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.

Meet the KSRL Staff: Meredith Huff

May 3rd, 2013

This is the first in what will be a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Meredith Huff is Spencer’s Building Operations and Stacks Manager.

Photograph of Meredith Huff in Spencer Research Library Reading Room.

Meredith Huff in Spencer’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room.

Where are you from?
Battle Creek, Michigan

What does your job at Spencer entail?
I’m the Building Operations Manager, Stacks Manager and Public Services Student Supervisor.  I manage the closed stacks and building space, keep track of the collections as they are used, find space for new collections, schedule and find projects for our Public Services Student Assistants.

How did you come to work in special collections and archives?
My first job was shelving books at Willard Public Library in Battle Creek, Michigan.  I can still give you Dewey call numbers for some subjects that I shelved regularly. I worked there through high school and community college.  When I transferred to Michigan State, where I earned a degree in Horticulture, I worked in the greenhouses as well as at the main library (in the copy center and at the reserve reading desk).

In 2007, I found myself looking for a full-time job that I would enjoy.  I had tried out a few jobs since college, but never really found a job with the daily variety and challenge that I enjoyed. I wasn’t ready to jump into entrepreneurship just yet.  I had always enjoyed my work in libraries and bookstores. Books aren’t too different from plants; in fact, books are made of plants. Care and handling of delicate plants can’t be too different from care and handling of rare books and manuscripts, I thought.  So I redesigned my resume to highlight my library experience and skills, and began applying for library work.  My husband and I had lived in Kansas for a short-time in 2006, and we knew we liked the area.

I found my current position advertised on the KU jobs site and applied.  Early in August 2007, I was called for a phone interview.  I had done some research on Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and knew it would be unlike any other library where I’d worked, so I knew I would be challenged in my work. I began working at KSRL on October 1, 2007.  Each day since has been different.

What is the strangest item you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?
I don’t spend much time looking at our collection items specifically.  I’m always focused on the call numbers.  Occasionally, I’ll hear about interesting items from my students or curators.  Someone was in recently researching chocolate.  A student paged something from our Special Collections stacks which turned out to be two pieces of Brach’s Huck Finn Chocolate Candy [editor’s note: safely encapsulated in an air-tight housing to prevent pests!]. I’m not sure how old the chocolates were.   Another student, working on a project, found a few books in Special Collections which had hair inside, something that people rarely collect nowadays.  We’ve got some other really cool things from a moon rock (RH MS 167 VLT) to uranium from the Manhattan Project (RG 17/22) to ancient manuscripts and cuneiform tablets (MS Q4). 

As Stacks Manager, you are the expert at locating anything that isn’t where it should be in Spencer’s stacks.  What’s the secret to tracking down such items?
I’ve always been good at finding things.  When I was younger, if my family couldn’t find something, they’d offer me five bucks to find it and I usually could.  Once my dad had hidden all his credit cards before my parents left for an anniversary trip.  I was offered five bucks, my going rate, to find them while they were in Chicago for the weekend.  I spent the weekend searching.  While doing so, I tried to think about what my dad would  have thought would be a ‘good hiding spot.’  I spent hours searching the kitchen, then upstairs to their bedroom, back down to check the dining room, back upstairs to check clothes pockets in their closet, then back down to check the coat closets, my Dad’s desk drawers and cubby hole. I even checked odd places in the basement.

Determined to find them, I began going through my dad’s books–book by book, bookcase by bookcase. I can still remember which book I finally found them in.  After exhausting every nook and cranny of the house, I decided to have my dad follow my search to find the cards himself.  So I sent him on a scavenger hunt throughout the house, leaving clues leading him to each place I had searched.  Finally the last clue used a riddle to lead him to the book where he had hidden the credit cards. They had been in Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel by Richard Brautigan.  I must say, I earned those five bucks.

I enjoy puzzles, solving mysteries, so tracking down something that is misplaced or that others can’t find is fun to me.  I’ve got my own mental checklist of areas to search, starting with where the item should be located and “Meredith’s Mystery Shelving” (a book truck the student assistants put items they don’t know where to reshelve).  Then I move onto other possible places.  With shelving dyslexia (which can occur when a student has been shelving numerous items or is very tired) the call numbers start to get jumbled, so I try to think of various combinations of the call number.  Was it shelved as a manuscript and not a printed book?  Did it get shelved with the photographs instead of the manuscript boxes?  Once, I’ve exhausted my simple searches, I go back to my office to search our wonderful new program, Aeon, which manages paging requests and circulation.  Who was the last person to ask for this item? What else was paged for that person? Could the item be misshelved with those items?  Are there notes in Aeon indicating the item was sent to preservation or processing?

Usually by answering the above questions, I can place my hands on the item or identify its current whereabouts.  Having the new Aeon program has really helped me locate items much faster.

Photograph of Meredith by the Mystery Shelving Truck

Shelving Sleuth:  Meredith tracking down incorrectly shelved items at her Mystery Shelving book truck

What part of your job do you like best?
The thing about my job that I like best is that each day is different.  I have a variety of tasks and projects to accomplish, and I’m able to approach them as best I can given the daily priorities. 

You supervise Spencer’s public services student assistants.  What have you learned from working with them?
Working with students, I’ve learned that kids nowadays are much more advanced electronically than those of us who were born in the 70s and grew up in the 80s. They have always had electronics and computers. Most of the time, I don’t really feel much older than the students, but when it comes to the learning curve of new programs or electronics, I begin to feel old, especially when I realize most of the kids weren’t even alive in the 80s.

What are your favorite pastimes outside of work?
I enjoy spending time outdoors.  Growing up in Michigan, I’ve canoed, hiked, or backpacked along many of the major rivers.  The Manistee area is one of my favorites.

My college degree is in Horticulture, so I love gardening and have worked at an Herb and Flower Farm, a retail greenhouse, and at a landscape maintenance company.  Someday I’d like to have my own farm business.Working at the Herb and Flower Farm, I was able to experiment with floral designs and cultivate skills such as bow making.

If I’m not outside with my dogs getting dirty, I’m inside experimenting in the kitchen.  I’ve been working on various canning recipes, trying to broaden my skills at preserving my harvest or farmer’s market finds.  I enjoy baking homemade bread too.  I dabble with sewing and knitting, usually my wintertime pastime. I enjoy reading, mostly, non-fiction (on the history of food, plants, or other aspects of society), biographies, and novels every so often.

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to come in and ask for assistance.  Let us know it’s your first time; we’re happy to explain why we are a closed stacks library.  We’ve got so much cool stuff!!  You’ll have an opportunity to work one-on-one with a librarian, and librarians are wonderful founts of knowledge. 

Meredith Huff
Building Operations and Stacks Manager, Public Services Student Assistant Supervisor

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