Collecting the Imagination

[ Texas ]

Collecting the Imagination

The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center

Edited by Megan Barnard

A richly illustrated commemorative volume that celebrates the first fifty years of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin is one of the world's preeminent institutions for the study of literature, photography, and the humanities. The Ransom Center is renowned for its remarkable collections of literary manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, and film and performing arts materials. Founded in 1957 with a core collection of rare books, the Ransom Center has expanded its holdings at a phenomenal rate, so that it now houses 36 million leaves of manuscripts, 1 million rare books, 5 million photographs, and one hundred thousand works of art. Among its most famous holdings are a Gutenberg Bible; the Helmut Gernsheim Collection, a major photohistorical archive that contains the world's first photograph (ca. 1826); the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library of Early English Literature; the Watergate papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; the archive and costume collection of Robert De Niro; and the personal literary archives of hundreds of major twentieth-century writers, from Samuel Beckett and James Joyce to Tom Stoppard and Norman Mailer.

This volume celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Harry Ransom Center. Staff members describe the Center's founding, the remarkable growth of its collections as part of a thoughtful and deliberate acquisition plan, and its extensive outreach to scholars, students, and the general public. They pay tribute to the leadership of Harry Ransom, who conceived the idea of a research center in the humanities that would be for the state of Texas what the Bibliothèque Nationale is for France. The authors also tell fascinating stories of how individual collections and archives were acquired, as well as some of the controversies and myths that have arisen as a result of the Ransom Center's liberal spending and rapid growth. Photographs of treasures from the Ransom Center and key figures in its history round out this lovely and authoritative volume.

  • Introduction, by Thomas F. Staley
  • Prelude: "The Collection of Knowledge in Texas", by Harry Huntt Ransom
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1: Beginnings: The Rare Books Collection, 1897-1955, by John B. Thomas, III
  • Part 2: The Birth of an Institution: The Humanities Research Center, 1956-1971, by Cathy Henderson
  • Part 3: Years of Consolidation: The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 1972-1988, by Richard W. Oram
  • Part 4: The Expanding Mission: The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 1988-present, by Megan Barnard
  • Bibliography
  • Index

This volume celebrates the first half century of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Beginning with the early years of the University of Texas, when the Center's first collections were acquired, it traces the Center's growth from conception and creation to its present stature as one of America's preeminent institutions for research and learning in the arts and humanities. Fifty years is a short time on history's clock, especially when measuring the legacies of libraries and museums. Such histories span centuries, from the founding of the library in Alexandria to the relatively recent establishment of the great libraries of North America. Then and now, these institutions were created to illuminate cultures and record civilizations. A library is built upon a fundamental optimism, a belief that it is essential to know the past in order to understand the present and to better anticipate the future.

As this story unfolds, it reveals a vision that over the years nurtured the Ransom Center in its gestation, growth, and rise to prominence. The Center's international renown should not dim the fact that much of its success is owed to the University of Texas, whose leaders believed that the strength of its libraries and faculty would distinguish it from other universities. Since the middle of the last century, Harry Ransom and his successors have been keenly aware that it was the uniqueness of the Center's collections that made it different from other academic libraries. The Center has benefited greatly from the esteem in which it has been held by University leaders and from their critical support for major acquisitions. During Lorene Rogers's presidency, the Gutenberg Bible was acquired. Peter Flawn supported the acquisition of Henri Matisse's Jazz, one of the finest artist's books of the twentieth century. During William Cunningham's tenure, the Pforzheimer collection came to Texas. Larry Faulkner led the purchase of the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers. In addition to these major acquisitions, there is what one observer described as the Center's "awesome holdings, which for some time have exerted something like a gravitational pull on other contemporary authors." For all its magnetic "pull" in the world of libraries, the Center has remained deeply committed to its vital role in the intellectual and cultural life of the University, and—like the University—its mission serves a world beyond its doors. Jorge Luis Borges once called a library a door in time. The narrative that follows affirms that the Ransom Center has indeed been a door leading to knowledge and discovery not only in Texas but throughout the world, and even more so since the emergence of the internet.

Libraries and museums, perhaps in a way different from other institutions, reflect the values of the culture that creates them, and the Ransom Center is no exception. The Center still owes much of its character to what Harry Ransom, its founder, called—in his December 1956 speech to the Philosophical Society of Texas—a vision at once "historic and prophetic." In the speech, which is reprinted in its entirety following this introduction, Ransom praised the early Texans who looked back to the great libraries of the past and forward to the future cultural needs of their citizens. Although such a historical formulation was hardly unique, it was a theme that Ransom seized upon when in 1957 he began to transform the University's relatively small collection of rare books and manuscripts into the research center that would eventually bear his name. This Janus-like vision was an ideal one for building a great library. It valued and celebrated the past while simultaneously looking with a vigorous and enthusiastic eye to the future. Such an idea was the perfect engine to drive his ambitions. Ransom, like Larry Faulkner fifty years later, if in a very different way, recognized this fusion of past and present for the entire University while giving it a uniquely Texan perspective.

While part of a great university, it is the Center's own growth and achievement in the world of scholarship and learning that is the focus of this book. In 1990, not long after I joined the Ransom Center, I noted in the foreword of our Guide to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center that the Center's rapid development "has paralleled the pace of the age in which it came into existence." This comment still strikes me as relevant. The growth and maturity of the Ransom Center has moved, and continues to move, at a remarkable pace, as this written history makes clear.

Besides telling the story of an important library, this narrative also documents the growth of the Center's collections, the origins and evolution of its renowned conservation department, the stature of its manuscript and book cataloging departments, and the increasingly impressive reputation of its photography department. It recounts the remarkable development of expanded exhibitions and public programs following the 2003 reconstruction of the building, with its addition of spacious galleries, a state-of-the-art auditorium, a handsome reading room, and other welcoming public spaces.

Less immediately apparent but more far-reaching has been the Center's integration of technology with its traditional strengths. Not since Gutenberg's invention of movable type has there been as profound a revolution in the method of information exchange. Technological developments have transformed the library world, and constituents far beyond the walls of the Ransom Center can now access information about the Center and its collections through the internet. Millions of people visit the Center's website to view digitized materials in our online exhibitions and to study online finding aids, catalogs, and descriptions of our collections. At the Ransom Center, digital culture and the culture and history of the book work together to provide information and, more importantly, to integrate and give coherence to knowledge. As the pages of this narrative relate, the Center's staff not only participates in the information revolution, it helps direct its course.

Yet with all the great opportunities that have come with digitization, the virtual world, and changing technologies, at the heart of the Center's concern remains the original work. As the critic Walter Benjamin famously noted, "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." The "original" artifact, according to Benjamin, "is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity." However beautifully reproduced or technically perfect a copy may be, the aura of the authentic artifact, its existence in history, is maintained only by the original. It is this object—whether it be a leaf of manuscript, a photograph, a painting, or the original book that reveals its own history and provenance through paper, type, and annotations—that opens the door to a more complete study of the work and of the creative process itself. The study of these original materials gets us closer to what Alfred Kazin once called "the marginal suggestiveness which in a great writer always indicates those unspoken reserves, that silent assessment of life, that can be heard below and beyond the slow marshalling of thought." Students who come to the Center are able to hold in their own hands the very works that passed from the hands of the great figures they are studying in their courses. They can examine the succession of drafts that led to a published work—the false starts, the scratch outs and rewrites that are the relics of an author digging for the right words. As one critic has observed, the completion of this journey marks the end of the artist's private creative process and the beginning of the work's public life.

Students working at the Ransom Center become engaged with works, with writers, and with artists on an intimate level, perhaps inspiring a deeper interest in and understanding of culture and art. For example, when reading James Joyce's Ulysses, students can see the final page proofs of the work, the last touches Joyce made, struggling with his terrible vision and compulsive revision of nearly every page, before he bundled up his fifth set of proofs and sent it from his Paris apartment to his printer in Dijon. In this form, one can feel and surely understand the almost obsessive care and driven energy of the artist. Like all literary manuscripts, these materials have, as Philip Larkin once noted, two kinds of value: the magical and the meaningful. Beyond the thrill of discovery is the shock of recognition in the student as he or she engages with the authentic object and comes to understand more fully the creative process, the topography, if you will, of the writer's imagination. In these circumstances, one could say that the object has indeed a life of its own.

The pages in this volume relate the story of an American institution. This narrative is divided into four parts, spanning the chronology of the Center. Each of these parts, however, explores different aspects of the Center's growth, based on the relevant issues of the time. The nascent growth of the University's library and Rare Books Collection is covered by John Thomas. Cathy Henderson's section details the institutionalization of the Center and Harry Ransom's spectacular acquisition program, which culminated in the Center's inclusion in Anthony Hobson's book Great Libraries. Richard Oram's chapter treats the growing pains and controversies the Center faced as it became more organized and reached maturity as an institution. Megan Barnard's chapter relates the sustained growth of collections into the twenty-first century as well as the expanding role of the Center in higher education and its far more visible public role. Each of these chapters reveals the evolution of an institution that has absorbed the values and philosophy of the past to better understand the present and prepare for the future. The reader will observe here the threads that will lead the Ransom Center into the next chapter of a great story.

A fitting endorsement of the Center came from British writer Simon Winchester, who in 2005 opened the Texas Book Festival with a reading at the Center. In an interview with a student reporter, Winchester remarked upon how seriously Americans regard writers. "In a way," he said, standing in front of the Center and gazing up at the remarkable images etched in glass, "this building we're sitting outside of symbolizes everything I'm saying about America."

The Ransom Center is a wonderful place. As this volume makes clear, the Center has, throughout its fifty years, helped define the aspirations of this great University. As we celebrate our past, we are eager to ponder and engage the future.

Megan Barnard has worked at the Ransom Center since 2003. As Assistant to the Director, she works closely with Thomas F. Staley on many aspects of the Center's daily administration, from collection development to publications.