A Portrait of a Director: Tom Staley and the Ransom Center
By Elana Estrin
Shortly after becoming Director of the Harry Ransom Center in 1988, Tom Staley learned from his colleague Carlton Lake that the archive of Stuart Gilbert, James Joyce's friend and collaborator, might be available. As a Joyce scholar, Staley had had his eye on Gilbert's archive for years. He asked a rare book dealer to travel to Paris and visit Gilbert's eccentric widow, whom Staley had visited in her apartment during one of his Joycean excursions many years earlier. Moune Gilbert had kept the collection stashed under her dining room table and hadn't let anyone touch it in 20 years. After much deliberation, Staley and the dealer convinced Mrs. Gilbert to sell the archive to the Ransom Center.
But first, they had to find a way to get the collection out of France and on its way to Texas. Concerned that French customs officials might block the collection's export, they devised a plan to rent a bread truck, hide the papers under blankets, and drive it to the English Channel on Holy Thursday when they figured customs officials wouldn't be as vigilant. The plan worked, and the papers arrived safely in Austin, Texas.
Combing through the collection, Staley found much more than he had expected. Even more valuable than the thousands of Swiss francs hidden throughout the collection (which Mrs. Gilbert refused to take back) and Gilbert's diary (which Staley later co-edited and published), Staley discovered a Joyce scholar's dream come true. As he recounted: "I realized that I had before me the famous lost link, the missing draft with Joyce's corrections in his own hand to an important segment of Finnegans Wake, an item more valuable than the price we had paid for the entire collection."
The Gilbert collection was one of Staley's first acquisitions for the Ransom Center, purchased only a few months after he took his post as Director. The momentum hasn't slowed down since. Staley has not only acquired many of the Center's most important collections, he's also lifted the Center to its current reputation as one of the world's finest humanities research centers. Staley will retire on August 31 after 23 years as one of the most visionary directors and a trailblazer in the special collections field.
"He's one of the most incredible, dynamic, and charismatic leaders in the library profession," says Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of Oxford University's Bodleian Library.
Staley can often be spotted bounding down the Ransom Center's halls, greeting colleagues and visitors with hearty pats on the back. His friends and colleagues describe him as energetic, fun, ebullient, vivacious, mercurial, charming, dogged, generous, kind, and a formidable scholar with a wild sense of humor.
His colleagues agree that he is the perfect combination of scholar, administrator, fundraiser, and friend.
"Nobody duplicates Tom's multi-faceted capacities," says London book dealer Rick Gekoski. "You could get a scholar to do that job, you could get the head of a rare books library, you could get a terrific fundraiser. You could get somebody who had even two of those three attributes. But you can't get anyone like Tom Staley. Tom is out on his own. He's sui generis."
When Staley arrived on campus, he had his work cut out for him. The Ransom Center had earned a solid reputation in the years after it was founded in 1957 but had lost much of its momentum over these years.
Staley wasted no time getting the Center back on its feet. He refocused the Center's mission, redefined collecting practices, established development and public affairs departments, and cultivated a closer tie to the University. Unlike the two previous directors, Staley, a professor of English, taught courses and held an endowed chair in the College of Liberal Arts, better integrating him into the University's academic community. Staley quickly ushered in what many consider to be the Ransom Center's golden age.
"Under Tom Staley's leadership the Harry Ransom Center has moved from strength to strength and has become one of the most distinguished institutions for scholarship in the U.S. and indeed in the world," said the late Frank M. Turner, the former John Hay Whitney Professor of History and the director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. "Over his two decades at the Ransom Center, Staley has gathered a distinguished collection of manuscripts that are admired and envied throughout the world of rare book and manuscript libraries."
One of his major legacies is expanding the Center's endowments from $1 million to $25 million.
"One of Tom's greatest qualities is his ability to raise money," says book dealer George Lawson. "He's a master of going to someone and saying, 'Hey, give us a few million bucks for this one collection' and enthuse about it. The man's probably never heard about T. S. Eliot, but by the time Tom has talked with him, he'll be very excited."
His fundraising abilities have allowed him to acquire many of the Ransom Center's highlights, including the David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Tom Stoppard, and Norman Mailer archives. But Staley's efforts have never ended at the acquisition.
"Tom knows that just collecting manuscripts and archives is not the end of the story," says Chris Fletcher, head of western manuscripts at Oxford's Bodleian Library. "He sees the 'life cycle' of library collections. I think that's why he's really created such a successful institution during his tenure."
Archives used to get stuck in cataloging, but Staley hired a team of leading archivists in the 1990s to revamp and streamline the cataloging process.
"When an archive comes into the Ransom Center, those papers will be available to scholars in amazingly fast time, which is what it's all about," Gekoski says. "I know that my friends and colleagues at the British Library simply wish they had those kinds of facilities."
Once collections are cataloged, Staley doesn't want them to sit untouched on dusty shelves. To encourage scholars and students to study these materials, Staley initiated a fellowship program that sponsors more than 50 fellows a year. Just as he doesn't leave archives alone once they arrive at the Ransom Center, Staley doesn't neglect visiting scholars either.
"You don't just feel that you're living in an isolation block, doing your work and going home in the evening, and no one ever speaks to you," says past fellow and biographer Selina Hastings. "It's all very friendly and rather sociable, and I think that's very largely due to Dr. Staley."
Staley has also made it his mission to invite more than just academics into the Ransom Center; he wants the public to enjoy its holdings too. In 2003, Staley unveiled a newly renovated and much more welcoming Center, complete with a new reading room, a spacious gallery and theater space, and windows etched with highlights from the Center's collection. The Center also established a membership program and extensive public programming, including lectures, film series, and tours.
Book dealers like Rick Gekoski, Julian Rota, and George Lawson agree that Staley's practices—from cataloging to fellowships to exhibitions—are a special strength of the Ransom Center.
"It certainly helps me when I'm trying to persuade an author that the material going abroad isn't such a terrible thing," says dealer Julian Rota, sitting in his book-lined London office.
British writer Penelope Lively says she decided quickly that she wanted her papers to go to the Ransom Center.
"I feel it's a great honor for my archive to be there, particularly given that it's rubbing shoulders with the most amazing range of British and American authors. I remember looking at these rows of names and thinking, my goodness how wonderful to be down here with all these people," Lively said.
Special collections libraries all over the world credit Staley with widening the scope of special collections to include such fields as film and photography, renewing interest in collecting manuscripts, boosting the acquisitions market, and raising the overall standard in the special collections field.
"Dr. Staley has made the Ransom Center a kind of benchmark for the rest of us," Ovenden says. "Alan Bennett, who gave us his archive a couple of years ago, mentioned that he had been visited by Dr. Staley. The immediate sense of panic always pervades a British special collections library whenever those words are mentioned. We regard that as a narrow escape."
Tom Stoppard, whom Staley has deemed "Britain's greatest living playwright," recalls his first encounter with the Ransom Center in 1967 when he lost his bid for an Evelyn Waugh manuscript to the Ransom Center. Twenty-five years later, Stoppard sold his archive to the Center, where it now resides alongside Waugh's collection.
"I felt vaguely distinguished at being under-bidder to this famous, great institution, which seemed to have all of the literature and manuscripts I most liked," Stoppard said. "It was like a strange holy of holies for people of my bent. It's always been in my mind a place of great fascination. So Tom Staley was a man of great fascination too as a result. He's always been a wonderfully affable person. I always thought that his love for what was being collected was so open. He was somebody into whose world I felt I belonged. In the end, I was rather pleased to be in his collection. I keep saying 'his,' as in Tom's, but in a sense it was."
Indeed, Staley's friends and colleagues have a hard time imagining what the Ransom Center will look like without Staley at the helm. As Gekoski puts it, Staley is "totally irreplaceable."
"On the occasion of his retirement, one wishes him some joy in return," Stoppard said. "One wants him to just enjoy his laurels."
An endowment to honor Staley's legacy has been established. If you are interested in contributing to this fund, please contact Margie Rine at 512-471-9643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.