The central mission of the Ransom Center is to advance the study of the arts and humanities. To this end, the Center:

·         Acquires original cultural material for the purposes of scholarship, education, and delight

·         Preserves and makes accessible these creations of our cultural heritage through the highest standards of cataloging, conservation, and collection management

·         Supports research through public services, symposia, publications, and fellowships

·         Provides education and enrichment for scholars, students, and the public at large through exhibitions, public performances, and lectures


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 history of the Harry Ransom Center officially began in 1957, when Vice President and Provost Harry Huntt Ransom founded what was then called the Humanities Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. The true origins of this institution, however, began 60 years earlier when the University began to acquire important private libraries that formed the foundation of what would later become the Ransom Center.

In 1897, Swante Palm (1815–1899), a Swedish bibliophile who had immigrated to Austin, gave The University of Texas 10,000 volumes from his personal library. Palm's collection of Swedish literature and history created special strengths in the library's holdings, but it was not until 1917 that the University began collecting rare books. At that time, 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 especially 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 early period, Fannie Ratchford presided over the collections at the old library building (now called Battle Hall), and later in the rare books library of 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. The University library continued to amass collections for nearly half a century, though there was little space to store the books and no adequate method of keeping up with the cataloging. By 1952, the University collection had risen to its first million volumes; it reached its second million in 1968. During this time, it was English professor Harry Huntt Ransom, first as dean, then as vice president, provost, president, and chancellor of the University of Texas System, who was responsible for the rapid growth of the libraries' holdings.

When Ransom established the Humanities Research Center in 1957, he set out to enhance the University's rare book holdings with a new initiative for collection development in the area of rare books and manuscripts. With the acquisition in 1958 of the massive library of Edward Alexander Parsons, consisting of 40,000 volumes and 8,000 manuscripts, Ransom ushered the University into an era of intense collecting. The Parsons library, with its 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 major humanities research center.

That same year, Ransom purchased the T. E. Hanley library, replete with large quantities of modern literary manuscripts. It was this acquisition, with its collections of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, G. B. Shaw, and Dylan Thomas, which gave focus to future collecting. Rather than attempt to match the holdings of older and more established rare book libraries, Ransom used the Hanley collection as the basis for an evolving collection of twentieth-century books, manuscripts, and archives.

In addition to his literary pursuits, Ransom led the initiative to collect more broadly in the humanities. One such example of his pursuits is the Norman Bel Geddes collection, acquired in 1959, which comprises an important cache of materials related to theater set design, architecture, and industrial design and provides a cornerstone of the Center's distinguished performing arts collection.

The Humanities Research Center moved to its current location on the corner on 21st and Guadalupe streets on the southwest corner of campus in 1972. Though Ransom himself served as official director of the Center for only three years (1958–1961), he directed and presided over a great expansion of the collections throughout his tenure at the University. The Pforzheimer copy of the Gutenberg Bible was purchased in 1978 in memory of Ransom, the "Great Acquisitor," who had died in 1976.

F. Warren Roberts, Ransom's "right hand man" and protégé, served as director of the Center from 1961 until 1976. In expanding the collections, Roberts embraced most areas of the humanities and the arts. With the 1963 acquisition of the Helmut Gernsheim collection, a major photohistorical archive, the dimension of the camera's eye was added to the holdings of the Center. From this foundation, more than 1,000 collections were added to make the photography collection one of the largest and most complete resources of its kind in the world. Roberts also brought in many archives of writers, among them D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, and Evelyn Waugh. In 1968, the Carlton Lake collection, the finest research collection outside of Paris devoted to modern French literature, art, and music, added yet another dimension to the twentieth-century emphasis.

After Roberts's tenure, John Payne and Carlton Lake served as interim and acting directors, until Decherd Turner was named director of the Center in 1980. Though his focus was primarily on establishing and strengthening the conservation department, Turner also expanded the Center's collections with such diverse acquisitions as Matisse's Jazz, the Anne Sexton archive, the Robert Lee Wolff collection of 19th-century fiction, and the important 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 all major writers of the period from 1475 to 1700. Turner also acquired the Giorgio Uzielli library of Aldine editions, which, along with the Pforzheimer library, augmented the Center's classical and Renaissance holdings.

At the same time, Turner built on the foundations of the Center's performing arts holdings, adding several important collections. The David O. Selznick archive, the Gloria Swanson archive, and the Ernest Lehman collection all reflect the richness and diversity of the Center's film collections. The records of the London costuming firm B. J. Simmons & Company 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.

While the Center has enhanced its collections in other disciplines of the humanities, its commitment to comprehensive holdings in literature remains prominent.

Over the last two decades, the Center has grown tremendously under the leadership of Thomas F. Staley, who became director of the Ransom Center in 1988. Under Staley's direction, the Center, which was renamed the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in 1983 in honor of its founder, carries on the traditions established by Ransom. Like his predecessors, Staley believes that the study of pre-publication materials—notes, manuscript drafts, galleys, page proofs, correspondence, and diaries—provides a tracery of an artist's creative process. By studying this process, scholars gain a deeper appreciation for the published work and an increased understanding of the trajectory of the artist's imagination.

Major acquisitions by Staley include substantial holdings in British theater (playwrights Tom Stoppard, John Osborne, David Hare, and Arnold Wesker, among others), as well as the archives of Norman Mailer, Robert De Niro, and photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, and the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers. Over 100 literary archives have been added during Staley's tenure, including those of Russell Banks, Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Burgess, Don DeLillo, John Fowles, Adrienne Kennedy, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, David Mamet, Peter Matthiessen, Terrence McNally, James Salter, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Leon Uris. In addition to continued collection development, Staley's tenure has been marked by serious fiscal growth. Under his aegis, the Center has completed three successful campaigns, raising more than $50 million and increasing the Center's endowment from $1 million to nearly $30 million. Of major importance is the introduction of the endowed visiting scholars program for research fellows and interns, which now awards 50 fellowships a year to scholars who come from around the globe to make use of the Ransom Center's collections. Additionally, the contemporary authors project, developed by Staley, follows closely the current movements in literature and keeps watch over emerging writers. The program also collects works retrospectively, filling gaps in the library's late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century holdings. At present, the Center collects first editions of approximately 600 contemporary authors.

Following the renovation of the Center's building and the opening of new galleries, a theater, and more accessible reading and viewing rooms in 2003, the Center's commitment to a wide range of public services has expanded. The Center is now able to showcase its remarkable collections in its galleries and provide an enriching schedule of public and academic programs, events, and symposia each year. Through its programs and exhibitions, the Center attempts to attract more scholars, students, and general patrons to the Center to study and enjoy "the works of the imagination," as Staley puts it, of the great artists of the world.

Today, the Ransom Center has as its major emphasis the study of the literature and culture of the United States, Great Britain, and France. The Center's collections contain 36 million leaves of manuscripts, one million rare books, 5 million photographs, and 100,000 works of art, in addition to major holdings in theater arts and film. The Center offers scholars and students the opportunity to study such diverse holdings as thirteenth-century Italian verse, early map renderings of the moon, European broadsides, seventeenth-century English dramatic poetry, early developments in micro-photography, avant-garde theater design, modern French musical composition, literary portraiture, the art of caricature, censorship in Hollywood, the work of contemporary African novelists, and on and on.

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 1918. 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 acquisitions that followed it in the next two decades of the twentieth century. 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 now 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 chosen 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 with a basement—technically, according to recent building codes, a high-rise—with a reinforced concrete frame, limestone exterior walls, and nearly 175,000 square feet of assignable space. It provided excellent protection from the outside environment and very 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 public and staff workspaces. In 1982, the building was renamed the Harry Ransom Center.

In the early 1980s, the Library School was relocated, providing space on the fourth floor for the Ransom Center to expand its book 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 second-floor lobby, which runs nearly the entire length of the building, overlooks the plaza. 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 humanistic vision of the Ransom Center: to provide spaces worthy of the collections and to make those spaces easily accessible to a growing public.

Contributed by Anonymous
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