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The Library That Became A Labyrinth

September 11, 1924


For over 90 years, Watson Library has been a prominent and imposing fixture, a true landmark on the campus of the University of Kansas. With its sturdy limestone construction, Collegiate Gothic façade, and traditional red tile roof, it not only blends in well with surrounding structures, but also possesses a unique, venerable quality that more contemporary buildings noticeably lack.

Though “striking in its beauty,” as the Graduate Magazine once remarked, Watson Library has been, and remains, one of the most criticized and lamented buildings on the hilltop, due in large part to its seemingly constant lack of capacity and its “grim and depressing” interior. Since Watson first opened for student use on September 11, 1924, the library has undergone numerous and increasingly costly additions and has been the favorite whipping boy of students and faculty alike.

When the inaugural class of students entered the University in 1866, all library holdings were stored in KU’s only building, now remembered as Old North. Cast-iron stoves provided the heat for each of the three-story building’s ten rooms, one of which housed the University’s meager library. It contained, according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, “some reports of the United States Patent Office and a few miscellaneous volumes of no importance.” It was hardly an auspicious beginning for a library system that would eventually contain many millions of volumes and feature world-renowned special collections.

Six years later, in 1872, the library moved into the University’s newest and most modern building, the structure that would eventually carry the name Old Fraser Hall. And then, in 1894, after a generous bequest from a wealthy Boston merchant and philanthropist, William B. Spooner (an uncle of KU Chancellor Francis H. Snow), the University was able to build its first free standing library, aptly named Spooner Library (now home of KU’s anthropology collections and the interdisciplinarian center “The Commons”). “Large and pleasant, well lighted and well appointed,” wrote Griffin, “the library had a capacity of about one hundred thousand volumes, or almost five times as many as the University then had.”

In spite of the new and more spacious accommodations in Spooner Library, the University’s actual holdings were far from impressive; in fact, they were downright paltry for an institution that, since 1894, had boasted a Graduate School and offered the PhD degree. The library was, according to Griffin, the “University’s greatest shame,” and it could not attract the best students or retain top faculty without superior (or, at the very least, adequate) research facilities. Spooner did experience some significant growth during the early part of the twentieth century, expanding, for example, from 55,000 volumes in 1907 to over 100,000 by 1915.

Yet despite reaching the building’s maximum capacity, KU’s holdings were still markedly deficient. “We have a fairly good working library in most departments,” wrote Professor Frank H. Hodder, chairman of the Division of Libraries, in a 1920 letter to KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, “but we fall far short of an adequate research library in all departments.”

Furthermore, added Hodder, Spooner Library was “about as badly planned from the standpoint of lighting and of library administration as it possibly could have been. It is obviously the most ridiculous thing on campus.” He concluded his missive by warning, “We cannot make anyone think we have a great university as long as we are compelled to show this library.” KU was “starving intellectually… for want of adequate library facilities” and only a solid financial commitment from the state legislature to construct a new, larger library could sate the University’s appetite.

By the early 1920s, with Spooner filled to the rafters with over 150,000 books – far beyond its intended capacity – the University capitalized on a rare spurt of munificence from Topeka legislators and began something of a building boom. In addition to appropriating funds for Corbin Hall, a hospital administration building at Rosedale, completion of what would become Strong Hall, and the construction of a new power plant, the state legislature allocated $250,000 for a new library. By most accounts, the sum was too small to build a library large enough to fit the University’s needs, and “all that Lindley could do,” wrote Griffin, “was stretch the money as far as possible and hope that future legislatures would be generous.”

Construction on the University’s new library began in the spring of 1923. As to the question of what the building should be called, many alumni wanted it named after the University’s longest-serving librarian, Carrie M. Watson (c’1877, n’1880), who held her position from 1887 until 1921. Among her more prominent champions were the “Sage of Emporia” himself, William Allen White, and the governor of Kansas, Jonathan M. Davis.

They prevailed upon the State Board of Administration to name the building Watson Library, over the objections of Chancellor Lindley. Watson was indeed a dedicated and formidable woman, although, as Griffin noted, her tenure as university librarian was characterized by “erratic administration” and “mismanagement.” Griffin’s assessment aside, it is unclear whether Lindley’s objections to naming the building after Watson were the result of such substantive criticisms or some effort to spite the wishes of Gov. Davis, with whom he had been having a long-running feud (and which would eventually result in his temporary ouster from the University.)

On September 11, 1924, Watson Library first opened for student use. It was “so neatly arranged,” glowed the Graduate Magazine, “so unique in design with its Gothic arched doorways, so attractive with its indirect lighting systems, its cream and nut brown color scheme that it is indeed, as one alumnus put it, ‘an inviting place to study.’” The magazine added, “A deep impression is left on the alumnus who visits Watson Library. He will never forget this place.”

When Watson Library opened, the University’s Director of Libraries, Earl N. Manchester (who had succeeded Carrie Watson in 1921), had over 184,000 volumes under his charge and was receiving nearly 9,000 new books every year. Almost immediately, Watson began to overflow, proving Chancellor Lindley correct when he declared the $250,000 appropriation (which ended up rising to $310,000) too small to accommodate KU’s rapidly expanding library resources. “Alas, like its predecessor [Spooner Library],” wrote Stuart Forth, a subsequent Acting Director of Libraries at KU, Watson “was not built with sufficient thought for expansion, and by 1926, the handsome Indiana limestone building … was already giving evidence that it, too, was becoming overcrowded.”

By 1938, the situation had become so exacerbated that the quality of Kansas education was being “diminished,” according to Griffin. “The want of stack space in Watson Library meant that thirty-six thousand volumes … were shelved in public corridors where they might be stolen, in a sub-basement where they deteriorated from dampness and mold, in cartons in the attic where they were unavailable, and even in one of the staff toilet rooms.”

And that was not all. “Among other disadvantages to the chaos,” noted Griffin “…was that in the library’s present state” the University could hardly “appeal for gifts of valuable private collections.” “It is impossible to promise any prospective donor that his gift will be given decent, not to say dignified treatment,” lamented Charles M. Baker, who succeeded Manchester as director of libraries in 1928 and served until 1952.

In 1947, the State Legislature approved a bid of $218,000 (although the final figure would be closer to $400,000), to make two major additions to Watson Library, to both the east and west wings. The additions would provide room to house 280,000 more volumes, nearly doubling the capacity of the state’s largest library, as well as making more space available for reading rooms and library offices.

Watson’s new west wing would also house the University’s Kansas Collection, containing “official state documents, books and materials dealing with state and local history, general information about the state and books written by Kansas authors.” (The Kansas Collection is now located in the Spencer Research Library.) Even with these structural additions, however, according to Forth, by the early 1960s “the building itself … had long been outgrown, and only by dispersing collections all over the campus could Watson continue to be used.”

Further additions were built in 1963, expanding Watson’s capacity to 1.3 million, and by this time, Watson had begun to acquire a strong reputation as a repository of some truly unique and important special collections. These included major holdings on such diverse subjects as historical cartography, Irish literature, ornithology, and the works of Virgil, leading Director Forth to write in the November 1964 Alumni Magazine that Watson’s holdings “have probably done more to carry KU’s fame over the world than any one other thing at the University. They are known to the librarians of the British Museum, of the Vatican, the Sorbonne, and the other great libraries of Europe and America.”

Yet by the mid-1970s, complaints were rife regarding the library’s continuing lack of space and increasingly unsafe conditions – the building was, after all, reaching the half-century mark. In 1977, the Friends of the Library at the University of Kansas published a pamphlet describing the conditions in Watson and, naturally, pleaded for funds to renovate the aged facility. It was, according to one building consultant, “a very dangerous place to work in. In some states, it would be condemned for human use.”

The five structural additions completed between 1938 and 1963, though necessary, had “produced a sprawling and complex structure, lacking in overall coherence. The interior is a veritable warren of small and awkwardly shaped spaces, making it exceedingly difficult for students to find their way about and precluding any organized and efficient deployment of library services.” Perhaps most obvious were Watson’s “grim and depressing” interior, “outmoded elevators” and patently obsolete mechanical and electrical systems.

“In summary,” the Friends concluded, “the present conditions within the Library cause students and faculty to avoid its use whenever possible; this seriously compromises learning and teaching at the University of Kansas and must be corrected if quality education is to be preserved.” [Italics in original.]

They got their wish the following year, in 1978, when the State Legislature appropriated the first half-million dollar chunk of what was projected to be a $6.2 million internal renovation plan for Watson. Long-range plans, however, included the construction of an entirely new library to house the University’s science and engineering collections, thus restricting Watson’s holdings to the humanities and social sciences. This new facility, which became Anschutz Library, would not be completed, however, until 1989.

Until then, students and faculty had to make due, combing through the labyrinthine basements, sub-basements and cramped corridors that housed Watson’s 2 million volumes, hundreds of thousands of government documents and microfilms, 175,000 maps and 420,000 photographs. They could take some small comfort, perhaps – and so too can students and faculty today – that at least Watson’s books were finally safe from the ravages of mold and its bathrooms no longer doubled as storage bins.

Indeed, the only perfect solution to Watson’s storage problems, or any other library’s for that matter, may be technological advancement; and in KU’s case, this manifests itself in the University’s online electronic library, the nation’s first, aptly named CARRIE after the woman herself. Debuting in the summer of 1993, the system contains resources and links to an extraordinary amount of diverse documents and information, including world constitutions, United Nations and Catholic Church materials, primary sources of American and European history, and the literary treasures of Western Civilization. From Christopher Columbus’s journal entries to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war speeches to firsthand accounts of Quantrill’s raid to Shakespeare’s complete works and beyond, all can be accessed and read online courtesy of CARRIE: surely an excellent resource and evidence enough that KU’s first professional librarian remains a part of her library long after her passing

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Consult the Watson Library Building File for a wealth of documents pertaining to Watson Library. See also: Graduate Magazine (April 1923), p. 5, and (October 1924), pp. 14-15. For reports of Watson’s 1947 additions, see Kansas City Star, August 7, 1947, and Topeka Capitol, September 15, 1947; for Stuart Forth’s article, see Alumni Magazine (November 1964), pp. 7-8, 26. The following issues of the University Daily Kansan are also pertinent: January 3, 1923, p. 1; June 13, 1924, p. 1; September 8, 1924, p. 1; and April 30, 1926, p. 3. Particularly helpful is Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 301-2, 380, 428, 439, 440, 483, and 596-97.]