A stimulating discussion at our fall Advisory Council meeting has encouraged me to reflect on the principles that have guided our acquisition practices.
Our collecting philosophy is rooted in our history. More than 50 years ago, Harry Ransom sought to establish an institution that resembled a "Bibliothéque Nationale" for the state of Texas. Due to its relatively late start, however, Ransom believed it would be difficult for the University to build a strong collection of early printed books, the traditional collecting focus of libraries that were well established and well endowed. Instead, he plunged into the collecting of modern literature, territory in which few institutions had set foot and competition was still sparse. In 1958 Ransom purchased the T. E. Hanley library—with its manuscripts of Beckett, Joyce, Lawrence, and Shaw, among others—and this library became the foundation for an ever-growing collection of 20th-century literature.
To this day, the Center's acquisitions are guided by Ransom's primary goals: to purchase entire collections, to collect both major and minor writers, and to collect manuscripts as well as rare books. Ransom believed that literary study should begin with the trail the author leaves behind: the journals, outlines, false starts, the hundreds of changes. This material tells the story of a work, its evolution to a final form. Furthermore, Ransom deliberately broadened his scope beyond literature, collecting materials related to art, film, the performing arts, and photography.
The Ransom Center has become best known for acquiring writers' archives, and this has been our primary collecting focus over the past 20 years. We have collected the archives of Mailer, Stoppard, DeLillo, and others who are among the most notable voices of their generations. We also believe it is important to build strength among our collections by acquiring archives that support one another. Many figures in our collections corresponded with one another or influenced or worked with each other. And we put a premium on acquiring archives of new talents whom we believe will become the stars of their era.
When the late photographer Richard Avedon visited the Center in 2003, he noted that one of the great beauties of our collections is their interconnectedness. Rather than collect disparate highlights, the Ransom Center acquires materials that build upon and contextualize one another, providing a rich opportunity for students and scholars to gain a deeper understanding of our cultural heritage.
—Thomas F. Staley