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.
Like many institutions, KU Libraries (KUL) has come a long way in recognizing that we are not neutral and that our collecting practices, descriptive traditions, and operations are often not nearly as inclusive as we would like them to be. We have much, much further to go, but we are taking steps where we can. Libraries do not move quickly or easily when large-scale systems are on the line.
Realizing we should communicate transparently about our collections and practices, Spencer Research Library colleagues agreed we didn’t want to “disclaim” anything; we do not want to deny our responsibility to cover perceived liability or avoid a lawsuit. In fact, we are proud of our collections and the hard work that has gone into building them for decades. But in the world today, where images can be shared immediately, without context, and where intention is rarely assumed to be good, it was important to try to explain our work to those who might encounter our materials virtually.
Our reasons for collecting disturbing or offensive materials and making them available to users are grounded in library and archival best practices, our mission, and the mission of the larger university. In fact, sharing these materials with researchers, students, and the public around the world is our actual purpose for existing. If we don’t collect these materials, many of the perspectives they capture may not be represented elsewhere. Ignorance and secrecy rarely advance the best of our humanity.
But these reasons might not always be clear to folks outside the library, so we wanted to strike a balance between 1) providing information about why objectionable or even harmful material can be found in our library and 2) acknowledging that, even if we have good reasons to collect and share these materials, they have the potential to cause harm to users. Like libraries everywhere, we began by looking at what other institutions were doing.
We decided to call this work “contextual statements,” to make clear that we want to provide the context of our collections. We wanted to articulate our mission in a way that acknowledges that libraries are doing hard work in trying to capture voices and tell stories, even though we struggle to do enough with limited resources.
The first step was to add a phrase to all images from our collections in KU’s digital repository, where digitized versions of our collection materials are increasingly being made available to the world. This language was drafted by a small group and went through many revisions by the Spencer collections group, and was implemented by our colleagues in KUL Digital Initiatives:
“Users of this collection should be aware that these items reflect the attitudes of the people, period, or context in which they were created. Certain images, words, terms, or descriptions may be offensive, culturally insensitive, or considered inappropriate today. These items do not represent the views of the libraries or the university.”
We also decided we needed a longer statement about our collections, and added more information to our previously published collection development statements, also freely available. Initial work came from Head of Public Services Caitlin Klepper and Head of Manuscripts Processing Marcella Huggard with input from a group from across Spencer.
Finally, we saw an opportunity, as have many of our peer institutions, to expose the work of description, a professional specialty that has long been hidden behind card catalogs and filing cabinets, frequently in the basements of buildings and at the end of a long series of tasks that take collections from the donor’s attic to the loading dock and to the shelves (or laptops). We published a statement about that as well, initially drafted by Caitlin Klepper and Marcella Huggard, based on the work of other institutions.
In all of this, we relied heavily on the good judgement and best efforts of colleagues at peer institutions. We realize that every environment is unique, so we tailored it to the KU world, talking with colleagues and, where we could, members of our communities. We hope to get feedback as we go, as we begin a larger conversation with those who use our collections in various ways—about what we collect and why, how we describe it, and how we use the impact of our collections to make a better, more just world.
Beth M. Whittaker Interim Co-Dean, University of Kansas Libraries Associate Dean for Distinctive Collections Director of Spencer Research Library
On the Find Collections page of the Spencer Research Library website, you will find a variety of resources for the collections housed at Spencer. These resources not only provide information about the collections but also suggestions for locating materials. Additionally, the page provides access to the library’s Digital Collections, where researchers have free, public access to digitized items from the collections.
Tucked into the plethora of featured Digital Collections resources is KU ScholarWorks: Archives Online, part of the university’s digital repository. What exactly is this digital repository and what all does it entail? Read on to learn more about this valuable resource!
What is KU ScholarWorks?
KU ScholarWorks is a digital repository of scholarship and other scholarly works all by faculty, staff, and students at the University of Kansas. The repository also includes digitized records and materials from University Archives. KU ScholarWorks is part of the numerous Open Access initiatives at the university. The primary goal of KU ScholarWorks is to provide access to research and historical items while helping with the long-term preservation of the materials for generations to come.
What Spencer resources are included in KU ScholarWorks?
To go directly to the items in KU ScholarWorks related to the collections at Spencer, use the link on the Find Collections page mentioned above. On the Archives Online page, the departments and collections – referred to as sub-communities – are listed for browsing. University Archives materials are featured prominently and include resources about different university departments such as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, collections related to Kansas Athletics, and information about student organizations.
What are some ways to find resources in KU ScholarWorks?
Not sure where to find information related to a specific topic? No worries – there are a variety of search features and filters to help locate relevant items in KU ScholarWorks! Researchers can utilize the Search feature to look for items that include keywords related to their topics. It is also possible to browse and search within specific communities such as the Archives Online community. Researchers also have the option to explore available materials by Author, Subject, and Date Issued – all features available on the KU ScholarWorks homepage as well as on individual community pages.
The Kenneth Spencer Research Library holds a rare 14th century Korean Buddhist sutra (MS D23) titled, Dae Bangwangbul Hwaeomgyeong (The Sutra of Garland Flower of Great Square and Broad World of Buddha). The sutra is the 45th volume of the eightieth version of the Avatamsaka Sutra translated by Siksananda between 695 and 699 in the Tang dynasty (Eung-Chon Choi, 2003). It is mounted in accordion book format, a practice commonly seen in China, Japan, and Korea (Hsin-Chen Tsai, 2017).
The sutra’s structure consists of papers with a width of 101 cm and height of 26.7 cm that are joined by one seam every nine pages with a starch-based adhesive. The sutra has sixty-one pages of text comprising three chapters, and four pages on which is painted the frontispiece. The calligraphy and frontispiece are hand-painted in a metallic media, likely gold, where gold pigment is typically mixed with animal glue as the binding media (Hsin-Chem Tsai, 2017). The outer edges of the text block are also decorated in gold. The heads, chest, and hands of the three Buddhas in the frontispiece are further enhanced with cream, red, blue, and black opaque paint. The verso of the sutra is blank except for inscriptions along the seam of each join labeling each section.
There are four different papers observed throughout the sutra. The text block of the sutra is a double layer of dark blue dyed paper, likely indigo, that is highly burnished. The paper used on the verso of the frontispiece, back cover, and adjacent pages is a different laminated indigo paper. It is not burnished, and the indigo has prominent brush strokes (see Image 2). The paper cover has a white paper core consisting of a few sheets laminated together and is covered with a thin, blue paper. The front cover is decorated with flakes of gold leaf while the back blue paper cover is blank. Fiber identification characterized the furnish (fiber content) of these papers as a paper mulberry or a paper mulberry mixture with either mitsumata or gampi. These fibers are consistent with the known furnish of papers from this period and region.
According to Goryeo dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment, 918-1392, the following volumes from this set of Avatamsaka Sutra are extant and share the same style of calligraphy, treatment of the frontispiece, and cover design: Vol. 1 (private collection in Japan), Vol. 4 (Tokugawa Art Museum), Vols. 35 and 36 (Yamato Bunkakan), Vol. 42 (Tsaian-ji, Kobe), and Vol. 78 (The Cleveland Museum of Art).
The sutra had several structural issues (weak folds, insect damage, old mends that were detaching) and was a priority for examination and treatment to stabilize it for future use. With great thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and its support of a Collaborative Conservation Initiative at KU, there was allocated funding to host a visiting conservator to complete a special week-long project during the grant period. We reached out to Minah Song, a conservator in private practice in the Washington D.C. area, to advise on the development of a treatment plan for this rare object. Read more about Minah’s entire Visiting Conservator Project in the blog post written by Special Collections Conservator, Angela Andres.
After the sutra was examined and the condition issues prioritized, we shared our observations and treatment plan with Elspeth Healey, special collections librarian, who authorized the treatment. Our plan included addressing all necessary mending needs first. If we could tone a good matching paper, then we would also address the most visually distracting mends and overlays to reintegrate the paper margins of the sutra. We toned handmade Korean paper (hanji) using High Flow Golden acrylic paint (indigo/anthraquinone) and Dr. Ph. Martin’s Synchromatic Transparent watercolor (black) diluted with deionized water to mix various blue tones and achieve a good match with the sutra’s burnished indigo paper. The mixture was brush-applied to the hanji and the paper was hung to dry completely.
Once the paper was toned, we removed old mends across worm holes that were loose and detaching. We used the new mending paper to reinforce weak fold creases and replace old mends, as needed, and reattached the seams that were coming loose. The treatment overall was kept as minimal as possible with the primary goal of stabilization so that the sutra could be safely handled. Once the new mends and infills were attached with wheat starch paste, some were locally inpainted with Schminke watercolors to match the sutra’s paper tone more closely.
The conservation treatment of the sutra is now complete. The new mends have better visual integration with the object and allow for the sutra to be safely handled. We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Minah Song for her guidance and expertise on this important project. We would also like to thank Dr. Brian Atkinson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of the Division of Paleobotany at the Biodiversity Institute for the use of his microscope to complete fiber identification. Finally, we would like to thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for enabling this collaboration.
 The final section is only five pages long, including the cover, and is 55.8 cm wide. Adhesive was tested with an iodine indicator. The adhesive is likely wheat or rice starch paste.
Baker, Whitney. June 18, 2003. Condition Examination. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library. The University of Kansas Libraries.
Choi, Eung-Chon, and Kumja Paik Kim. 2003. Goryeo dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment, 918-1392 ; [in conjunction with the Exhibition Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment, 918-1392, which was organized by the Asian Art Museum – Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, San Francisco, October 18, 2003 through January 11, 2004]. San Francisco, Calif: Asian Art Museum: 126-7.
Last July, I mentioned in our ‘Spencer Public Services Working from Home’ blog post that one of my work from home projects was creating transcriptions of some of our handwritten collection materials. Well readers, a year later here is the follow-up on one of those transcriptions – the Lillian North diary – and a bit of the story of how a New York suffragist helped me through the pandemic.
Who was Lillian North?
Lillian was born on August 17, 1881, in Stafford, New York, to parents George and Mary Thomas Radley. On September 26, 1906, Lillian married Frank North, a farmer. They were married for fifty-seven years before Frank’s death in October 1963.
Lillian’s diary entries span from January 1, 1915, to May 14, 1917, and detail her day-to-day life as a homemaker and farm wife. Her days were full of activity: cleaning and improving the house, washing and mending clothes, baking bread and pies, canning pickles and strawberries, and churning her prize-winning butter. I can confirm that I was motivated to clean on more than one occasion after working on this transcription; you would be, too, after reading about Lillian cleaning daily while your dishes stared at you from the kitchen sink.
Working on this transcription took me on a bit of a journey; I found myself embroiled in some side research projects I was not expecting to do when I started. While the diary provides extensive details about Lillian’s day-to-day life for over two years, there was so much more I wanted to know about her and her family beyond 1917 when the diary ends. I began researching, trying to find whatever I could find based on the information in the diary, our published finding aid, and our records from when the diary was acquired. Eventually, I tracked down obituaries for Lillian, Frank, and Lillian’s mother Mary Radley via Newspapers.com.
In addition to wanting to know more about Lillian, my curiosity was piqued about some of the acronyms and abbreviations in the diary. What did all of them mean? Several of them I deciphered fairly quickly with the help of some online resources. Others were not so easy to interpret or did not seem to be related to any organizations I could find. By taking clues from the context in which these acronyms appeared and some additional research, I was able to make some guesses about possible meanings, but questions still abound.
All of these side projects did lead somewhere beyond satisfying my own curiosity: The additional information gleaned from the obituaries allowed us to update the biographical information in our online finding aid – providing a more accurate picture of Lillian’s life and family. We also added the list of possible meanings for the acronyms and abbreviations in hopes that this would help future researchers who are interested in the diary and Lillian’s many activities and organizations.
Why did it take over a year to transcribe one item?
Now, I know many of you are probably wondering how I am just now finishing the transcription of Lillian’s diary – a full year after that initial blog post. After all, this is not the first item I have transcribed so this should be a faster process, right? Well, here are a few details to consider:
It’s a long story: Lillian’s diary is not quite like the other items the staff at Spencer have transcribed. We typically focus on transcribing shorter documents, primarily letters. Lillian wrote daily in her diary for over two years; there are over 700 entries and roughly 200 pages to transcribe. It was only because of the pandemic and working from home that I even had time to take on a transcription project of this scope. No matter how fast I worked, this was going to be a long project.
Handwritten = hard: Reading someone’s handwriting can be a challenge (how many of us frequently wonder if our doctors are writing actual words on those prescription pads?). Add in factors like age, access, and series of acronyms and abbreviations and, suddenly, handwriting can become practically indecipherable. You have to learn to look for patterns in how someone shapes their letters and rely on context clues frequently – a process that takes time to do.
There is only one of me: Working on transcriptions was only one of my work from home projects during the pandemic. I was also revising training documents, updating instruction plans, participating in professional development opportunities, and conducting research and creating content for other projects, most notably other blog posts and an online exhibit – to name a few things. Some of these activities had scheduled times and due dates; creating a transcription for general use did not so it was the project to fill hours and provide breaks instead of the top priority.
Opening up: Spencer Research Library re-opened at the beginning of the school year in August! With the re-opening came an end to my full-time work from home status. I was back in the building several days a week and helping with paging, shelving, reference, and instruction. Even though I was still working from home some days, my focus shifted to other projects that supported what was happening onsite. Again, a transcription without any specific deadline was moved to the back burner more often than not.
Saying good-bye: The world turned upside down in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic brought unimaginable stress, trauma, and heartbreak to so many. In the last year and half many lost their lives, their livelihood, and their loved ones. I recognize that I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to continue working and that my family and friends were largely spared from any serious health issues related to COVID-19. However, that does not mean 2020 was without difficulties for me – particularly related to mental and emotional health.
I live by myself in a one-bedroom apartment. Honestly, I am quite the homebody and pretty introverted so prolonged periods of time in my own space and on my own are welcome. But despite my introverted tendencies, I also have people I enjoy seeing and spending time with regularly – family, friends, colleagues. And then poof! I really could not see anyone, especially not frequently, for quite some time. That gets lonely after a while and I could feel the effects. All of this was on top of the anxiety I was feeling about work and school and life in general during the pandemic.
During that time Lillian’s diary became a distraction from the uncertainty and isolation I was experiencing. After reading increasingly grim outlooks on public health, I could turn to this diary and read about Lillian taking the family horse to get re-shoed or working on a sewing project with a friend. Reading and transcribing Lillian’s diary was like talking with one of my friends about their week when our lives were not consumed by COVID-19; it was a welcome break. As time went on and I became more invested in Lillian’s life, I began to procrastinate on this project – prolonging the point when I would finish the transcription and lose this source of comfort at a time when I really needed it.
At the end of Lillian’s diary, she ran out of pages and began writing on the inside of the cover. Why? The reason is likely pretty practical – to save money, to use up all the available space, etc. – but the appearance gives the sense that she was trying to put off saying good-bye to this little book for as long as possible. It is a feeling I am all too familiar with as I reach the end of this project and, more importantly, my life with Lillian.
A little bird told us that the fifth-annual Color Our Collections week has arrived! Started by the New York Academy of Medicine Library in 2016, Color Our Collections is a week of coloring fun where libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions around the world share coloring pages featuring their collection materials.
You can download and print a PDF copy of the coloring book via the Color Our Collections website. While you are there, be sure to check out the submissions from our birds of a feather at other institutions! As a preview, here are three pages from the book. Click on the images to enlarge them.
Are you a fan of the collections at Spencer? Has your eagle eye ever come across an image in our materials that would make a great coloring page? Tell us about it in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
We hope that this coloring fun will help you feel free as a bird even when you cannot fly the coop during the pandemic! Happy coloring, everyone!