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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.

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

The Seven Year Itch; or, A Sabbatical in Search of a Bibliographer

August 2nd, 2023

A séance with L.E. James (Jim) Helyar, our late fellow librarian, and bibliographer of KU’s foundational Ralph N. Ellis collection of ornithology, is in order.

In our recent attempts to catalog mysterious heretofore unidentified bibliographical puzzlements in our Ellis collection backlog, we nailed the identity of a royal folio without a title page that had stymied Jim: he knew it was related to Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, but not how. Even though Jim was closer to solving this who-done-it than he knew, he wrote in notes left behind that “I don’t immediately see anything under Wilson or Bonaparte which corresponds.” “I suspect it’s something that ‘every [ornithological bibliographical] schoolboy knows’, but not me.”

Apparently, Jim was thrown off by the “Wilson/Bonaparte, American Ornithology” notes written at the bottom of the vulture plate shown below, so in fact who-done-it was not exactly who Jim thunk done-it. This messy (both physically and bibliographically) volume turned out to be an imperfect variant of one of our exceedingly rare ornithological tomes: the royal folio edition of Scottish naturalist Captain Thomas Brown’s Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte, published in Edinburgh in 1835 (Call Number: Ellis Aves H76). This volume was created as an atlas to accompany a much earlier text, Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, first issued in Philadelphia between 1808 and 1814. In his notes Jim mentions Thomas Brown only as one of the artists credited for the “Wilson derived illustrations.”

Color illustration of a vulture standing on grass with mountains in the background.
A plate in Thomas Brown’s Illustrations of the American Ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano. With the addition of numerous recently discovered species, and representations of the whole sylva of North America superbly illustrated with 124 large copper plates engraved by Lizars, Scott, Mitchell and others all beautifully colored by hand. Edinburgh: Frazer & Co., 1835. Call Number: Ellis Aves H161. Click image to enlarge.
This image has handwritten text.
Close-up view of the handwritten note at the bottom of the vulture plate in Thomas Brown’s Illustrations. It reads “Wilson, A, & C. L. Bonaparte. American Ornithology. 4 vols. See VIII 90.” Call Number: Ellis Aves H161. Click image to enlarge.

I have created a small exhibition of the two copies, plus my start on what could be an arduous time-taking continent- and/or world-crossing project, to complete a census, not altogether do-able, ideally, entirely on-line or by phone. I was tempted at first to try the on-line and phone route, but same as with Jim perhaps … oh, the press of time …

The exhibit is free and open to the public in the North Gallery through September 16.

Sally Haines
Special Collections Cataloger