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  • Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center
  • William L. Joyce
Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center. Edited by Megan Barnard. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 160 pp. $40.00. ISBN 978-0-292-71489-2.

Over the past century or so, academic research libraries have evolved into remarkably complex institutions in pursuing their mission to support teaching and learning. As an important aspect of this purpose, special collections have evolved in equally complex ways that mirror the development of their parent institutions. Though there are countless variations in the nature and timing of this evolution, [End Page 353] most academic special collections operations followed a discernible pattern: phase one was a period of modest origins featuring collections of rare books or small archival gatherings, followed by a longer period of intense focus on acquisitions. The second phase was one of consolidation that initially concentrated on cataloging and then on preservation of the materials aggressively pursued in the earlier phase. Most recently, these operations have sought to balance their activities among acquisition, cataloging and preservation, outreach, and access to the collections, increasingly in settings featuring course-related instruction, not just access by individual researchers, although that remains a core feature of the enterprise. The advent of technology has facilitated these dynamic changes, often blurring operational differences and offering convergences among related cataloging conventions and, now, through programs to digitize special collections holdings.

During its fifty years the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (hereafter HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin has reflected this pattern. This volume, which marked the HRC's fiftieth anniversary in 2007, describes the HRC experience.

Lest one think, however, that this volume is simply a slight celebratory nod to the remarkable success and presence of the HRC, this effort is instead a careful delineation of the origins of what became the HRC and then an unflinching look that acknowledges (without delving into much detail) problems, as they occurred in the several phases that started with the Ransom years, which defined the HRC's character. A number of diverting sidebars in this richly detailed volume explore topics such as the manner in which the HRC has been funded and its appetite for acquiring English literary collections (and the decidedly ambivalent British response).

Following an introduction by HRC director Thomas F. Staley, the four essays by HRC staff members that comprise this volume (as well as the "prelude," a talk by Harry Ransom to the Philosophical Society of Texas in December 1956 that outlined his vision for what would become the HRC) provide balanced assessments of the periods for which they are responsible. There is an open and honest reporting of the strengths and weaknesses of Ransom, his predecessor, Fannie Ratchford, and his several successors, culminating in the current tenure of Staley, who has done much to restore the energy and focus of the HRC as it takes its rightful place among the premier special collections programs in higher education.

John Thomas's essay, "Beginnings: The Rare Books Collection, 1897–1955," depicts the origins of special collections at Texas by describing the acquisition of the library of Chicago financier John Henry Wrenn in 1917, the George A. Aitken Collection in 1921, and the Miriam J. and William H. Stark Library, which didn't appear in Austin until 1936. Thomas reports on how the Wrenn and Aitken collections were infected with bogus and corrupted copies that were the result of the fraudulent activity of British bookseller and bibliographer Thomas J. Wise. And Thomas sensitively assesses the career of Ratchford, long-time doyenne of rare books at Texas, who, despite her lack of formal training, undertook "prodigious" (Thomas's word) library work and published extensively on the Wise scandal, all the while supporting research in the collections. Thomas notes, however, that Ratchford was somewhat limited in the range of her interests.

Cathy Henderson's essay, "The Birth of an Institution: The Humanities Research Center, 1956–1971," outlines the principal story of the HRC: the tenures of Harry Ransom as director and Ransom's hand-picked successor, F. Warren Roberts. Henderson reports on the remarkable acquisitions in the area...


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