Archive for Sunday, April 25, 1999


April 25, 1999


The chief librarian at Spencer Research Library at Kansas University is closing the book on a career spanning 42 years.

It would be a stretch to imagine Sandy Mason on top of a thick oak table in Kenneth Spencer Research Library shouting "Vivat Liber! Vivat Liber!"

While reserved enough to resist the role of a fist-pumping revolutionary in Spencer Library's distinguished confines, Mason's passion for celebrating the power of rare books and manuscripts evokes the warmth of Jim Henson, the commitment of Mohandas Gandhi and the sense of wonder harbored by Rachel Carson.

Vivat liber -- or long live the book -- captures this veteran Kansas University librarian's belief that preservation of old texts offers the best opportunity for witnesses to the past to speak with readers of today.

"The best part of being a research librarian? Finding a book or manuscript with great resource potential -- very hard to find -- bringing it to KU and making it available to researchers for the first time in hundreds of years."

Mason, official Spencer librarian and head of the special collections department at KU, is on the verge of retirement after working 42 years at the university.

"She's the only KU librarian of her generation to be known internationally. I mean that," said Bill Crowe, dean of KU libraries and successor to Mason as Spencer librarian.

He said Mason had been a leader in the noble quest to provide people hands-on access to sources that answer mysteries of bygone eras. At Spencer Library, anyone -- young or old, novice or scholar, American or not -- can personally peruse Raphain Caresini's history of Venice, written in 1390; study an 1854 map of the Kansas and Nebraska territories; or flip through a 1926 copy of "Amazing Stories," the first magazine devoted entirely to science fiction.

"She represents the best of what has been and will continue to be -- seeking after truth without fear or favor," Crowe said.

Book on Mason

Alexandra "Sandy" Mason grew up in the central Massachusetts community of North Leverett, the domain of 150 people along the Connecticut River. She went to a one-room school before heading to Amherst High. It was at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., that she was drawn to library work.

She was motivated by intellectual and economic issues.

"I needed to make money for books. It also was very interesting."

Pondering options for graduate school, Mason decided "being a librarian seemed not unlike a bad idea."

She earned a master's degree in library science in 1955 at Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh. After a year working as reference librarian for World Book Encyclopedia in Chicago, Mason was hired by KU to catalogue rare books.

She was appointed head of special collections in 1963 and named Spencer librarian in 1975.

In 1990, she received the first Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Librarianship in recognition of her contributions to KU libraries and her international leadership in rare book and special collections.

"Here I collect," said Mason, during a tour of Spencer Library. "At home, I accumulate."

Mason is especially fond of detective mysteries, science fiction and travel books. She's moved several times to a new home to accommodate her personal collection.

The university's research library moved in 1968 into a fine 100,000-square-foot, four-story building next to Strong Hall that was financed by Helen Foresman Spencer in honor of her late husband.

"Helen did very well for us," Mason said.

Spencer Library is home to the rare books, manuscripts and archives library for the university. It contains hundreds of thousands of items.

Mason said Spencer Library had evolved with introduction of new technology, such as computers, and stood as the second-best library in the Big 12 Conference in terms of quantity of materials. The collection at University of Texas dwarfs KU's holdings.

Mason said Spencer Library had yet to shed one nagging problem -- insufficient financial resources. For example, the state covers half the KU special collection department's budget. Private fund raising is required to make ends meet, she said.

"Our budget is one-tenth the library at University of Indiana," Mason said.

She believes university research libraries to be worthy of substantial private and public investment.

"We are the memory of the world," she said. "Each of us (libraries) is saving a piece of the memory."

Libraries provide people with raw terrain ripe for exploration by successive generations, she said. "The past is, in a way, a frontier. This is the only time machine you're going to have."

'Darn good run'

With Spencer Library's collection behind her on massive shelves and a spectacular view in front of her through broad windows facing Memorial Stadium, Mason reflected on her decision to retire.

"It was time," the 68-year-old single woman said. "You have to start thinking the future is shorter than the past."

She said taking the plunge now allowed KU to make a reasonable transition to successors. Crowe agreed to assume her role as Spencer librarian. A search will be conducted for a new special collections director.

"I've seen in recent years a number of libraries left standing in a state of bureaucratic disorganization when their librarian died on the job," Mason said.

She has no intention of passing away fumbling through a budget spreadsheet. She plans to surrender a lifetime of official responsibilities this summer, but continue serving the library.

"I want to work with manuscripts " and become one of the great core of volunteers."

Before retirement day comes, Mason will be honored guest at a symposium, "Vivat Liber: Celebrating Books, Librarians and Readers at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library."

The free, public symposium will be 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 1 in the Spencer Library auditorium. In addition, an anonymous donor gave $10,000 to establish a scholarship fund for library students in honor of Mason and Joseph Rubinstein, head of special collections from 1955 to 1963.

"It's an amazing, surprising thing," Mason said. "I'm enormously impressed."

"I'm very grateful to KU for the darn good run I've had here."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is

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