This Man Made Austin Home for a World-Class Literary Archive

As the director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Thomas Staley turned the archive into the repository for some of literature's greatest giants. Now he's passing the baton to Stephen Enniss, who hopes to continue that legacy.
Tue September 3, 2013 2:30 pm

In late July, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired the archives of McSweeney’s, the often cheeky journal and publisher founded in 1998 by the writer and editor Dave Eggers.

It was an unusual acquisition for the Ransom Center , which has gained international renown as an institution by buying the archives of literary stalwarts like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo, whose reputations had been established for decades.

But in the twenty-first century, a shift to younger writers makes sense. “With the digital age, we’ll see relationships happening between the Ransom Center and writers earlier in their lives, before they’ve entered the canon in any fixed way,” said Stephen Enniss, who will became the center’s director on September 1, replacing Thomas F. Staley. “This is particularly important when trying to capture digital material, since one can’t wait until someone is in their eighties to hope to recover a record of what they were doing in their thirties.”

High-profile acquisitions like the McSweeney’s archive were a hallmark of Staley, who during his 25-year tenure transformed the center, routinely securing collections that might have otherwise gone to larger, better-endowed institutions like those at Yale and Harvard.

“I missed one or two early on,” Staley said, “Nadine Gordimer went to Indiana, for example. But we’ve done very well, and I think we’re now among the top two or three archives in the United States. In modern literature, we’re among the strongest.”

Founded in 1957 by its namesake, Harry Ransom, then the University of Texas vice president and provost, the center now contains about 42 million manuscripts, five million prints and negatives, and 100,000 works of art and design in its collection, including a Gutenberg Bible, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate papers, important documents from a who’s who of late greats like Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams and Graham Greene, and the archives of writers still hard at work, including Julian Barnes, Tom Stoppard, and David Mamet. The emergence of Austin as the home of a world-class literary archive was notable enough to earn Staley and the center a feature-length profile in The New Yorker in 2007.

Enniss comes to Austin from Washington, where he was the Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library . That  experience may seem at a remove from his new job, which requires negotiations with the agents of both literary legends and promising upstarts—not to mention finding a way to archive digital materials, like email correspondence and computer files.

Enniss says the two jobs are not as far apart as they may seem. “At the Folger, they had always collected theatrical ephemera of the 18th and 19th centuries,” he said. “In the 20th century, a lot of that material is shared on social media and Web sites, so we began systematically archiving Web sites focused on Shakespeare.”

Before his stint at the Folger, he was the director of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University , where he built a strong collection of the papers of contemporary Irish poets, including the late Seamus Heaney, and surprised many by winning the archive of Salman Rushdie. “With the Ransom Center, I’ve now returned to my native element,” he said.

Though many believe that physical archives are less valuable in an age when digital reproductions are widely available, Enniss and Staley argue that engaging with the original documents offers a more intense experience. “For starters, marginalia don’t always reproduce well,” Enniss said. “It was true in the microfilm era, and it’s true in the digital one.” Staley agreed, referring to the German philosopher and archivist Walter Benjamin, who described the “aura” and transcendent “authenticity” of a manuscript.

“To touch and see the script, the scribblings and false starts and then what came out as the book,” Staley said, “you can see the whole trajectory of the author’s imagination.”

Others question the utility of the often pedestrian web of email and social media postings that are now the ubiquitous means of communication for young writers. “Currently, the research demand is not there,” Enniss said. “But it is necessary to capture it in anticipation of research. What use it will be made of is for scholars to answer.”

Enniss was reluctant to discuss his plans for the Ransom Center collections, saying only that he would like to unite some collections that were split, like those of T.S. Eliot, Waugh, and Greene.

Though officially retired from the Ransom Center, Staley, with his network of contacts, is not likely to be far removed. He will retain his chair and continue to teach at the university, and he said, “I’ll be able to help Dr. Enniss whenever he may want help.”

He will also write a memoir of his time at the Ransom Center. “I’ll be telling all those stories I couldn’t tell before, about the people I’ve met, the attics I’ve crawled through, and the negotiations,” he said. “I’ve had some adventures.”

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