At the 2019 SAA annual Meeting in Austin, TX, the Archival History Section was treated to a lecture on the history of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin by Stephen Mielke. Mielke is the Ransom Center Archivist and Collections Librarian as well as Head of Description & Access (Archival Materials).
Mielke explained the unique history behind the Harry Ransom Center and its beginnings as a rare book collection within the library under the stewardship of Fannie Ratchford from 1919 to 1957. As a scholar and author, Ratchford had no formal library training but nonetheless still served as the main librarian for the rare book collections in the John Henry Wrenn Library for almost 40 years.
Dr. Harry Ransom was an English professor who held several positions at the University of Texas such as dean, vice president, provost, president, and eventually chancellor. He saw the need for an academic research center in Texas. Speaking to the Philosophical Society of Texas on December 8, 1956, Ransom pleaded, “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.”
On September 11, 1957, writing to himself as Vice President and Provost, Ransom (as Director of Rare Books) requested $25,000 in funds to be allocated for the purchase of books and materials for the new center. And thus – under the rather
remarkable circumstances of a university administrator who also served as a rare book
curator – began the Humanities Research Center (later renamed for Ransom in 1983).
In the beginning, the collection focused mainly on English and American literature, particularly the literary manuscripts of well-known 20th-century authors. Beginning in 1957, eighteen major collections were added, including the W. H. Auden Collection, Denton Welch Archives, Samuel Beckett Collection, T. E. Hanley Library, Ernest Hemingway Collection, Messmore Kendall Theater History Collection, D. H. Lawrence Collection, E. A. Parsons Library, George Bernard Shaw Collection, and Walt Whitman Collection.
Ransom served as director of the Humanities Research center from 1958 until 1961. F. Warren Roberts took over as director from 1961 until 1976 and continued Ransom’s extensive collecting interests in literature.
After Roberts’ retirement in 1976, the Center hired librarian John Payne and curator Carlton Lake as interim and acting directors.
Finally in 1980, Decherd Turner was appointed director and served until 1988. Turner wanted to enhance the conversation resources within the Center and made this a primary focus during his tenure. He also aimed to obtain more rare books, which resulted in the acquisition of the Pforzheimer library, which included works by John Locke, John Milton, Queen Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare. Turner also focused on strengthening the film and art holdings.
Tom Staley served as director for the longest tenure from 1988 until 2013. This period saw the largest growth in the collections with over 100 new collections acquired. Staley also was instrumental in expanding outreach of the Center, such as the creation of the research fellowship program.
Steve Enniss serves as the current director and oversees the millions of manuscripts and collections of the Harry Ransom Center.
After Mielke’s presentation, Vice Chair/Chair-Elect Cory Nimer gave an update of the section’s work as a whole, with a particular emphasis on the productivity of Archival History News. Nimer called for volunteers to assist in the Crowdsourced Special Collections and/or University Archives Histories’ Web Review. This project is still underway and is in need of volunteers. If you are interested, please visit the link above.
You may view Mielke’s full presentation here: HRC History SAA 2019
— Natalie Worsham, co-editor, Archival History News