Archive for Monday, September 6, 2004

A page in the life

KU librarian enjoys connecting the past with present

September 6, 2004


Growing up in Boston, Spencer Research Library librarian Bill Crowe spent many weekends exploring the "extraordinary number of historical sites" in and around the city. Early in life, he hoped to become a history teacher, especially after listening to his father's stories.

Library science first stirred Crowe's curiosity when he took a position at the Boston Public Library at age 17. There "some extraordinary librarians paid attention" to him inciting questions as to "how all these books - and manuscripts and other things" came together and how they were used.

Q:Why is library science important?

A:The role of the librarian is that of a "trusted third party" in our society, akin to the role of other professionals whose work we must trust - attorneys, physicians, accountants, pharmacists, journalists and the like.

We are expected to act professionally to ensure that we can provide the best available sources of information of today and of the past. We do this whether through the assembling of books for children to help them develop the capacity to learn and explore, to offering the myriad electronic and traditional sources that secondary schoolchildren and college students must have to complete their course of study, to meeting the even more diverse needs of scholars for the best evidence to advance their work in developing new knowledge, to ensuring the bedrock right of every person in society to be able to explore freely all types of information, especially the public record, in order to contribute to civic life.

Q:At its best, what is the role of library science?

A:To build and sustain the trust of those we serve ... that we are offering professional service with integrity and openness to all.

Q:What are three traits of a great librarian?

A:Intellectual curiosity and eagerness to learn; personal and professional integrity that inspire trust; and an openness to - and respect for - all with whom you work and the people whose needs you are trying to meet.

Bill Crowe, a librarian at Kansas University&squot;s Spencer Research
Library, shows off one of his favorite books and one of the oldest,
Pliny the Elder&squot;s "Naturae historiarum," which is still used at KU.

Bill Crowe, a librarian at Kansas University's Spencer Research Library, shows off one of his favorite books and one of the oldest, Pliny the Elder's "Naturae historiarum," which is still used at KU.

Q:Tell us about the Spencer's purpose and collections.

A:At its core, the library's role is to make available "original records of human experience to help connect the generations."

Q:How important is maintaining an accurate record of the past and present?

A:The authenticity of the record of "what happened" - for almost any purpose - is vital to the integrity of our interactions with each other. We may differ in interpreting the meaning of the records we use, but if we cannot be sure that the record has not been tampered with - censored, bowdlerized, purged, or corrupted - we can become lost, mistrustful and suspicious.

Q:What can the past teach us?

A:Whew. We come quickly to understand that human experience is at once so varied across great spans of time and place and yet at the same time so familiar. We cannot fail to recognize elements of our own times and of ourselves as we explore libraries and archives ... and the holdings of other cultural heritage organizations, especially museums.

Q:Do you feel that humanity defines itself by the records it chooses to keep?

A:In many important ways, yes. Scholars seek often to understand what it is that animates us to collect all sorts of things from works of art to campaign buttons to books and documentary records. The Hall Center for the Humanities sponsored a seminar on this very topic last year, in fact. Archivists and librarians try to anticipate the value of items not only to the present day but also to the future, trying to look past our current biases and blind spots as much as we can, to capture, organize and preserve items against many unknowns.

Q:What are you most passionate about in your work? Why?

A:I am at my happiest when I help people make a connection. Experiencing this phenomenon is one anyone who works in education can recognize. The learning that comes back to me when I am drawn into a discussion of what we might acquire for the collections, how we might best prepare it for use, how we might call it to the attention of the community of learners is the payback.

Q:What are some of the holdings of the Spencer that might surprise people?

A:This is difficult to answer, of course, because I am too close to the scene. In every area of the collections, whether in the University Archives, the Kansas Collection, or Special Collections, there are what we term "gee whiz" items - things that catch almost anyone's attention at once. Consider letters from (William) Quantrill to his mother and the enormous holdings of ephemeral material produced by political movements from both the right and the left in the last half of the 20th century. Showing students pamphlets from the 1950s on the evils of television can be an eye-opener for them. The world's greatest collection of drawings and published work of John Gould, a name that in Britain and places like Australia is to them as "Audubon" is to us.

Birthday: Feb. 27, 1947.Born: Boston.Family: Nancy Sanders, wife; Katherine Crowe, daughter.Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in European history and French, Boston State College, 1968; master's degree in library service, Rutgers University, 1969; and doctorate in library and information science, Indiana University, 1986.Favorite nonfiction books: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman and "The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam.Favorite pastime: Reading biographies.Favorite Lawrence place: Watkins Community Museum of History.If you know someone who would make an interesting feature, contact Greg Hurd at 832-6372 or

The collections attract people from all across the world. At least one-third of our users who visit on site are not Kansas University students, faculty or staff. Last year, they came from all across Kansas, more than 30 other states and several other nations.

Q:How has the Internet changed library science?

A:The basics are no different, but the speed and complexity of sifting and winnowing information to test its value is astonishingly more challenging.

Q:Other than the KU libraries, what are three of your favorite libraries?

A:Boston Public Library. For its pioneering efforts to blend a commitment to build a great research library with an innovative system of public library service to the City's neighborhoods. We had 26 branch libraries in my day.

American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass. A privately-funded library that seeks to document the American experience through its first century of our independence with an astonishingly diverse and rich collection and a model program of service to scholars and laypeople alike.

The Library of Congress. This kaleidoscope of collections is matched by a set of services to the nation and the world that are not fully appreciated by most Americans. The work of the people at the Library of Congress has been pivotal for a century to the success of many major improvements in how libraries across the U.S. and the world deliver services.

Q:What are your favorite library collections at the Spencer?

A:If pressed, I fall back to the John Gould drawings and publications; the "Little Blue Books," published by the hundreds in Girard, Kan., in the last century, and the papers of many great KU administrators and faculty whose service to students and scholarship can be inspiring to review.

Q:What are three of your favorite library collections outside of KU?

A:The Library of John Adams at the Boston Public Library, the Charvat Collection of American Fiction at Ohio State University and the Confederate Imprints Collection at the Boston Athenaeum.

Q:What are your career goals?

A:To carry out an upgrading of the public spaces in the Spencer Research Library, complete moving to online status all of the catalog records and finding aids that lead people to the library's holdings, and to launch a campaign to raise sufficient funds to take the Spencer Research Library fully into the digital age.

Q:What has been the greatest achievement in your career thus far?

A:To have been closely involved in several initiatives among libraries in Indiana, Ohio and Kansas to promote collaboration to improve services, and to have been a part of the governing bodies for networks of libraries working together to extend the reach of libraries to more people. I am especially proud to have been elected a member of the board of trustees over the last eight years of OCLC Online Computer Library Center, the international collaborative of 40,000 plus libraries in 80 plus nations.

Q:If there was one thing I wanted people in Lawrence to know:

A:What an extraordinary assemblage of cultural heritage institutions we have here and within the 50 miles surrounding. This is a great asset not only for their own sake, but also as an attraction to bringing here the newer types of service and information-based businesses that want an environment attractive to "knowledge workers" from around the world.

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