I propose that there be established somewhere in Texas—let's say in the capital city—a center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation.
Harry Huntt Ransom (1908–1976) in his speech to the
Philosophical Society of Texas, December 8, 1956
The Harry Ransom Center—originally named the Humanities Research Center—was founded in 1957 by Harry Huntt Ransom, a visionary English professor who rose through the ranks at The University of Texas to dean, vice president and provost, president, and eventually chancellor. Ransom believed that a strong library was the foundation of a great university, and he devoted much of his attention and energy throughout his career to building the library collections of The University of Texas at Austin. The origins of the Ransom Center, however, trace back decades earlier when the University began to acquire a series of important private libraries.
In 1917, English professor Reginald H. Griffith persuaded University regent George W. Littlefield to purchase the library of Chicago businessman John Henry Wrenn for the University. The Wrenn library contained nearly 6,000 first and rare editions of mostly seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and American authors, in addition to notable manuscripts of the Brontë sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the Brownings. In 1921, the University purchased the working library of George A. Aitken, author of critical works on Sir Richard Steele, Andrew Marvell, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. Four years later, Miriam Lutcher Stark of Orange, Texas, donated to the University her personal library, which was notable for containing all four of the first folio editions of Shakespeare, as well as manuscripts and first editions by Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and other writers of the Romantic period. During this period, Fannie Ratchford presided over the collections, first in the Old Library Building (now called Battle Hall) and later in the rare books library in the Main Building, encouraging scholarly discussion over afternoon tea.
The Wrenn, Aitken, and Stark collections gave the Ransom Center a strong foundation for future growth. By 1952, the University's collection had reached one million volumes and was poised for rapid expansion in the decades to come under the visionary guidance of Harry Ransom.
In 1956, Ransom identified his ambitions for the University's library collections in a speech to the Philosophical Society of Texas. He boldly proposed "that there be established somewhere in Texas—let's say in the capital city—a center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation." Ransom wanted the Center to be more than a collection of rare books, and his ideas marked a shift in the practice of developing research libraries. Ransom believed that, due to its late start in the field compared with other university and private libraries, The University of Texas could not reasonably build a strong collection of early printed books, which was the traditional collecting focus of libraries that were well established and well endowed. Instead, he plunged the University into the collecting of modern English and American literature, including the works of living writers. This focus was beneficial for a number of reasons: few institutions had set foot in this territory, prices were still relatively low, and collection materials were abundant. Focusing on this underdeveloped market enabled Ransom to acquire materials for a much lower cost, and his collecting efforts supported a growing scholarly interest in modern literature. Furthermore, Ransom decided to acquire literary manuscripts as much as, or more than, rare books, which was an unusual practice at the time. Perhaps most notably, he sought to acquire entire working archives rather than individual manuscripts. This collecting strategy was based on Ransom's premise that the published work should not mark the beginning of literary study. Rather, he believed, study should begin with the archival trail an author leaves behind: the journals, outlines, notes, multiple drafts, and correspondence. In short, Ransom believed that all of the recorded material that is directly or indirectly involved in the creative process is pertinent to the student or scholar.
In 1958, Ransom made several significant acquisitions for the Center, including the extensive library of Edward Alexander Parsons, consisting of 40,000 volumes and 8,000 manuscripts. The Parsons collection, with strengths in Americana, classics, fine printing and binding, travel literature, Bibles, and European history and literature, provided a strong base for the fashioning of a research library. That same year, Ransom purchased the T. Edward Hanley library, which included manuscripts of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and George Bernard Shaw. This acquisition gave focus to future collecting for the Center. The Hanley library became the foundation for an evolving and quickly growing collection of twentieth-century literature. Ransom also began acquiring materials more broadly in the humanities, particularly in the areas of photography, art, and the performing arts.
The Humanities Research Center moved to its current location on the corner on 21st and Guadalupe streets in 1972. Although Ransom remained closely involved with the Center's acquisitions until his death in 1976, he served officially as the Center's director for only three years (1958–1961). The Pforzheimer copy of the Gutenberg Bible was purchased in 1978 for the Center in memory of Ransom, who had died in 1976. In 1983, the Humanities Research Center was renamed the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in honor of its founder.
Ransom's protégé F. Warren Roberts served as director from 1961 until 1976 and continued Ransom's practice of collecting broadly in the humanities and the arts. During his tenure, Roberts acquired the archives of many writers, among them D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, and Evelyn Waugh. In 1963, the Center acquired the Helmut Gernsheim collection, a rich collection that documents the history of photography and serves as the foundation of the Center's photography holdings. In 1968, the Carlton Lake collection, the finest research collection outside Paris devoted to modern French literature, art, and music, added yet another dimension to the twentieth-century emphasis.
Following Warren Roberts's retirement, librarian John Payne and curator Carlton Lake served as interim and acting directors of the Center until Decherd Turner was named director in 1980. He served in this capacity until 1988. Turner's primary focus was on establishing a respected conservation department for the Center and strengthening the rare books holdings with such acquisitions as the voluminous Robert Lee Wolff library of nineteenth-century fiction. Perhaps most notable in this period was Turner's acquisition of the Pforzheimer library of early English literature, which includes works by John Locke, John Milton, Queen Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, as well as first editions of most major writers of the period from 1475 to 1700. Turner also acquired the Giorgio Uzielli library of books printed by the Aldine Press, which, along with the Pforzheimer library, strengthened the Center's collections in classical and Renaissance holdings.
At the same time, Turner broadened the Center's film and performing arts holdings, adding the archives of iconic film producer David O. Selznick, actress Gloria Swanson, and filmmaker Ernest Lehman. He also acquired the records of the London costuming firm B. J. Simmons & Company, which comprise 29,000 designs dating from the 1880s to the 1960s, including work by such designers as Cecil Beaton, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Motley, and Léon Bakst.
In 1988, Thomas F. Staley became director of the Ransom Center and led the institution through a 25-year period of tremendous growth. Under Staley's leadership, more than 100 author's archives were acquired, including the papers of J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Penelope Fitzgerald, Denis Johnson, Doris Lessing, David Mamet, Norman Mailer, Jayne Anne Phillips, James Salter, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and David Foster Wallace. Staley built what is widely regarded as the most significant collection related to the postwar British theater, acquiring the archives of playwrights Tom Stoppard, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, and David Hare. Other collecting strengths of this period include the archives of Jewish writers and anglophone African authors. Staley also expanded the collections beyond literature with such acquisitions as the archives of actor Robert De Niro and photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, and the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate papers.
In addition to focused collection development, Staley's tenure was marked by growth in other areas. Staley increased the Center's endowments from $1 million to more than $30 million. He established an endowed fellowship program to support the research of more than 50 visiting scholars each year. He also spearheaded a $14.5 million renovation of the Ransom Center in 2003, which provided newly constructed public space for an exhibition gallery, an auditorium, and a new reading room. Complementing this renovation was a broadened emphasis on exhibitions and public programs to showcase the collections in new and engaging ways.
Today, the Ransom Center's staff, under the directorship of Stephen Enniss, carries forward Ransom's vision. The Center is known for having one of the strongest collections of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British and American literature in the world and for housing the archives of many of the most notable cultural figures of the time. The Center's collections include 42 million manuscripts, nearly one million rare books, 5 million photographs, and 100,000 works of art, in addition to major holdings in the performing arts and film. The collections at the Ransom Center are rich resources for the students of The University of Texas at Austin, who can see, and in turn be inspired by, the original texts, artwork, and photographs that they study in their classes. More than 10,000 scholars and students come from all over the world to study the Center's holdings each year. But the collections are not just for students and scholars. They are available for all visitors, many of whom make a pilgrimage to Austin to see the Gutenberg Bible, the world's first photograph, or the archives of their favorite authors.
A History of the Buildings
Collections of rare books and manuscripts existed at The University of Texas long before Harry Huntt Ransom joined the faculty. The size and importance of the Wrenn library, the founding collection of what would eventually become the Ransom Center, called for special quarters when it was acquired by the University in 1917. The Wrenn materials were originally installed in the Old Library Building, which was designed in the Spanish-Mediterranean revival style by Cass Gilbert in 1911. Still considered one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, it is now called Battle Hall and houses the Architecture Library.
The completion in 1937 of the University's new Main Building, designed by French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret, provided a new home for the Wrenn collection and for the other collections that followed it in the next two decades. The elegant setting of the Wrenn Room, modeled after the library of Sir Walter Scott, included carved walnut bookcases and paneling and high ceilings with bays divided by carved beams and decorated with printing-related motifs. There were three other main rooms in the library: the Aitken Room, which served as the reading room; the Stark Room, which provided additional shelving space; and the marble-floored exhibition room in the entryway. Small roof gardens to the east and west extended the formal ambience of the library. These rooms were eventually designated as the Miriam Lutcher Stark Library.
In 1963, the fourth floor of the new Academic Center, located just to the west of the Main Building, became the home of the extensive twentieth-century collections acquired by Ransom. The Academic Center had a marble-floored lobby, which gave way to a large, carpeted hallway that served as an exhibition gallery and separated an open courtyard, boasting a splendid view of the University Tower from the five named collection rooms: Tinker, Josey, Hoblitzelle, Knopf, and Dobie; the associated libraries remained in these rooms until 2010. Teak and stainless steel appointments, as well as Barcelona chairs and benches designed by Mies van der Rohe, bespoke an elegant modernity. Pre-modern collections were housed in the Main Building in the Stark Library.
The Humanities Research Center building, which opened in 1972, was intended to be the ultimate solution to the problem of space for the growing collections. The architects, Jessen Associates, were selected by Ransom himself, for he had worked with them on the Academic Center and was particularly fond of that structure. The final result was a nearly square structure of seven stories and a basement with a reinforced concrete frame, limestone exterior walls, and nearly 175,000 square feet of space. It provided excellent protection from the outside environment and limited natural light above the third floor. In the original design for the Center, the fourth floor was designated for use by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. At the last minute, the first and second floors were assigned to the Huntington Art Gallery (now the Blanton Museum of Art) for display of the Michener collection of twentieth-century American painting. The fifth, sixth, and seventh floors contained both stacks for collection storage and staff workspaces. In 1982, the building was renamed the Harry Ransom Center.
In the early 1980s, the School of Library and Information Science was relocated, providing space on the fourth floor for the Ransom Center to expand its cataloging facility and to establish a newly organized conservation department. Years later, the creation of a new university art gallery allowed the Ransom Center to claim the full building and undertake a renovation of the first and second floors and the front façade, which was completed in 2003 under the direction of the San Antonio architects Lake/Flato. The design presented by the architects was intended to make the building more open and inviting without compromising security.
The renovation included the addition of a large gallery and state-of-the-art theater on the first floor and a new reading room on the second floor. With panels of pecan wood lining the walls and suspended from the high ceilings, the reading room recalls the earlier home of the Ransom collections in the Stark Library. The architects emphasized, albeit in a new way, the scale and mass of the original building, calling attention to its high spaces and its sturdy columns. By enclosing two plazas in glass etched with images of the collections and opening the first two stories to the abundant Texas light, they reflected architecturally the two-fold vision of the Ransom Center: to provide spaces worthy of the collections and to make those spaces easily accessible to a growing public.