LAWRENCE — Whether someone visits a museum or a library, there is often no end to what they can learn, but it’s usually clear which type of cultural institution they are in. The grand reopening of the North Gallery of Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas will welcome visitors to a space that is a bit of both.
KU Libraries have undergone an ambitious renovation of the space, which houses and displays the University Archives, some of the Libraries’ most unique collections and historical items that go far beyond books. The North Gallery will reopen as one of the most unique library spaces on an American college campus, blending the resources and expertise of an academic library with the accessibility, technology and feel of a 21st century museum.
Reopening on the cusp of Spencer’s 50th anniversary, the North Gallery has long been home to KU Libraries’ distinctive collections. As visitors enter the space at the grand reopening event, set for Thursday, Sept. 7, they will find a space dedicated to highlighting the libraries’ rare and unique resources through a new, permanent exhibition featuring selected materials and interactive multimedia tools.
“I think making the environment in an academic library a museumlike experience for the visitor at all times is fairly unique,” said Beth Whittaker, assistant dean of distinctive collections and director of Spencer. “We’re really trying to give the casual visitor access to our unique collections. I think Spencer is home to very interesting and varied collections.”
Visitors will still see shelves of rare, unique and antique books behind glass cases. But they will also have new museum-quality, interactive displays at their fingertips. The displays will share information about the university’s history, including its archives, chancellors and unique mascot. Touchscreens will make more information available at the user’s choice and play videos detailing the collections, items and history. But books are not all viewers will find. Roughly 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets, historical photographs and even one of Isaac Asimov’s Hugo Awards are all on display.
The North Gallery also features introductions to Spencer’s world-class collections, including the Wilcox Collection of American Political Movements; Kansas Collection, featuring works of former Lawrence resident Langston Hughes; African-American Experience Collection; one of the world’s largest Irish literature collections outside of Ireland; Summerfield Collection of European materials dating to the 15th Century; and numerous science fiction collections.
“The North Gallery now better represents the materials we have in our various collections,” said Caitlin Donnelly, head of public services at Spencer Research Library. “The hope is people will come through the exhibit and want to explore more of Spencer’s collections in the Reading Room.”
Materials in the collection are available to scholars, faculty members, students and the general public in the Reading Room upon request.
The new space is also better suited to preserve valuable materials, with improved environmental controls and protection against potential water damage. The renovation has also maintained the gallery’s sweeping view of the World War II Memorial Campanile and Marvin Grove. Spencer is also open to visitors on Saturdays and will continue to feature rotating displays, including the current exhibition about World War I and a coming exhibition on the history of women’s athletics at KU.
The Spencer Research Library was dedicated in 1968, established by a gift from Helen Spencer in memory of her late husband, Kenneth. The renovation was made possible by a gift from former KU Librarian Ann Hyde and the generosity of friends of KU Libraries.
The newly renovated North Gallery will help take KU’s history and academic resources to a much wider audience.
“We are extremely grateful to former KU Librarian Ann Hyde and friends of KU Libraries who made possible the renovations of the North Gallery,” said Kevin L. Smith, dean of KU Libraries. “These renovations provide beautiful spaces for events, will help preserve the usable life of the materials housed at Spencer and, most important, increase our ability to make these materials accessible and usable for teaching and research. The display features that highlight some of our most important collections will really benefit students who want to explore a research topic deeply.”