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A True Original: Ransom Center offers visitors a new look at creative genius

Page proofs of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Marlon Brando’s little black book. First editions of Ludwig van Beethoven. The complete cast of marionettes from a 19th-century Sicilian puppet opera. Norman Bel Geddes’ industrial designs. Photography by E.O. Goldbeck. Correspondence of beat writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

Two of the Ransom Center's corners are enclosed by etched glass panels featuring images of the center's collections

Two of the Ransom Center’s corners are enclosed by etched glass panels featuring images of the center’s collections.

All these and other curiosities housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center augment more authoritative archival materials such as manuscripts, correspondence and journals to create an outstanding cultural collection. For nearly half a century, The University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Center has been accumulating, collecting, cataloguing and conserving an enormous number of archives and artifacts.

In 1957 the late Harry Ransom, then a professor and dean at the university, began actively pursuing his long-held ambition to create one of the foremost research libraries in existence. Ransom understood very well the importance of original material.

“It is to the author’s manuscript,” he wrote, “that the scholar must turn…for an understanding of the writer’s meaning.”

Ransom began taking libraries in another direction as he led the way in acquiring contemporary material such as the papers and works of living authors and artists.

Manuscript draft from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

The Ransom Center holds notes, drafts and rejected pages for 21 poems from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

“The key to Ransom’s success and vision, and the guiding principle for the center to the present day, is the premise that the published work is not the beginning of the literary study,” said Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. “Tracing the trajectory of the creative imagination involves the study of the first notes and early drafts that began the work of art, the journals, outlines, false starts, the hundred changes, the cross-outs, the marginal notes. Ransom’s idea, commonplace now but not so 40 years ago, is fundamental to understanding the development of the great collections here.”

In 1970, only a few years after Ransom undertook his goal to create an esteemed humanities library, Anthony Hobson said in “Great Libraries,” “Texas is like an active volcano; it is impossible to tell in which direction it will erupt next.” The Ransom Center was one of Hobson’s 32 great libraries of Western Europe and North America.

The collections

A strength of the center’s collections is that they include not only manuscripts, but also notebooks, diaries, correspondence, photographs and artworks and ephemera, making possible the study of a wide range of disciplines within the humanities and a multiplicity of approaches. The collections are vast and contain manuscripts, rare books, photographs, works of art and design and extensive holdings in performing arts and film.

“We give great attention to building upon existing collections, from strength to strength, and are constantly tracking down caches of notebooks, sketches and correspondence from those whose work is already on our shelves,” Staley said.

“We also put a premium on acquiring the materials of new talents whom we believe will be seen in retrospect as important artists of our current era. A humanities research center such as ours must always be aware of new artistic styles, new modes of discourse, new forms of expression, new and imaginative ways of seeing the world through art.”

Scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in “Rebecca.” Selznick International Pictures.

Spanning centuries, continents and all creative endeavors, the center’s collections include the following:

Manuscript and Rare Book Collections

One of the world’s great literary collections of 20th-century literary materials, including more than one million rare books and 36 million manuscripts. The collections feature some remarkable pre-20th-century materials, including a copy of the first book printed in English, the “Historyes of Troye,” as well as a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Art Collection

More than 100,000 drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures and works of design, including modern portraits by American, British and Mexican masters, fine examples of contemporary prints by pioneering art presses, award-winning book illustration and early 20th-century posters.

Film Collection

More than 10,000 scripts for film, television and radio; more than 15,000 posters, lobby cards and other advertising materials; and one million photographs, including production stills, portraits, publicity photographs and behind-the-scenes snapshots.

Rare first edition of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal

A rare first edition of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal,” 1857. From the Carlton Lake Collection.

French Collection

Considered one of the finest collections outside of France for its books, manuscripts, music, photographs, artwork and original documents devoted primarily to the modern movement in literature and arts.

Italian Collection

Covering a period of seven centuries, from 1300 to the present, including early manuscripts, rare books, opera libretti, prints and drawings, costumes and stage designs, marionettes and manuscripts of modern authors.

Music Holdings

Manuscript and printed scores, libretti, books on music, musicians’ correspondence, photographs, artwork, recordings, clippings, programs and costume and set designs.

Performing Arts Collection

Documenting the various disciplines of the performing arts, including the history of costume and scenic design, theater, dance and opera as well as popular entertainment such as vaudeville, the circus, pantomine, magic, puppetry and minstrel shows.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti's La Pia

Dante Gabriel Rosetti. “La Pia.” c. 1870-75. Pastel on paper.

Personal Effects Collection

Awards, china, clothing, crystal, decorative arts, furniture, silver and textiles belonging to various actors, playwrights, photographers, authors and other notables.

Photography Collection

More than five million prints and negatives, supplemented by manuscripts, archives and memorabilia of significant photographers of the past two centuries, including such rare items as the first photograph.


The center acquires archives and materials in a variety of ways, including purchasing materials through the artists themselves or through a third party. The center also receives archives and individual items as gifts. Knowing that the materials will be accessible and conserved are critical reasons why many artists want the Ransom Center to house their work.

“I’d spent years trying to find a future home for my complete archive,” said famed photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. “Six thousand pounds—three tons!—of prints and negatives, book production records and dummies, first editions of the books themselves, also my custom-built prismatic camera and custom-built Leicas with which I silently worked beside Picasso, and other Leica fitted with a then-unknown Nikon lens that I used during the Korean War and launched the 1950 camera ‘revolution.’

Dell' Arte di fabbricare I fuochi artificial, manuscript from late 1500s

“Dell’ Arte di fabbricare I fuochi artificial.” Late 1500s. Manuscript with pen-and-ink drawings with watercolors.

“My gift offer has found its home. I had never been in Austin, Texas. Now, most of my life’s work is at the Ransom Center—fastidiously catalogued and conserved and available to the public.”

As holder of millions of sensitive and fragile materials, the Ransom Center established its own conservation department in 1980 to oversee the care and preservation of its valuable collections. With in-house expertise, the center’s conservation staff ensures that the center’s collections will remain available for the enjoyment and study by future generations of visitors and scholars.

Book, paper and photo conservation tackle problems such as insect infestation, paper deterioration as well as replacing book bindings. Highly respected for its conservation and preservation efforts, the center is often asked to consult on outside projects as well as work with other institutions, such as the Getty Conservation Institute.


Title page of Thetis et Pelee by Pascal Colasse

Pascal Colasse. Title page of “Thétis et Pelée” Basse Continue part, manuscript. Late seventeenth century.

For the thousands of students on campus as well as visitors, the Ransom Center constitutes a focus for intellectual life and scholarly pursuit. For the center, accessibility is the keynote: anyone who is interested can ask to view almost any part of the collection in the reading room, whether it be first editions of Galileo and Copernicus, story boards from “Gone with the Wind,” or the forthcoming archive of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate papers.

The Ransom Center, known worldwide, attracts not only curious visitors, but scholars from around the world. For more than two years Charles Bethel has visited the center while working on his Ph.D. as a graduate student at the University of California San Diego. With Bethel’s dissertation focusing on First Amendment history, specifically book and film censorship in the 1930s through the 1960s, the Ransom Center’s archive of Morris L. Ernst archive has been invaluable.

Ernst, a well-known First Amendment advocate and general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, famously fought for the importation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” a book that had been dubbed obscene. Ernst’s legal defense of “Ulysses” forced the Customs Service to allow the book into the U.S.

Costume design for Narcisse, 1911

Léon Bakst. Costume design for “Narcisse,” 1911. From a 1916 souvenir program for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.

“The correspondence and legal papers in the comprehensive Ernst archive are central to my research,” said Bethel. “Not only is the archive well organized, the staff is welcoming and helpful, and the facility is beautiful, well-lit and easy to work in. It’s a pleasure to research materials here.”

The center awards about 40 fellowships annually to scholars for research projects that require substantial on-site use of the center’s collections. This year’s recipients hail from throughout the United States, England, Germany, Canada, Ireland, France and India.

New public spaces

With its recent $14.5 million renovation, the Ransom Center offers more than 40,000 square feet of newly constructed public space, including the Ransom Center Galleries, the Charles Nelson Prothro Theater and the Hazel Ransom Reading Room.

“By opening the first two stories to the abundant Texas light, the renovation architects 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,” said former Associate Director Sally Leach.

The new Ransom Center Galleries

The new Ransom Center Galleries.

Visitors to the first floor galleries have the opportunity to see free exhibitions as well as the permanent display of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1454-55) and the first photograph, “View from the Window at Gras” (1826). The Ransom Center Galleries will host various exhibitions that spotlight the center’s diverse holdings.

Through Sept. 14, the center’s inaugural exhibition “In A New Light” features more than 300 familiar and not-so-familiar masterpieces from its collections. On view is original art by Man Ray, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol; manuscripts of Sinclair Lewis and Isaac Bashevis Singer; photography by Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans; production materials from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “West Side Story;” and materials from the center’s expansive performing arts collections.

With its new space, the center expands its offering of public programs that complement exhibitions as well as holdings of the Ransom Center. From film screenings to monthly Poetry on the Plaza readings, the center seeks to share its collections through events.

The Hazel Ransom Reading Room

The Hazel Ransom Reading Room.

“It’s our mission to preserve these cultural treasures while providing access to the collections,” Staley said. “Visitors now have the opportunity to tour exhibitions, hear lectures, enjoy poetry readings and view some of the world’s renowned treasures in a space that embraces all of these activities.”

Upstairs on the second floor the new reading room allows visitors to place requests to view materials. With valid photo identification, new patrons can watch a short welcoming video on how to use materials in the reading room. The center’s Web site provides a thorough list of the collection holdings with finding aids. Patrons are encouraged to visit the center with knowledge about material that they would like to research or view.

“From the largest cultural movements to the tiniest fragments of revision,” Staley said, “the center’s collections reveal the history of inspired choices in humanities, in brush stroke, in ink, in image and in writing. The fact that all these works are housed on the university’s campus, in the heart of Austin, Texas, is phenomenal. Students, scholars and the public have access to see some of the world’s most treasured and remarkable works.”

[To receive e-mail updates from the Ransom Center, visit eUpdates on the Ransom Center’s Web site.]

Jennifer Tisdale

Photos of Ransom Center: Pete Smith

Images courtesy Harry Ransom Center

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(512) 471-3151
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  Updated 2014 October 13
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