When you need answers, UK research assistant has a history of coming through

Frank Stanger, a Special Collections research assistant at the University of Kentucky, looked at a reproduction from a 16th-century book of the liturgy of the Mass.
Frank Stanger, a Special Collections research assistant at the University of Kentucky, looked at a reproduction from a 16th-century book of the liturgy of the Mass. ©2011

If you're doing historical research, Frank Stanger at the University of Kentucky just might be your go-to guy.

If your questions pertain to the French Revolution or classical music, he's especially eager to help. That's because he is particularly interested in those subjects.

Stanger, who has worked in the UK library system's Special Collections Division since 1977, responds to calls and email from researchers throughout the world seeking information. He also helps people who show up to do research in Special Collections, headquartered in UK's Margaret I. King Library. He has been an archivist and now works as a research assistant in Special Collections.

"We're an historical repository," Stanger said. "This is looked upon as (UK's) repository for rare books and related materials."

"He's a great ambassador for Special Collections at UK," said Eastern Kentucky University history professor Tom Appleton. "He knows the collection backward and forward. ... It's been his life's work."

Appleton said he tells his students who go to UK to do research to seek Stanger and introduce themselves.

"I'm sure that there are many, many people who go there who ask for Frank by name," he said.

Appleton described Stanger as "very, very self-effacing," a "workhorse, rather than a show horse" and "someone who never disappoints."

"I've found him to be a first-rate librarian," retired UK historian Bert Nelli said of Stanger, "extremely helpful to those who come in and seek help, and very knowledgeable, and a very pleasant individual. I've done research over there, and I have nothing but favorable things to say about him."

Perhaps fittingly, the first books Stanger brought out to show off during a recent interview at the library were liturgical books from the 15th century.

Stanger is the son of the late Rev. Frank Bateman Stanger, who was president of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1962 to 1982.

The younger Stanger, who spent his early years in New Jersey and moved to Central Kentucky with his family in 1959, holds a bachelor's degree in history and political science from Asbury College and a master's degree in European history, with an emphasis on the French Revolution, from UK. He also has completed all of the class work at UK toward a doctorate in modern European history.

"I knew I could put my training to work here. I just took a liking to it and I stayed," he said of Special Collections.

In addition to the centuries-old liturgical books, among the rare books he can refer to or retrieve for researchers are books on European history, especially British and French history, and on American history, the Civil War in particular.

"Speaking of jewels in our collections, I would say we have one of the better collections of John Milton ... I would say one of the best, at least in the country. It's pretty extensive and good-sized," Stanger said. "We have a good collection of books in English literature."

Materials donated to Special Collections by UK graduate and Rhodes Scholar William Hugh Peal concentrate on authors and poets of the Romantic period and include many autographs of famous people, including Queen Victoria, he said.

UK's Special Collections also has contemporarily published editions of British Parliament proceedings; contemporary printings of French government proceedings, including those that occurred during the French Revolution; and a "very fine and very diverse" Spanish manuscripts collection dating from medieval times to the 19th century, Stanger said.

But, he said, "We're better known for what really is our collecting specialty — Kentucky history."

Special Collections is known for its materials on the entire Kentuckiana region, for that matter, Stanger said.

"We have city directories; we have telephone directories," he said. There also are census records for Kentucky from 1800 through the 1930s, and wills, deeds, grants and marriage records, he said.

"We have more on Louisville and Lexington, of course," Stanger said.

Special Collections houses the papers of Kentucky-born composer and balladeer John Jacob Niles and the papers of author Harriette Simpson Arnow, a Wayne County native whose best-known book is The Dollmaker, Stanger said. It also houses the papers of some of Kentucky's governors, including A.B. "Happy" Chandler and Earle C. Clements, he said.

"We have some (President Abraham) Lincoln letters, which we keep in a safe," he said. "We have letters from other presidents."

While working as an archivist in Special Collections, Stanger helped organize, inventory and preserve the papers of former UK presidents, including Frank McVey and Herman Donovan, and he processed papers of prominent UK professors.

"I processed reference materials," Stanger said. "I was the main point person for reference in university archives."

In October, Stanger was the go-to guy for the investiture of UK's new president, Eli Capilouto. Stanger researched how such ceremonies were handled for previous presidents.

"They couldn't find anything much to go on, I guess, in the president's office," said Stanger's boss, Gordon Hogg, director of the Special Collections library. "I think he gave them more than they expected to find."

The investiture turned out just fine, largely because of Stanger's research, he said.

Among the most unusual questions Stanger has been asked pertained to pavement, he said. A person wanted to know how many miles of sidewalks UK had. Stanger went to the UK physical plant division for an answer.

"We were asked any number of times about ghost stories — whether there were any ghost stories at UK," he said. He'd heard there might have been a ghost at Miller Hall, but he said it was "just pure hearsay."

Stanger really enjoys researching the answers to questions pertaining to music, he said.

"That's right down my alley. I love music history any way," he said.

Stanger studied piano from third grade through his sophomore year in high school. Although he's not an expert pianist, he plays the instrument a lot, he said. He's been the accompanist for the Lexington Rotary Club for many years.

"I'm not a very good sight reader; I play by ear, mostly," he said.

Stanger has two pianos at home, including the one on which he and his sisters learned to play. Besides a large personal library of mostly history books, he has a collection of national anthems of various countries.

Rare materials pertaining to renowned French-Swiss pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot are among Special Collections' music-related items, Stanger said.

"We're the clearinghouse here for reference questions," Stanger said. "We have to be conversant in everything. We have to be able to inform people what's here."

Hogg said Stanger meets those requirements and more.

"He just knows more, and he remembers more about all of the kinds of questions that have come in than any of the rest of us," Hogg said. "Any time someone has a question, particularly about the university or education in Kentucky, Frank is definitely the go-to person for that."