the Spinsters Books and Webbery, Inc. collection. It contains a verity of information on various women’s issues such as the equal rights, sexual discrimination, abortion and birth control, and domestic violence. There are also numerous Lesbian periodicals and newsletters, as well as other records regarding the LGBTQ+ movement. The newsletters and periodicals are from various local, regional, and national organizations.
How does Spencer Research Library acquire its collections? Mostly, collections come from donors contacting the library. Occasionally, it is just luck. As for acquiring the papers of the J. B. Watkins Mortgage Company, it was luck combined with tenacity – and being just a foot in front of scrap paper balers at a junkyard during World War II.
The luck came on a Saturday afternoon during World War II, when KU history professor James C. Malin (1893-1979) happened to notice an article printed in the local Lawrence, Kansas, newspaper. The article described how scrap paper from a local business was to be sold for the war effort. Malin was a historian known for his study on Kansas and Nebraska agricultural history and settlement from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. His prolific writings on the subject are still referenced today.
The local business, James C. Malin knew, was no ordinary business. The J. B. Watkins Mortgage Company was one of the largest farm mortgage businesses in the central United States during the last three decades of the 19th century. Headquartered in Lawrence, Kansas, it had branch offices in Dallas, New York, London, and Lake Charles, Louisiana. The data and information contained in the company’s records would be immensely useful to Malin’s work and to other researchers studying agriculture, commerce, economics, and other areas. He knew that he had to rescue the historic collection before it was lost.
Without wasting any time, Malin picked up the telephone and called then-University of Kansas Chancellor Deane Malott at his home. Before becoming KU’s Chancellor, Deane Malott had himself studied agricultural issues and business administration. Coincidentally, the Chancellor’s home was the beautiful mansion of J. B. and Elizabeth Watkins, known as the “Outlook,” donated by Mrs. Watkins to KU. Malott had been living in the mansion just a little over two years when he received Malin’s phone call insisting something be done to keep the Watkins records from becoming scrap.
Malott eventually yielded to Malin’s insistence. Malott agreed to substitute scrap paper from the University pound for pound for the Watkins records at the junkyard. Dick Williams, the executor of the Watkins estate and possibly the person responsible for selling the paper scrap, was contacted. Malott then authorized Malin to act in the matter.
The day after Malin read the newspaper article he went to the junkyard when it opened. He spoke to the scrap supervisor “Mr. Cohen.” Cohen was cooperative but insisted that “business was business.” He agreed to swapping out the Watkins papers for KU papers, but would not halt his operation. By then, the Watkins papers had already been dropped three floors from a window at what was then city hall (which had been previously the Watkins National Bank, what is now the Watkins Museum of History), hauled to the junkyard, and mixed with other scrap paper. The junkyard had started working on the Watkins material when Malin arrived, with some of it already in a 600-pound bale ready for loading on the railroad car. Cohen permitted Malin to sort the material if he kept ahead of the baler and not interfere with the operation.
Malin immediately solicited help from his colleague in the department of history at KU, Charles B. Realey, and his 16-year-old daughter Jane Malin. They worked all that Sunday pulling everything that seemed to belong to the Watkins records out of the heap of scrap paper – keeping just ahead of the baler. Malin worked by himself the next day, cutting all his classes. University trucks were sent to pick up the material – over two and a half tons – and dumped it on the ramp area of Watson Library. The collection had been saved!
The J. B. Watkins papers were acquired before there was a separate research library for special collections at KU. The collection was housed at Watson Library until Kenneth Spencer Research Library was built in the 1960s. One of the first researchers to use the collection was historian Allan Bogue (1921-2016) in 1949. He, too, was interested in the history of agriculture and economics. Malin hired Bogue to be his assistant and organize and describe the vast Watkins collection. Bogue wrote a description of Watkins’ Mortgage Company and published it in his book, Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border (1955).
Through the years, additions to the Watkins papers have been donated by Dick Williams and the Watkins Museum of History. The Watkins Museum of History, operated by the Douglas County Historical Society, is housed in the beautifully iconic 1888 Watkins Land Mortgage and National Bank building in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Visitors at the museum can view the grandeur and intricate details that J. B. Watkins chose for his business and some of his original effects as well as an interesting history of Lawrence and Douglas County.
While it was by luck and tenacity that James C. Malin procured the historically valuable collection of J. B. Watkins for KU Libraries, we are proud that this collection is just one of the ways we connect scholars in varied disciplines with the information that is critical to their research. The J. B. Watkins papers at Spencer Research Library comprise over 627 linear feet of correspondence and business records and are available for research. The finding aid for the J. B. Watkins papers has recently been updated so that it is easier for researchers to discover pertinent material. Papers describing Malin’s heroic salvage of the collection are in the Watkins accession file.
During COVID-19, the Reading Room at Spencer Research Library is open by appointment only. Please see our website for more information on hours and new procedures. In addition, since most of the Watkins papers are housed off-site, please plan at least three days of retrieval time for research.
This summer I had the opportunity to be the first Ringle conservation intern in the Audiovisual Preservation Unit at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. I worked with videotapes from the Channel 6 program, As Time Goes By, which was a public-access program created by and for senior citizens in Douglas County that aired from 1992 to 2000. Sherry Williams, the recently retired Kansas Collection Curator at Spencer, chose the show to be the pilot for this project because of its historic and cultural value. In the eight weeks of the internship, I gathered descriptive metadata on and housed 213 tapes and digitized 30 of these tapes. By the end of my time there, I really had a feel for Lawrence’s senior citizen community in the 1990’s!
As a first timer in Kansas, I came into the project most excited to work with a large local access program that would surely teach me so much about the history and culture of Lawrence. I wasn’t disappointed. Some of my favorite episodes included a conversation with a Holocaust survivor who settled in Lawrence, a conversation with Indigenous seniors who attended the Haskell boarding school in the 1920s, and last but not least, an episode about the “unusual” tombstones in Douglas County and in America’s Heartland.
In 2017, after its 45 year run, Channel 6 was sold to Midco Communications and the question of if and how their videotapes would be preserved was posed to the Lawrence community. Sherry felt that Spencer would be an appropriate repository to store the collection in perpetuity. On the day Channel 6 was moving out of their building, Spencer staff gathered box after box of the nearly one thousand videotapes from the station and loaded them up in a van to be sent to their new permanent home at Spencer. I am amazed and inspired by their commitment to preserving the cultural heritage of Douglas County.
Public-access programming can serve as a glimpse into communities during a certain point in time. In my time observing Lawrence in the 1990’s, through As Time Goes By, I learned about topics such as the history, buildings, fashion, public school system, museums, law enforcement, food, festivals, under-represented communities, and much more about Douglas County. It’s my hope that As Time Goes By will become highly accessible to members of the community in the near future.
Julia Davila Coppedge 2019 Ringle Intern, Conservation Services