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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.

Ringle Conservation Internship: Cornish Studio Collection

May 23rd, 2023

Becoming the Ringle Conservation Intern has been an incredible learning experience both on its own and as an expansion of the work I have been fortunate enough to do during my two years as a student employee at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library Conservation Lab. Since September of 2022, I have assessed, lightly cleaned, and re-housed over 900 individual glass plate negatives, and at least 100 flexible negatives, taken by the George Cornish Studio (based in Arkansas City, Kansas) between 1890 and 1945. With the guidance of Marcella Huggard, Charissa Pincock, Whitney Baker, and Roberta Woodrick, I have contributed 833 entries to the ongoing finding aid that include the subject of the photo (if identifiable) and the condition of each plate. My hope is that, when the collection is complete with its partner collection (the Hannah Scott Collection), history and photo enthusiasts will be able to enjoy the wide range of portraiture, landscape, and urban life photography contained within the collection.

Inventorying the Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Creating a spreadsheet with information about the negatives in the Cornish Studio collection.

The Ringle project began with a massive shifting project. Roberta Woodrick, Grace Awbrey, Hannah Johnson, Rory Sweedler, Sarah Jane Dahms, and I moved the Cornish, Scott, and several other glass plate negative collections in advance of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) updates in the stacks. During this shifting, we saw how both age and the heat from the old furnace, located under the floor where the glass plates had been held, had affected the collections. There were clear indicators that re-housing these collections was necessary. On some glass plates there was flaking emulsion and discoloration, and some flexible negatives were experiencing “vinegar syndrome” (the strong smell of deteriorating acetate film) and leaving liquid residue on the shelves (from the chemical separation of the emulsion on the plastic).

Boxes of glass plate negatives in the stacks of Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Glass plate negatives from the Cornish Studio collection housed in boxes in the stacks.
Damage to a glass plate negative. Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Flaking emulsion on one glass plate negative in the Cornish Studio Collection.

The Cornish Studio was located in Arkansas City, Kansas, 8 miles north of Chilocco, Oklahoma, where the Chilocco Indian School operated, and about 200 miles southwest of Lawrence. The studio was opened by George Cornish in 1905 and was run jointly from 1912 onward by Cornish and his assistant Edith Berrouth (to whom he would leave the practice in 1946 after his death.) In 1993, attorney Otis Morrow, whose practice was in the building that had once been Cornish’s studio, donated the 8 boxes of glass plates, photo registrars, and even George Cornish’s autobiography of running the studio (called “My Life on Fifth Avenue”) to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. (More about the history of the collection can be found at the Collections Overview.)

Many of the glass plates in the Cornish collection have some degree of damage – they’ve existed through a wide range of temperature and humidity fluctuations – but at over 100 years old for many of them, they generally look remarkably good. The subjects in the photos are almost all visible, and the excitement on their faces in these century old photographs endures. It’s clear that the people who went to the Cornish Studio for their portraits, or for the portraits of their young children (babies make up a significant portion of the plates from the 1910s-20s), were happy to have the opportunity to have their photos taken. They couldn’t have known that their likeness would be preserved for longer than them, but I like to think it would make them happy to know their investment in a photograph might provide returns to scholars today.

Negative and positive images of Letha Thomas and baby, Cornish Studio Collection, Kenneth Spencer Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Negative and reversed positive image of Letha Thomas and baby, circa 1919, Cornish Studio Collection.

Before me, several Ringle interns worked on an impressive collection of projects over timespans of six weeks to three months. So far, I have been working with the Cornish Collection for nine months and will continue to do so for another two. Having almost a full year has been immensely valuable – each plate must be placed individually into a four-fold wrapper before being re-housed in boxes, and many plates between 1917 and 1930 have subjects that could be researched (which I did, especially when there might be the opportunity to identify the women in couples’ portraits who were usually identified as Mrs. (Man’s Name.)). Having now completed the 5 x 7 plates, I continue to work on the 8 x 10 plates which represent a shift from traditional studio portraiture and into street scenes in Ark City and the surrounding area. These images, and this collection, offer a valuable slice-of-life view of Southwest Kansas across a period of American history with rapid changes.   

Registers from the Cornish Studios Collection, RH MS 1342, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.
Cornish Studio ledgers that record information about some of the subjects featured on the negatives in the collection.

Brendan Williams-Childs
2022-2023 Ringle Conservation Intern
Conservation Services

Albert T. Reid: Conservation Internship

December 5th, 2017

During the 2017 fall semester I had the opportunity to work as the Ringle Conservation Intern at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. My time here has focused on treating and housing the Albert T. Reid Cartoon Collection, which includes 1899 original cartoons from various artists. This collection started as a generous donation of works from Reid in the 1930s, and between 1954 and 1956 the William Allen White Foundation and the School of Journalism at the University collected around 1750 items from around 600 different cartoonists.

The process of treating this collection required me to spend time dry-cleaning and housing every cartoon; this gave me the ability to read a majority of the cartoons, which gave me insight to the nature of the world in which these artists resided. Cartoonists, especially those who were creating political or editorial cartoons, were critiquing the world they inhabited. It was often hard not to draw parallels from our current political state while viewing cartoons of Russia’s influence on the world or a dawning of nuclear war. It was also particularly interesting that at the same time as these political cartoons were being created, so were early incarnations of some of our favorite pop-culture icons.

Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Bugs Bunny, Warner Bros., 01/13/1954 (CS 326)
Click image to enlarge.

When working with this collection I was particularly drawn to the comic strips, especially the strips that were science fiction oriented, i.e. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Brick Bradford. There’s something wonderful about the worlds these artists developed with little knowledge of where we would find ourselves. Looking at these today is like looking at a nostalgic future. I also found it fascinating that many of these same tropes and design ascetics are used by contemporary science fiction creators. I wonder if contemporary creators were influenced by these characters and cartoonists as I was.

Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Flash Gordon, by Dan Berry, 09/01/1954 (CS-312)
Click image to enlarge.

Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries.

Buck Rogers, by Rick Yager, 02/27/1956 (CS-308)
Click image to enlarge.

The Reid Cartoon Collection is a fantastic resource. It brings me great satisfaction that this collection will soon be accessible.

Matthew Willie Garcia
2017 Ringle Conservation Intern
Conservation Services

Conserving Scrapbooks: A Unique Conservation Challenge

August 1st, 2016

I have spent this summer as the second Ringle Summer Intern in the Stannard Conservation Lab at the University of Kansas. My internship focused on a collection of 41 scrapbooks held by the University Archives. The project involved developing a survey tool, surveying the collection, identifying items for treatment, treating some items, and rehousing/housing modification all of the scrapbooks. Most of the books dated from the early 1900’s. They showcase student life leading up to and in the early stages of World War One. This insight into student life at a very interesting and volatile time, especially as we come to the 100 year anniversary of the United States entering the war, is why the Archives uses these materials as teaching tools with undergraduate students. The scrapbooks also include very interesting objects, like firecrackers with the line written next to them, “We shot up the house.” I was unable to discover which house they were talking about but I have no doubt they would have been in serious trouble for doing that today! From a conservation perspective these firecrackers required some consolidation and I discovered one of the fuses is still in place!

 Piece of hardtack from 71/99 McIntire scrapbook. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Firecrackers in a scrapbook compiled by Emery McIntire, after treatment.
Call Number: SB 71/99 McIntire. Click image to enlarge.

For more information about the project please see the story published in the Lawrence Journal-World in July:

And for some video footage of the treatments please see the coverage from 41 Action News:

I came into the project most excited about the problem-solving aspects of working with scrapbooks and I was not disappointed. Many conservators greatly enjoy the problem-solving we get to do every day to determine the correct treatment for objects. For conservation purposes scrapbooks are exceedingly complex and complicated objects. Usually they are made of cheap materials and contain a variety of attachment methods. This means that once they make it to a conservator’s bench they are normally quite fragile. The binding may be failing, the support paper is usually brittle, and the various types of attachment—glue, tape, staples, pins—may have partially or completely failed. Given all of this, determining the most appropriate treatment is not always an easy task.

For the scrapbooks I treated I came across two main problems: What is the most efficient way to mend the innumerable tears to the support pages? What is the best way to conserve objects found in the scrapbooks? Some of these objects include firecrackers, a Red Cross bandage, and a 100 year old piece of hardtack.

71/99 Harkrader, Florence scrapbook. University Archives, Spencer Research Library.

71/99 Harkrader, Florence scrapbook. University Archives, Spencer Research Library.

Red Cross bandage in a scrapbook compiled by Florence Harkrader,
before (top) and after (bottom) treatment. Call Number: SB 71/99 Harkrader.
Click images to enlarge.

I found that the most efficient way to repair all the tears—averaging around 10 tears per page—was to use a remoistenable repair paper. I made this using a 10gsm tengujo Japanese paper and a 50/50 mix of wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose. Once this was dry I was able to score it into many different sized strips to fit the various sized tears I was repairing.

Of the two objects mentioned the bandage was the easier to conserve. It is pinned to the support page and can swivel a bit on the pin allowing it to extend beyond the edge of the book. This means that there are some creases and frayed areas that have developed over time. To conserve it I repositioned it to sit inside the edges of the book and flattened out the creases.

The hardtack required creative problem-solving. It had a number of problems. It was coming unstuck from the support paper, had a number of cracks, and has writing on it. The ink means that any organic solvent-based consolidant could not be used. Additionally, it was desirable to keep the hardtack on the page, rather than removing it and storing it separately. In the end it was decided to remove the page from the scrapbook (the book was already disbound and is not being rebound) and to store it in its own enclosure within the same box as the scrapbook. The hardtack was re-secured to the page using a very dry wheat starch paste. The page was put in a float mount and support pieces were made with cutouts for the hardtack on one side and a dance book on the other. All of this was then sandwiched between pieces of corrugated board with ties attached. This created a housing that will both protect the page and aid in flipping the page from one side to the other.

Piece of hardtack from 71/99 McIntire scrapbook. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Piece of hardtack from 71/99 McIntire scrapbook. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Page from Emery McIntire’s scrapbook, featuring a piece of hardtack,
before (top) and after (bottom) treatment. Call Number: SB 71/99 McIntire.
Click images to enlarge.

Piece of hardtack from 71/99 McIntire scrapbook. University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Detail of the hardtack. Call Number: SB 71/99 McIntire. Click image to enlarge.

This project allowed me to hone my skills in many areas of conservation. My project will allow for these scrapbooks to be accessed and stored more safely going forward. I highly recommend stopping by Spencer Research Library, calling one or two to the reading room, and losing yourself in KU’s past!

Noah Smutz
2016 Ringle Conservation Intern

50 Shades of Yellowback: A Conservation Internship

August 3rd, 2015

Captain Dangerous, A Brother to Dragons, Romance of the Seas, and Somebody Else’s Wife: The History of a Heartless Woman! Where can one find such gripping book titles? Why at the Spencer Research Library, of course! Deep within the Spencer’s stacks is a series of shelves filled with a set of 459 volumes with eye-catching bindings of a style of book called the yellowback.

What are yellowbacks? They were a type of book printed from the 1840s through the early 1900s. They were often sold at railway stations. Much like the paperbacks we buy in the airport today, these mass-produced books were purchased by those boarding trains seeking entertainment during their travels. This cheap literature for the masses was produced in an equally cheap manner. Straw boards were covered in a glazed paper—usually, though not always, yellow in color—and the textblock constructed of roughly sewn or stapled, lower-quality paper. Although inexpensive in production, these books were not lacking in decorative creativity. Publishing companies hired artists to create tri-colored wood-block printed covers that correlated to the stories’ subject matter, and boy, are these covers spectacular. The back cover, and front and back endpapers, were often printed with advertisements, including some for the bath product Pears Soap, featuring a somewhat disturbed looking baby as the spokesmodel.

front_cover_B1505, Special Collections    back_cover_B1577, Special Collections, Spencer Research Library

Left: Front Cover, From Jest to Earnest, B1505.
Right: Back cover (featuring disturbed baby), Behind Closed Doors, B1577, Special Collections

The inexpensive production methods of yellowbacks might have proved profitable for publishing companies, but in terms of longevity for the books such poor construction came at a cost. After years of use, it was determined that the majority of the yellowback collection was in need of treatment. Many had loose or detached boards and spines, split hinges, abraded and flaking covers, and detached corners. It also appeared that some of the books had undergone previous conservation treatment involving a nasty hide-glue to reattach boards and spines. Over time, this treatment had proven to be more injurious than helpful. Luckily for the books, the conservation department had just the right summer intern up for the challenge of these little fixer-uppers.

B1346 before treatment, Special Collections, Spencer Library

Example of detached board and extra adhesive in hinge area, Tancred, B1346, Special Collections.

After conducting an in-depth survey of the entire collection, thirty-five books were determined to be the most in need of treatment. Once treatment options were discussed with the collection’s curator, work commenced. To remedy the failing hinges, a strip of kozo Japanese tissue was adhered using wheat starch paste and then dried beneath a weight. In more severe cases where the boards and spines were detached, the textblock was cleaned of any previous lining and glue using a methylcellulose poultice. If needed, the textblock was shaped with a backing hammer to create a rounder spine. A new spine lining was adhered using kizukishi Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, cut to allow for two one-inch flanges on either side of the spine. The boards were then attached using the flanges, adhering them to the interior of the cover.

B1481 before treatment, Special Collections, Spencer Library      B1481 during treatment, Special Collections, Spencer Library

Left: Spine before cleaning, Moths, B1481
Right: Spine after cleaning and lining with kizukishi paper, Moths, B1481, Special Collections.

If the spine was also missing, a modified hollow was created from a rectangular piece of tinted moriki Japanese paper, cut to the length of the book, folded three times in accordance with the book’s spine width, creating a tube-like hollow. This allows for both strength and flex in the book when patrons wish to comb through the pages. The treatments performed were minimally invasive. It was important to keep in mind that the “cure” could not be more than the book could handle, and also that the treatments not be visually distracting. After treatment, a custom-fitted Mylar wrapper was made for each volume for added protection. During my internship, thirty-five books were treated in four weeks.

B1481 before treatment, Special Collections, Spencer Library  B1481_Moths_after treatment

Left: Example of detached spine.
Right: Same book after spine reattachment. Moths, B1481, Special Collections.

These simple but sturdy fixes extend the life span of these books and allow for easier patron use. I implore you to go visit the Spencer Research Library, not only to view my handiwork, but to admire, and also find humor, in these wonderful books.

B1433 before treatment, Special Collections, Spencer Library   pic 10 B1433_AT

Left: Before treatment image featuring previously repaired spine, The Mariner’s Compass: a Novel, B1433.
Right: After treatment, with newly repaired spine, The Mariner’s Compass: a Novel, B1433, Special Collections.

Allison Brewer
2015 Ringle Conservation Intern
Conservation Services