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Archive for Saturday, May 1, 1999

SATURDAY COLUMN

May 1, 1999

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The heart of any great university is its library. This opinion has been repeated time and again by scholars throughout the country and around the world.

Fortunately, many past Kansas University chancellors have shared this belief and have emphasized the importance of KU having a topflight library system. All KU chancellors probably have realized the importance of a good library system, but in recent times it was the late Franklin Murphy who made a special effort to get KU alumni and friends, as well as members of the Kansas Legislature, excited and enthused about the critical role of libraries. He made it quite clear the excellence of a university could be judged by the excellence of its library system.

While he was chancellor, Murphy never tired of encouraging alumni, friends and legislators to be generous in their financial support of the library. And this love of KU and its library system, and art museum, continued after he left Mount Oread to take the helm of the University of California at Los Angeles and later as chairman of the Times-Mirror Co. in Los Angeles. He never missed an opportunity to give his support to the library and the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art and to encourage others to give to the library and museum.

Today, some of the truly outstanding men and women of the library world are gathered in Lawrence to participate in "Vivat Liber," which is a celebration of books, librarians and readers. This event, which will have David McKitterick of Trinity College, Cambridge University, as a keynote speaker also will focus on the tremendous contribution of Sandy Mason to KU's library system, specifically to the Spencer Research Library and the special collections department at KU.

As Bill Crowe, dean of libraries at KU, told a friend, "Sandy Mason is one of the last links now to that halcyon era of Franklin Murphy and his librarian, Bob Vosper. Sandy's commitment to their ideals, her hard work and her passion for learning have never faltered."

The importance of this event; the honoring of Mason, who is retiring; and the reputation of the Spencer library all combined to help attract McKitterick, who is traveling from Britain to be the keynote speaker. It should be noted Mike Hoeflich, dean of the KU School of Law, played a major role in encouraging McKitterick to come to Lawrence for today's program.

Others participating in the symposium are A.C. Elias, Philadelphia; Breon Mitchell, Indiana University; Nora Quinlan, Nova Southeastern University; Bernard Rosenthal, Berkeley, Calif.; Gordon Sauer, Kansas City, Mo.; and Roger Stoddard, Harvard College.

Mason came to KU in 1957 and was appointed head of special collections in 1963 and Spencer librarian in 1975. In this capacity, she also serves as head of the department of special collections at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.

The majority of the funding for this library came from the late Helen Spencer of Kansas City. She made the contribution in honor of her late husband, Kenneth.

This writer does not know whether Mrs. Spencer knew Mason before deciding to make the gift, but it didn't take long for the two women to become close friends and admirers. Mrs. Spencer was demanding and insisted the building be built in a certain manner. She was a stickler for details, almost a perfectionist, and if she was going to make the money available for a fine library, she wanted to make sure there was someone special who would take good care of it and help build it into a quality facility, recognized as one of the finest on any university campus.

Mason's commitment to the library has never wavered. She has had a deep love affair with the Spencer. Crowe says Mason is the only KU librarian of her generation to be known internationally.

It is hoped today's program will help focus public attention on the importance and role of libraries. As Mason points out, "(research libraries) are the memory of the world. Each of us (libraries) is saving a piece of the memory." She added that libraries offer raw terrain, ripe for exploration by successive generations. "The past is, in a way, a frontier. This is the only time machine you're going to have."

This is particularly true with so much of today's writing being done on computers where there are no original manuscripts, no way for researchers to study the editing that went into books and papers. What will researchers generations from now have to study when they want to delve into the thinking of those who are writing with computers and leaving no revisions or other materials that might provide a roadmap into their thinking and reasoning?

Mason has been a true gem for the university, and she will be missed. She will be leaving the library in good shape for her successor, Crowe.

However, no matter how skilled and dedicated Mason is, or how good a job Crowe will try to do, the continued excellence and growth of the library depends to a large degree on the level of funding. It's important to have good leaders, but these leaders need the money to continue to acquire books and other materials. Mason is right to point out that the state only provides half of the fiscal support for the KU special collections while private support provides the other half.

If KU is to become an even finer university, its libraries must help lead the way. The public and state legislators must be made aware of this situation, and funding for the libraries should be one of the top priorities in the university's upcoming capital campaign, which is now in an early planning stage.

Sandy Mason is leaving a rare legacy, and it is up to all those interested in books, history and libraries to make sure the Spencer library continues to grow and be a truly outstanding research library.

Thanks to Mason for all she has done for KU and for her ability to encourage others to become interested in libraries and in books. Vivat Liber!

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