Shortly before the end of 2020, the papers of National Book Award–winning author Lily Tuck arrived at the Harry Ransom Center. It is always exciting when a new archive enters our building, but this arrival from New York City, in the midst of a devastating pandemic, felt especially significant. The collection’s delivery was originally scheduled for March of 2020 but was promptly put on hold as we began to learn of a dangerous, new, and rapidly spreading virus and as institutions shut down around the world. Until measures could be put into place to ensure the safety of everyone involved, the delivery of Lily Tuck’s correspondence, her research notes, manuscripts of such novels as The News from Paraguay and The Double Life of Liliane, and other material documenting her writing life had to be delayed.
Although this long delay caused by the pandemic was unusual, it underscores the careful, deliberate, and often slow work that characterizes collection development, and this work is grounded in research. Research with any newly acquired collection, book, manuscript, artwork, photograph, or other item begins long before an acquisition enters our building, and this process takes time. Our conversations with Lily Tuck began more than 18 months before her papers came to the Ransom Center. We introduced author Michael Ondaatje to a broad range of our collections and our staff during his 2015 visit to the Center, more than two years before we acquired his papers. Some acquisitions take even longer. We first reached out to the literary publisher McSweeney’s in 2006, a long seven years before the McSweeney’s Records eventually found a home at the Ransom Center in 2013.
The Center’s curators, Director, Associate Director for the Library Division, and I are all engaged in growing the Center’s collections. The research we do for potential acquisitions is multi-faceted and progresses over time. Among other factors, it can involve studying a creative figure’s work and life; learning about the material being considered for acquisition, including its provenance, history, significance, and remarkable features; studying comparable material; and understanding how a potential acquisition relates to other collections or items, both at the Ransom Center and in other archives, museums, or collecting institutions. Equally important is the consideration of how a new acquisition could create opportunities for future scholarship and teaching, extending the research potential of existing collections and creating new pathways for learning and discovery.
An important tool throughout this process is the Ransom Center’s Collection Development Policy. Originally created in 2013, this policy is a living document that outlines the core principles that guide collection development decisions. In all of our collecting, we look for materials that:
- enhance, complement, or diversify established holdings
- foster connections among the Center’s collections
- document the creative process of diverse individuals or organizations working in literature, the arts, and the humanities, and
- support the broader research, teaching, and community engagement mission of the Ransom Center and The University of Texas at Austin.
Our Collection Development Policy identifies priority areas of focus for the Center’s collecting and offers detail both about the types of materials we collect and about some that are outside the Center’s scope. Recognizing serious weaknesses and gaps in our holdings, we recently revised the policy to emphasize the critical importance of bringing more diverse voices into the Center’s collections. As the policy now states, “The Center’s collections have been shaped by collection development practices that date back to the early twentieth century and reflect a range of past and present cultural biases. Current collection development efforts aim to reflect a more inclusive and diverse representation of perspectives and experiences, both building on strengths and addressing longstanding gaps within our holdings.” This commitment to more inclusive collection development is essential to the Ransom Center’s mission and an important and necessary part of our Diversity & Inclusion Action Plan. This is work that requires ongoing attention and commitment.
The arrival of Lily Tuck’s archive at the Ransom Center launched the beginning of its research life in a publicly accessible archival library and museum. Future researchers can access her papers to see the development of her works over the course of multiple drafts, and they can read unpublished stories. They can learn about her experiences visiting Paraguay for the first time, invited by the country’s government after she won the National Book Award in 2004. They can learn more about her rich literary life through correspondence with other authors and editors such as Roger Angell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Gordon Lish. The papers of Michael Ondaatje and the McSweeney’s Records are similarly abundant sources for research. Scholars, students, writers, and others will find information and material in all three of these archives that cannot be found anywhere else. They are unique and plentiful sources for discovery, collections that can support research, teaching, and community engagement at the Ransom Center for years to come, which is a primary goal of our collecting.
The research of collection development is daily work, and fortunately many people help us along the way. We devote considerable time and effort to building relationships directly with artists, writers, and their estates; with collectors; with booksellers, art dealers, agents, and auction houses; and with faculty members, peers, and other subject-area experts willing to share their knowledge and valuable perspectives.
In tandem with our Collection Development Policy, the strong relationships we develop over time with collectors and with colleagues in the book, manuscript, and art trade help these individuals gain a clearer understanding of the Ransom Center and our collecting interests. We benefit regularly from their expertise and from the research they share with us through catalogs, collection descriptions, and conversations. We also benefit from the networks of friends and associates they introduce to us. Because of these carefully developed relationships and the strong reputation of the Ransom Center, we often receive early notice of opportunities that align well with our collecting interests.
The Center’s collections have been shaped by collection development practices that date back to the early twentieth century and reflect a range of past and present cultural biases. Current collection development efforts aim to reflect a more inclusive and diverse representation of perspectives and experiences, both building on strengths and addressing longstanding gaps within our holdings.
—RANSOM CENTER COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT POLICY
Collaboration is also an important component of collection development. The Ransom Center is fortunate to be located at a large, public university, and we collaborate frequently with our faculty colleagues and with other experts on campus as part of the collection development process. We worked closely, for example, with colleagues from the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies on the acquisition of the papers of Gabriel García Márquez and a subsequent symposium celebrating the opening of the archive. The invaluable research of Itzik Gottesman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Germanic Studies, helped advance the acquisition of an important collection of Yiddish-language material by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Partnerships with colleagues at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies and the Units at Black Studies helped support acquisitions of photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier and Dawoud Bey. Conversations among staff, faculty, graduate students, and other campus colleagues encourage the use of newly acquired material in teaching and student research, bringing further life and activity to our collections.
Collection development is slow, daily work. And it is extraordinarily meaningful work, as it brings unique and important materials, like the papers of Lily Tuck, Michael Ondaatje, McSweeney’s, and so many other creative figures or organizations, to the Ransom Center. Through extensive research, relationship building, and collaboration, collection development efforts broaden the university’s cultural resources and—equally important—its community, as we associate more diverse artists, writers, creative figures, and researchers with the Ransom Center’s collections. Upon the Center’s acquisition of his father’s papers, Rodrigo García noted, “We are delighted that Gabo’s archive will live at the great and unique Ransom Center, where generations of scholars and lovers of his work will be able to deepen their appreciation and understanding of his life and his literary legacy.” Careful collection development, like all good research, creates new opportunities for inquiry and learning, and these opportunities serve not only current students and scholars but also researchers for many, many generations to come.