The Last of the Big-Time Spenders

So you thought libraries were dull? The University of Texas has spent millions stalking the globe, buying everything from the first photograph to Houdini’s magic gear, all to get one of the world’s most impressive collections—and itself in trouble.
The Last of the Big-Time Spenders
The manuscript of George Barnard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play that introduced Eliza Coolittle and Professor Higgins; memorabilia of the author.
Photograph by Rick Patrick

To much of the outside world, literary culture and Texas are like champagne and crude oil: sampling the one while smelling of the other is in poor taste. The very idea of a group of Texans spending millions of dollars in public funds to install in Austin one of the greatest rare book and manuscript collections in the world is inherently comic, like a village of Eskimos founding an opera company or Addis Ababa seeking a franchise in the National Football League. Nevertheless, the thing has been done. The Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, only twenty years ago a vision in one man’s mind, is today one of the finest and, from several points of view, one of the most impressive collections of literary artifacts in the world, a cultural treasure probably better known in London and Paris than in Dallas and Houston. In its vaults is an impressive array of original manuscripts by the literary giants of the century, including Under Milkwood, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Waiting for Godot, not to mention the books, papers, and all the furnishings of Evelyn Waugh’s library and Erle Stanley Gardner’s study. The Humanities Research Center has cost millions of dollars, provoked charges of empire building and academic megalomania from embittered critics, and even led to the firing of one UT president. But there it is, its very existence certifying that whatever else it is, UT is more than just another state university. Now the question is: what on earth are we going to do with it?

Seen from the outside, the HRC looks like anything but what it purports to be. It is pure Texas Modern in design, a massive, flat-topped rectangular limestone box with narrow, hermetically sealed windows that resemble oversized gun slits. A visitor wandering in from the Mongolian steppes might be pardoned for mistaking it for anything from an aboveground missile silo to the emperor’s royal handball courts. When it was being constructed in the sixties, student rumor had it that the roof was designed for helicopter landings in times of civil disturbance, and that the elaborate and highly visible electronic security equipment was there to guard John F. Kennedy’s brain, which would be kept on the fifth floor.

In fact the truth about the HRC is, from some perspectives, even more extraordinary. Little known to most Texans, partly because it has always operated with a secrecy worthy of the CIA, the Humanities Research Center is one of the most remarkable libraries in the United States and even the world. In his book Great Libraries, Anthony Hobson of Sotheby’s, the London dealers in fine arts, lists the HRC as one of five American institutions that bear serious comparison to such venerable European monuments as the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. (The others are Harvard, Yale, the Pierpont Morgan in New York, and the Huntington in San Marino, California.) The HRC’s rare book and manuscript collections in modern British and American literature are unmatched anywhere, its holdings in modern French literature unsurpassed outside of Paris, and its special collections in the history of science, theater, architecture, botany, and especially photography are the envy of libraries and archives around the world.

But if you are one of the many thousands of listeners who heard UT President Lorene Rogers boasting about the HRC in a halftime radio interview during last year’s Texas-Oklahoma football game, you already know some of that. What you may not know is that besides pride and UT’s apparently insatiable zeal to be known as Number One, Dr. Rogers may have had other motives for her praise. Messing with the HRC is one of the things that cost Stephen Spurr, her loudly lamented predecessor, his job. Almost from the moment it was conceived in the mind of UT’s late Chancellor Harry Ransom, the HRC has been at the center of the perennial, acrimonious, and sometimes comic-opera power struggles between the faculty, administration, and Board of Regents on that campus. Everything about it, from the way it came to be, its funding, how it is administered, and its relationship to the other libraries in the system, has fed the fires of these controversies. Since 1974 when Rogers took over the Austin campus, though, some of the fires have died down. Last year the HRC’s funding was for the first time made a regular line item in the budget, rendering it as secure as the accounting department or the Longhorn Band.

The building that houses the HRC is named the Harry Ransom Center after the UT chancellor largely responsible for its existence (more than one cynic has speculated that Ransom gave his own initials to his pet project as a way of making sure the building would be named after him). It cost only a little more than $7 million to erect on a campus where a swimming pool requires $6 million and a basketball/public events center $29 million.

Even so, the HRC is one of a very few facilities on the UT grounds whose contents have a sale value many times that of the building itself and the real estate it rests upon. During the years that the HRC was acquiring most of its holdings, UT had a greater effect on the prices of rare books and literary manuscripts than the Federal Reserve Board has on stocks and bonds. By the tactic of being willing and able to pay far more for what it wanted than anybody else imagined the materials were worth, the HRC for a time came quite close to cornering the market—especially in modern British and American authors—provoking envy, admiration, and resentment in a world considerably less genteel and more competitive than most readers might imagine. Accordingly, the price of such literary artifacts has risen sharply. A limited first-edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses purchased by the HRC in 1958 for $425, for example, would now bring $10,000 at auction; Ezra Pound’s A Lume Spento, his

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