By Emily Brown
As I walked through the stacks of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, I inhaled the scent of musty, old books, and I struggled with the urge to trail my fingers across the bindings. I passed books written in foreign languages, some from the early eleventh century and onwards. The books were wrapped in leather and crumbling paper, and some stood taller than the size of a small child. I was book drunk.
The Kenneth Spencer Research library houses the University’s collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives. Built in the 1960s with a donation by Helen Spencer as a memorial to her husband Kenneth Spencer, the library is open to the public and students. The library is the perfect place to indulge one’s curiosity in the sensory experience of old books and manuscripts.
The library has three main collections students can explore: the University Archives, the Kansas Collection and the Special Collections. The University Archives tells the story of KU through department records, administration records, game footage and photographs. The Kansas Collection, covering the territorial period to the present, focuses on everyday people and their experiences in Kansas. The Special Collections covers everything beyond Kansas, from the antiquity to the present.
These collections do not only illustrate history, but the origins of books, too. Many of the older books predate printing, showcasing the beautiful crafting of a handmade book.
“It is kind of surprising and wonderful that anybody, but especially students, can really access some of these things — really amazing things from across the world that you can get to without having to leave campus” says Caitlin Donnelly, head of public services.
Unlike the other libraries on campus, the collection materials remain in the building due to the rarity and delicate condition of some of the objects. You can request to see certain materials in the Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room. The books are kept in the stacks, where only student workers and staff members are allowed.
While students aren’t allowed behind the stacks like I was, they can travel down the North Gallery, where only a glass wall separates the viewers from some of the oldest pieces in the Special Collections.
Ashley Hutchison, a student worker who is majoring in Mechanical Engineering, finds requests in the stacks and brings them to patrons in the reading room. Before handing the pieces over to students, she arranges the items with book supports or book weights, ensuring the artifacts are kept in the best condition possible.
One of her favorite pieces is a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s personal journals, kept in the Spencer’s vaults with other rare first editions. “It is possibly the greatest thing for my little nerd self,” she says.
Hutchinson encourages students to visit the Spencer library because she believes it is an amazing resource that is not being utilized enough by undergraduate researchers and fellow book lovers.
If a student needs a primary document or original source, the Spencer library is the place to find it. The library owns some of the rarest volumes and materials in the world. The librarians of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library let Style on the Hill in on ten of the library’s hidden gems — pieces that you can see for yourself anytime.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Book of Hours, France (ca. 1470)
This handmade book of hours was created in France. A book of hours included prayers that people would say at different hours of the day. The Latin text is illustrated with paint and gold leaf and is surrounded by vines, flowers, and birds. “This is one of our real treasures,” says Karen Cook, special collections librarian.
Maps in Ptolemy’s Geographiae manuscript, Italy (printed in 1508)
Claudius Ptolemy, a genius mathematician and geographer, lived in Alexandria circa AD 100-160. His writing survived in the Middle East, and in the 1300s was brought back to Europe. This particular manuscript, printed in Rome in 1508, includes longitudes and latitudes of different places in the world. At the end of the book, the Europeans were able to reconstruct his maps using those numbers. The map is of the old style — the belief that the world was flat and ended beyond India. While geographers were aware of the existence of the New World in 1508, they did not wish to change Ptolemy’s traditional map.
Fetes Données a Versailles en 1664-1666
This is a set of more than 40 volumes that record the life of the French Court, a half century or so before the French Revolution. The book includes engraved illustrations that showcase Versailles in all its glory. Ceremonial marches, plays, exotic animals, and fireworks are all displayed on the grounds of the French palace. “I actually went to Versailles for the first time about five years ago, and this is what it looks like,” says Cook. “I could see how they could turn something like that into a stage.”
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablets (ca 2112-529 BC)
These tablets date from the beginnings of writing — the type of script people wrote in was called cuneiform. They used sticks with a triangular point at the end to write in wet clay. This collection is mostly everyday, business-related documents. The smaller tablet is a receipt for a dead lamb. Another is a legal record of an execution of two brothers who had killed their father.
Scrapbook of Florence Harkrader
This is a student’s personal scrapbook; she was at the University from 1916-1919. She helped roll bandages for the American Red Cross during World War I. Her scrapbook also included homemade party invitations, dance cards and sports programs. “I like the student scrapbooks because they are always different. Most of them are from the early 20th century, and there are photographs of the students themselves, programs of plays and athletic events” says Rebecca Schulte, University archives librarian.
John Gould Sketch (ca. 1801)
These birds, roughly drawn and colored with blues, pinks, and greens, were produced by John Gould. Gould was a London publisher who specialized in books about exotic birds. This is a sketch done by one of his professional artists who did the illustrations for his books. The faint sketches and lines are Gould’s corrections to the illustration.