Letter from America

Nicola Wilson writes:

I was very fortunate to spend some time earlier this month doing research at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) in Austin, Texas. “Do you still need to travel to see particular items?” friends have asked. Well yes, while many major research libraries now have substantial digitisation programmes – the Harry Ransom Center is one of these, as you can see from their huge online collections http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/ – there is still so much material held in large libraries and archives like this that digitisation can only start to offer a taster of what they contain. In fact, I was working from card catalogues in the reading rooms while I was there – sometimes even archivists and online catalogues cannot keep up with everything that a major archive contains.

The Harry Ransom Center is a key place for research in twentieth-century literature. Since its origins in the late 1950s, when it was founded by Harry Huntt Ransom, a professor of English, the HRC has sought to collect literary manuscripts and “entire working archives” – an unusual collections-policy at mid-century, when rare books were valued more highly than the archives of living writers – reflecting Ransom’s belief that the archival trail an author leaves behind (notes, diaries, drafts, correspondence) should be at the centre of literary research. We still have debates about the validity of this idea or otherwise in our seminar rooms today.

The politics of acquisition should not be ignored of course, and the well-endowed HRC regularly appears in archival controversies as with their recent purchase of the archive of Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/24/colombian-writer-gabriel-garcia-marquezs-archive-goes-to-texas

The ‘Diasporic Archives’ network has explored some of the complex, geo-political and international issues involved in major institutions’ collections policies: http://www.diasporicarchives.com/

Austin however was a wonderful place to work in and I had a fabulous time buried in the archives there. I was looking at Hugh Walpole’s diaries – poignant and entertaining – and a variety of correspondence written between him and other members of the Book Society Selection Committee – a mail-order book club set up in 1929, which in many ways had an influence upon popular literature and literary fiction comparable to that of Oprah’s Book Club or Richard & Judy today. All of which will be great material for the next book, and I came away just in time before I got the boots!



About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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