Kansas State Library offers bestseller ebooks, obscure ag reports and view through a glass floor

Devotion to books of Kansas or works by Kansans inspires annual celebration

By: - May 8, 2023 8:18 am
Wulf James appears on the Kansas Reflector podcast to talk about the Kansas State Library

Wulf James appears on the Kansas Reflector podcast to talk about the Kansas State Library, which offers a journey into state government’s obscure past and access to modern library tools. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Folks with the Kansas State Library at the Capitol can track down records of inspired and ridiculous bills long forgotten by political insiders, while directing online consumers of the written word to audio, electronic and Braille formats.

Visitors to the Statehouse’s north wing can walk into a modern two-story library featuring polished brass sunflowers, iron railings, intricate stenciling and the famous glass floor — a brilliant idea of the early 1900s for reducing potential for fire and maximizing flow of light through the public space. The library was renovated along with remainder of the domed building in a 15-year project that cost about $325 million.

“There are records of every state agency and organization housed there either physically or digitally,” said Wulf  James, a relatively new member of the library staff. “If you have a hankering to read agricultural reports from 1873, have at it. Lots of fun stuff. There are some, you know, academic things — very old things like a book from the 1700s. But, yes, the glass floors seem to be the big attraction.”

James said the Kansas State Library issued nearly 70,000 digital cards to patrons of shelved books, databases and online holdings of bestsellers, self-published work, comics and graphic novels. The state library serves as a resource to Kansans along with the state’s 375 public library buildings, 80 academic institutions and 2,000 schools. In addition, the state library is a depository of U.S. government publications.

As an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book, the Kansas State Library sponsored the annual Kansas Notable Books program. Each year state librarian Ray Walling, with input from colleagues, highlights books published the previous year by Kansans, or about or set in Kansas. The titles are celebrated throughout the new year. Grants have made it possible to reimburse libraries throughout the state that purchase selections for their collections.

“Through their work, the authors take readers on a journey through the wetlands of the Cheyenne Bottoms to the baseball fields of the Kansas City Monarchs,” Walling said. “Readers can be transported back in time to the 1887 election in Argonia or to the epic battle of twin sisters enabled with superpowers facing a sinister force.”

Authors of Kansas Notable Books are awarded medals in September at the Kansas Book Festival, which was launched in 2011 by Mary Brownback, wife of then-Gov. Sam Brownback.

James said the 2022 Kansas Notable Books collection included the inspiring “Running Out — In Search of Water on the High Plains” by anthropologist Lucas Bessire. The book brought into focus how vital the underground Ogallala Aquifer had been for centuries and the gravity of depleting the resource through aggressive irrigation.

“I was able to hear him speak at Topeka Public Library after having read that book,” James said. “Really an awesome experience.”

They said a personal favorite beyond the state library’s list was the novel “Girl of the Sea of Cortez” by Peter Benchley, who was notable for writing “Jaws” in 1974 and “The Deep” in 1976.

“Yes, that’s the guy that wrote ‘Jaws,’ But this book is better,” James said.

James urged Kansans to make the journey to the Capitol for a taste of what a state library could offer or simply take a trip to a local library to take in a portion of creativity, imagination and intellect found there.

Libraries have historically been a place where people gather knowledge and stories and share those things with each other. And that’s just as important now as as ever.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.