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.

Dressy Boxes for Special Books

October 4th, 2017

The Spencer Research Library is very fortunate to have a host of student employees to assist with the daily functions of the Library; certainly, the same is true for Conservation Services, the preservation department for all of KU Libraries including Spencer Research Library. One of the important and on-going projects performed by our student employees for Spencer Research Library is creating custom enclosures for some of the more fragile materials. Books with loose or missing covers, damaged spines, or warped covering boards are among those identified by curators, catalogers, and the special collections conservators as candidates to be housed. The enclosures, known as tuxedo boxes or “tux boxes” for short, are custom fitted, four-flap wrappers, constructed from acid-free card stock.

The books are measured using a wooden device known as a MeasurePhase. It is a wonderfully handy tool that functions much like a pair of calipers designed to map the height, width, and thickness of a three-dimensional object.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

One of the great advantages of this tool is that the books (or objects) can be measured in situ and the dimensions recorded on strips of paper with a pencil. These strips can then be taken to the conservation lab, where the materials and equipment needed to construct the boxes reside. This minimizes the likelihood of damage that can occur during handling and transport of the delicate books. Conservation Services student employees use the MeasurePhase, paper strips, and pencils, as noted above. They might need to turn the book several times for each of the dimensions, until the point of greatest width is found.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

Next they transfer the information from the paper strips to the card stock, cutting two long pieces of card to form the wrapper. One piece is cut to the height of the book and the second to the width. The thickness or depth of the book is added, as the students mark, score, and fold the card.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

The two long prices of card are joined using double-sided tape, and a slot and tab is created on the outer two flaps of the wrapper. The tab, in particular, is a task that requires a skillful touch with the straight-edge and scalpel. All pencil marks are erased from the boxes, and the students place the completed boxes on a shelf where they are labeled by our bindery staff person.

Once a group of boxes is labeled, the students return the boxes to Spencer Research Library where they are united with their books. The label information is checked against the book itself  and the book is returned to the shelf. Conservation services student employees construct hundreds of tuxedo boxes each year for the more at-risk books in Spencer Research Library. These enclosures reduce damage from dust, handling, and light, and prevent loss of pages from loosely bound volumes. In this way, a small amount of preservation is spread among a large number of volumes.


Roberta Woodrick
Collections Conservator
Conservation Services

Shirley Tholen, Jubilee Queen

June 27th, 2017

One of the most interesting items in our collection, from my point of view, is the full-length portrait of Shirley Tholen, KU’s Jubilee Queen. Spencer Research Library doesn’t actively collect oil paintings, so the fact that we have this painting is unusual in itself. Its size and its history make it even more so. We’ve been spending a lot of time with this portrait lately, and it’s a great example of how collections, experts, and supporters come together in the work of Spencer Library.

The portrait depicts Shirley Tholen, whose naming as Queen was part of the celebration of KU’s 75th anniversary, in 1940-1941. Painted by Raymond Eastwood, a KU professor of drawing and painting from 1922 to 1968, the portrait depicts Ms. Tholen in a dress inspired from the mid-1800s. The jubilee celebrations referenced the early history of the university, with touches like the installation of hitching posts on campus, a song contest, and many reunions.

Photograph of the Shirley Tholen portrait in the KU Alumni Association office, 1945

The Shirley Tholen portrait in the KU Alumni Association office,
as shown in the June 1945 Jayhawker. University Archives.
Call Number: LD 2697 .J3 1945. Click image to enlarge.

For years, the portrait appears to have hung in the office of the KU Alumni Association, as shown in the above photograph from the 1945 Jayhawker yearbook. It eventually made its way to University Archives, where it was stored in the fourth floor stacks of Spencer, surrounded by boxes of university records. Its size made it difficult to find appropriate storage, and it was obvious, even to those of us more accustomed to working with paper and photographs than canvas, that the painting and its supporting structure were in need of repair.

In 2015, Ms. Tholen’s son Tom Jasper and his wife Alexis planned to visit Kansas and inquired about the painting. To make it possible to view it, our Conservation Services staff hung the portrait in our North Gallery and created a temporary label. During their visit, the Jaspers gave us a copy of Ms. Tholen’s memoirs, which we added to our collections. The Jaspers also offered to help financially support the work needed to restore the painting. Conservation Services staff attempted to locate a professional paintings conservator who could work onsite, since the painting is too large to easily ship or move. In late 2016, we welcomed Kenneth Bé of the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center to Lawrence.

Photograph of Kenneth Be conservation work on Shirley Tholen portrait Photograph of Kenneth Be conservation work on Shirley Tholen portrait

Kenneth Bé working on the portrait. Click images to enlarge.

Mr. Bé began with a thorough examination of the painting, photographing it in its existing frame and the wooden stretcher to which the canvas was attached. He then removed the painting from the frame, and carefully repaired dented areas, removed the painting from the stretcher, and vacuumed and brushed away decades of residue. Mindful of the need to get just the right amount of tautness, he attached the canvas to the new stretcher. He used cotton batting and an enzymatic cleaning solution to clean the surface, and the background and especially the bottom of the dress appeared noticeably brighter after the cleaning. He performed a second cleaning of the background using a soft brush and a scooping motion to lift away any remaining dust and residue. He then treated areas of color loss on the surface, using just a minimal amount of paint that somehow managed to make the scuffs seem to vanish. The process was documented throughout with notes and photographs, in accordance with best practices for conservation treatment. After his departure, we moved the painting to a secure area where it was stored under a Tyvek sheet awaiting framing.

Then came the task of choosing a frame for the painting. On the recommendation of colleagues, we chose a local framer, again hoping to minimize the need for the portrait to travel any more than necessary. The choices at the frame shop were overwhelming, but the experts advised us to balance the width of the frame with the size of the painting and the height at which we intended to hang it. A decision was made, the portrait was packaged carefully, and loaded into a rented truck for the short trip across town. When the framing was complete, the results were impressive.

Photograph of Roberta Woodrick with the Shirley Tholen portrait

Assistant Conservator Roberta Woodrick
with the portrait. Click image to enlarge.

The portrait of Shirley Tholen is now hanging again in the North Gallery, awaiting new signage that explains who she was and why we have this painting. She will no doubt draw attention as visitors begin to appear in our recently renovated Gallery, and her story helps to tell the history of the University in a different way than the rest of our new permanent exhibits.

Photograph of the Shirley Tholen portrait in the North Gallery

The portrait of Shirley Tholen in the recently-renovated North Gallery.
Click image to enlarge.

This was truly a team effort. Whitney Baker and Roberta Woodrick of Conservation Services, Becky Schulte and Letha Johnson from University Archives, and staff from across KU Libraries researched, planned, and made the work happen. But it would not have happened without the support of the Jaspers as well. Not everyone can be responsible for helping conserve a historic portrait of their mother, but they can assist us to do extraordinary things that would not otherwise be possible with our limited resources.

Please come visit the North Gallery and see Shirley soon.

Beth M. Whittaker
Assistant Dean for Distinctive Collections
Director of Spencer Research Library

Not the End of the Track

August 29th, 2016

Summer is a time for both large and small projects for the students and staff in Conservation Services. Summer 2016 was certainly no exception, as our crew tackled a somewhat daunting and very dirty re-housing venture. This was an amazing group effort, with lots of help and good advice coming from many corners of the KU Libraries.

In the early nineties, the Spencer Research Library took possession of a massive set of technical drawings of the Kansas City Terminal Railway track system. The drawings date from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth  century, and are reproduced in a number of media including cyanotypes (aka blueprints), Photostat copies, and hand-drawn images. They range in size from smaller than a piece of notebook paper to rolls over thirty feet in length. There are just under five hundred sets of drawings varying in amount from one to more than twenty-five drawings per set.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

A sample drawer from the metal cabinets. Click image to enlarge.

The drawings arrived at Spencer Research in their original storage cabinets. The cabinets were metal, painted dark green, and came in four different depths, the largest of which could not be accommodated in the building. The drawers of the largest cabinet were thus removed and stored with boards separating each layer. Some of the drawers containing the drawings were lined with kraft paper, while others were not. Many of the drawings had been tightly rolled and secured with rubber bands. The rubber bands had become brittle with age and had also adhered themselves to the drawings. Because the cabinets had been stored in the train station, there was a great accumulation of grime and dust on cabinetry and drawings alike.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Previous storage of the track drawings. Click image to enlarge.

Six student employees and I began the project by talking through various options for staging and cleaning the drawings, setting up the new storage area, and housing the drawing sets. Meetings were also held with Sherry Williams (Curator of the Kansas Collection), Meredith Huff (Operations Manager for Spencer Research Library), and Whitney Baker (Head of Conservation Services) to discuss the logistics of the project.

It was quite the puzzle to work out where and how to stage the drawings, since the incoming storage unit needed to be assembled where the old cabinetry had stood. The drawing sets in their drawers were eventually staged in four separate locations and the old cabinets were removed.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Moving the cabinets required a lifting device. Click image to enlarge.

Using existing shelving hardware, the team put together a framework of upright brackets and placed shelves at strategic locations to give strength and support to the soon-to-be-constructed honeycomb of tubes. A total of five-hundred and thirty mailing tubes were assembled to house the drawings. Each tube was lined with a heavy-weight, acid-free piece of cardstock, and then placed into the shelving unit.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Modified shelving units empty (left) and with cardstock-lined tubes inserted (right). Click images to enlarge.

At the same time, the student staff began removing the desiccated rubber bands from the drawings and gently cleaning each roll with a soft brush. It was a grungy task that took more than two months to complete. As throughout, the students handled this portion of the project with a great deal of aplomb and good-natured ribbing, and only a couple of grossed-out moments involving truly disgusting rubber bands.

Special Collections Conservator Angela Andres was instrumental in helping solve the issue of how to corral the drawing sets in the tubes, making retrieval and return go smoothly. Through her research, she found a medical supply company that was able to provide us with a continuous virgin Tyvek sheath that could be cut to the correct length for each set.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Tyvek sheath securing a set of drawings together inside the cardboard tube. Click image to enlarge.

After cleaning, the drawings were slipped into the Tyvek sheath, secured with cotton tying tape, and loaded into the honeycomb.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Honeycomb structure. Click image to enlarge.

As each bay was filled, labels were created that correspond with the set numbers and adhered to lids, and the tubes were capped.

Housing railway drawings at Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Caps and labels attached to the tubes. The final product! Click image to enlarge.

This project was a tremendous group effort, involving the cooperation and assistance of many library staff, including those mentioned above and also the Annex team, Michelle Curttright, Doug Hatton, and Ryan Swartz, and the Libraries procurement officer, Kristin Vickers. Most importantly though, was Conservation Services student staff: Brecken Liebl, Valery Herman, Sara Neel, Rebecca Younker, Monica Funk, and Jocelyn Wilkinson. Their hard work was graciously recognized by others in the KU Libraries, as the team won the Jayhawks of the Quarter award for the third quarter of the year.

Roberta Woodrick
General Collections Conservator

The Confederate States of Plants

June 3rd, 2016

Much as Martha Stewart sought to guide the American home-makers of the 1980 and 1990’s through the intricacies of family care and entertaining, so were authors such as Sarah Rutledge endeavoring to do over one-hundred years earlier. Rutledge published The Carolina Housewife by a Lady of Charleston in 1847 to provide her contemporaries with “receipts for dishes that have been made in our own houses, and with no more elaborate abattrie de cuisine than that belonging to families of moderate income” (Rutledge, p. iv, 1979 edition). As a longtime reader of books related to cooking and the domestic arts, I have observed that writers of these tomes feel a fierce pride about their local flora, fauna, and the manner in which these things are combined to create meals. Additionally, they often feel it is their duty to give instruction to the readers that as keepers of home and family; they are also guardians of the physical and moral well-being of the body of their community and even their nation.

While researching Rutledge’s book, I was pleased to find the work of a contemporary in the Spencer Research Library collection. While not strictly a cookbook, Resources of the Southern fields and forests, medical, economical, and agricultural, by Francis Peyre Porcher, fits nicely within the domestic economy genre. Porcher, a physician for the Confederacy during the Civil War, was granted a stay from service to write and publish this “Hand-book of scientific and popular knowledge, as regards the medicinal, economical and useful properties of the Trees, Plants and Shrubs found within the Southern States, whether employed in the arts, for manufacturing purposes, or in domestic economy, to supply for present as well as future want” (p. v, 1869 edition). The contents of its nearly 800 pages are a rich repository of botanical information, important today as they describe many plants now extinct or nearly so, including the much-beloved heirloom grain, Carolina Gold Rice.

C6678_title page. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.      C6678_sample page. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Title page (l) and text page (r) of Resources of the
Southern Fields and Forests
Charleston: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1869).
Call Number: C6678 item 1. Click images to enlarge.

It is in Porcher’s introduction to the Spencer’s 1869 edition, though, that we gain a peek into some less than botanical thoughts running underneath this seemingly straightforward text; those being about the abolishment of slavery and its effect on the southern states. The 1869 introduction is seven pages longer than the 1863 edition (written during the war), much of its added length owing to Porcher’s description of how the south’s many swamps and bogs must continue to be converted into farmable land. This was work that until emancipation, had been carried out by African and African-descent people held in slavery in the southern states. He writes, “[i]t is true that much of this work was done under the system of primogeniture, when it was in the power and to the interest of the owner of the soil…to look for the permanent welfare of his descendants.” While not mentioning slavery, Porcher seems to imply that the “owner of the soil” also “owns” the workers of the soil. Porcher acknowledges that the task of reclamation will be impossible without governmental assistance.

In his final paragraphs, he writes, “the State; which should, when it becomes necessary, perform for its citizens those acts of public utility, the right or ability to do which depended on systems and institutions which it has, from reasons of policy or interest, abolished or destroyed, and being deprived of which, they suffer” (p. xv). Once again, Porcher does not mention slavery directly, but instead uses the word “institution” in its place. The idea of slavery being an institution was first made popular by the South Carolina statesman, John Calhoun, when he spoke of it as the South’s ‘peculiar domestick(sic) institution’. Though veiled in euphemism, Porcher makes clear that he believes that the end of slavery is a punishment for the southern states; a punishment by which “they suffer”. This deprivation renders its population unable to protect its physical and moral interests.

C6678_advertisement. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas.

Advertisement page from
Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, 1869.
Call Number: C6678 item 1.
Click image to enlarge.

Roberta Woodrick
Assistant Conservator, General Collections
Conservation Services

Get Rolling

February 2nd, 2015

Taking our cue from a 2009 Conserve-O-Gram (a free resource published by the National Park Service) titled “Flag Rolling and Storage,” staff in Conservation Services created an inexpensive and accessible textile storage system. The University of Kansas class and school banners are part of the collection materials found in University Archives. These banners are an important part of the history of the commencement ceremony at the university. The banners are visually interesting and also instructive artifacts as markers of KU’s changing awareness of brand identity.

1964 KU class banner

1964 KU class banner, used in graduation ceremonies

After photographing each banner, staff carefully rolled each item around an pH-neutral cardboard core.

Rolling textiles on core

Rolling a class banner on a core.

The rolling process began with a tissue paper-liner and ended with a cover of cotton muslin. Each cover was tied into place just beyond the edges of the banner and identified with a small tag showing an image of the item inside as well as its call number.

1964 KU class banner    Rolled textile storage

Left: Visual identification tag for 1964 class banner. Right: Many rolled items, ready for hanging.

There are several advantages to rolling textiles for long-term storage. There are no folds made in the fabric, reducing stress on the fibers and limiting the creation of breaks and tears. Each textile can be removed independently of the others (unlike housing several textiles in a single box) thus decreasing the number of times all the objects must be handled. And because hanging storage is vertically oriented, it takes up less space than shelves or drawers, and can be fitted on an unused wall or into an aisle.

Detail of rolled textile storage

Detail of hanging mechanism.

Once staff completed the rolling process, empty shelves were removed from two ranges in the Spencer stacks. A durable, link-style chain was suspended from the overhead shelving beams and secured into place using locking bolts. Metal electrical conduit was cut to the proper length and passed through the center of the cardboard tubes. S-hooks were hung at intervals along the chain to support the rolls.  The resulting storage has a slim profile, and provides quick and easy access to the collection materials.

Rolled textile storage

Overall view of rolled textile storage.

Roberta Woodrick
Assistant Conservator
Conservation Services