Spencer Research Library

Back doors of Spencer Research Library. A new exhibit at the Library honors the late Helen and Kenneth Spencer. Helen donated funds for the library in honor of her husband.

As a rare-books, manuscripts, special collections and archival library, the University of Kansas’ Spencer Research Library holds one-of-a-kind materials that can date back millennia. Though it is open to students, staff, faculty and the general public, it holds the lowest attendance rate of any library on the University’s Lawrence campus. However, that is beginning to change.

Public service worker Emily Beran believes the library has been underutilized by students for a few simple reasons: it is tucked behind Strong Hall, one of the largest buildings on campus; students do not know they can use the library; and it is intimidating to even come into a research library.

“I think that a lot of people hear ‘research library,’ ‘archives,’ ‘manuscripts,’ ‘rare books’ and they sometimes associate those words and those ideas with ‘this is only supposed to be used for faculty or very serious scholarship,’” Beran said.

Meredith Huff, office manager for public services, said the head of public services at the library, Caitlin Klepper, has been working to combat this issue, and the effort is making a difference. Beth Whittaker, the director of the library, said 7,000 people visited the library and over 1,600 people used the library’s reading room to conduct research in 2018, including high school groups. 

“You get those high school kids in here so that, when they come to college, they already know it’s here," Huff said. You get college students in lower-level classes in so they’re comfortable coming in here and they know it’s a resource, so when they get into their higher-level classes, they’re … more comfortable coming in.”

One way for those interested to better understand what the Spencer Research Library has to offer is through exhibits. The library rotates two or three exhibits throughout the year that are on display in the north gallery, near the main entrance. 

The current exhibit, Meet the Spencers, tells the story of Kenneth, the library’s namesake, and Helen Spencer, who the art museum behind the Kansas Memorial Union is named after. The exhibit will be at the library through June 28. 

The next exhibit will be about the conservation department in the library and how they help preserve the library’s materials. It will include some of the tools that conservation workers use so the public can see one of the other departments in the library, according to Huff.

The influx of users is exciting for those who work in the library, partially because the building itself is a rare find, especially in Kansas. Beran said other public universities who have special collections may only have one room in a library to house them. At the Spencer, there are four stories of stacks dedicated to rare materials.

“These kinds of libraries are difficult to establish and develop because they’re dealing with a lot of material that is unique, things that you can’t find more than one copy of, so getting a hold of copies of stuff can be difficult,” Beran said. “It’s not necessarily something you always see at public universities, especially not on this scale.”

The library is home to many different special collections, such as the Kansas collection and the Irish collection, which is among the largest collection of Irish literature outside of Dublin. Whittaker said because of these materials, the library provides unrivaled opportunities for students, staff and faculty.

“There truly is something for everyone here,” Whittaker said. “This allows students in particular to have a chance to do original research that might not be possible elsewhere.”