Spencer Field Trip

Felix and a friend arranged their own school field trip to the Spencer Research Library, and I got to tag along as a ‘volunteer driver.’ Trips with his school aren’t like when I was a kid: a single student or a small group plans a whole trip, and then only they go on them; there’s no big busload all getting shuttled to the same place. (Ostensibly they are so students can independently research whatever they are working on, but in Felix’s class I’ve seen them more like rewards for good behavior.) But it’s great to see the students plan them: they have to find the location, call and make an appointment, consult a map and write out driving directions, pretty much plan the whole thing.

Felix and his friend went to the Spencer Research Library, a resource at KU that has a big collection of KU and Kansas History, as well as a general collection of a few weird things.


The library has a reception desk in the middle of a large otherwise-empty room, where they gave Felix and his friend a scavenger hunt to find in the Gallery. The gallery is a red-carpeted U-shaped pathway around a 2-story glass box, which is edged with the more impressive bits of the library’s collection. And for a book nerd like myself, it is impressive!

Spencer Gallery

They’ve got collection foci around ornithology, early modern books, Irish literature, midcentury scifi, Moby Dick (!!!), Kansas Sanborn maps (with their cool hand-drawn type) and more. But they also have some individual curiosities, like a handful of cuneiform tablets (!!!), the papers of the North family, even a land grant signed by Henry VIII.

Spencer Gallery [Lots of early modern books that I wish we could have gotten our hands on]

Spencer Gallery [On the left, a 4000-year-old tablet. On the right, a 400-year-old spindle of paperwork. How to keep your receipts in order? Spike them all on a string and hang them around your office? Sure, that’s one way.]

After the gallery tour, we sat down with a librarian so the students could ask questions. We got her talking, and after some excited hemming and hawing, she took us back into the storage area to actually look at the collection! This was exciting for me. Nothing beats a behind-the-scenes tour! We saw more of their cuneiform (no photos allowed), 2000-year-old grave markers, really really giant atlases (3 feet high if they were a day) and tiny tiny books. We got to walk around inside the glass cube and check out the fancy collection bits up close.

Fun fact: at the Spencer, everything is primarily classified by size, not subject. So their call numbers range from A-J, where A = 3 inches or so, and J = ‘You’re going to need a bigger table to put this thing on.” But below A there is an additional size, ‘t’ for Tiny. These books are less than 3 inches tall. That’s tiny!

Then! after that cool tour, we registered as Readers, and made a request from the reading room. The spencer doesn’t have stacks you can stroll through; you have to make your request thru a librarian in the reading room, and they bring out the collection for you. We requested some photos that our friends had donated to the library, and got to don the special viewing gloves and everything.

Spencer Gallery

This is my favorite kind of attention arbitrage. If you can get an expert talking about something a little bit niche, you can totally convert that excitement into new experiences. I don’t mean it cynically - life is just more interesting when you are easily interested in, say, looking at the biggest and smallest books that a library has.

The Sea Hates a Coward