The Harry Ransom Center
By Lucia Adams
On a rainy April day in Austin I fulfilled a promise to myself to visit the Harry Ransom Center the country’s finest research library and museum, on the campus of the University of Texas. The sheer number of scholarly materials, 42 million manuscripts, one million rare books, five million photographs, and 100,000 works of art is truly astonishing. The collection continues to expand and the director of the Ransom, Stephen Enniss, was celebrating the fact that after 57 years they finally received the balance of the Arthur Miller papers.
The Harry Ransom Center, on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
The research library contains a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, a suppressed 1865 first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, manuscripts of early English literature, Locke, Milton, Queen Elizabeth I, and first editions of most major writers of the period from 1475 to 1700. It also houses the finest collection in the world of 20th and 21st century authors.
There are the personal libraries, rare first editions and manuscripts of amongst countless others David O. Selznick, David Foster Wallace, Coetzee and DeLillo, James Joyce, T. E. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence, Graham Green, and Virginia Woolf. I was living in England when the University of Texas bought the Woolf papers much to the chagrin of English scholars but I was happy they were going to a safe place however far away from their natural home, Cambridge. Today the Ransom’s Bloomsbury collection is outstanding and we examined E.M. Forster’s original hand written manuscript of Passage to India acquired at the same time I had tea with him in his digs at King’s.
Curator of Photography Jessica McDonald gave us a private tour of the collection which in addition to the earliest known surviving photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, 1823, contains the works of Julia Cameron, Lewis Carroll, Walker Evans, Cecil Beaton, and, gratefully, some taken by my father Richard Lee Adams. Born in the Lone Star State in 1908, like Harry Huntt Ransom, he took large format photographs in the 30s and 40s.
As chancellor of the university Henry Ransom expanded the collection that was based on the purchase in 1917 of the library of Chicago financier, rare book and print collector John Henry Wrenn with its 6,000 first editions and manuscripts of the Brontës, Tennyson, the Brownings, Shelley, as well as the prose pamphlets of Milton, proclamations of the Stuart kings, and a complete run of Kelmscott Press books.
Today there is a growing digital collection, interviews with writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a digital scanning service for 31,000 images to facilitate research, though ink on paper is still the heart and soul of the center as I hope it always will be as time passes with quantum speed in the electronic age.
Austin is the perfect city for this library, accessible to the thousands of researchers coming to this the fastest growing city in America. It is young, trendy, very casual, decidedly non-Texan with a rock music scene rivalling Nashville’s. It sure ain’t 1960s Texas Tech where I saw cow pokes still riding to the Ag school on horseback.
Frida Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” is at the Harry Ransom Center.
Texas chauvinism is everywhere in Austin an industrious hive of historical societies, preservations societies, Texas museums and archives, historical commissions, the LBJ Library (where Robert Caro spend three years poring through the million documents ). History is very much alive in the first Republic whose flag flies in the wind everywhere you look. Perhaps in Illinois we can learn a bit of this state pride because, after all, Lincoln moved here from Kentucky.