Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Ken Grant received a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and then worked as a logging geologist in the oil field for six years. In 1992 he started at the State University of New York College at Buffalo where he later received his Master of Arts in Paper Conservation. He joined the Ransom Center in 1997 and has worked as Assistant Paper Conservator and Paper Conservator, but he now serves as Exhibitions Conservator and Head of Exhibition Services.
Meet the Staff
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Diana has a Bachelor of Arts in Conservation from Bogotá, Colombia and she specialized in Photograph conservation in Mexico City, Mexico. She has worked in private workshops and labs and came to the Ransom Center following her work at the Frida Kahlo Museum and the National School for Conservation (ENCRyM) both in Mexico City.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.
How did you decide to become a paper conservator?
When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.
What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?
They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.
Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?
I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.
Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?
Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.
Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?
I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.
What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?
Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.
Do you have a favorite place in Austin?
I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.
Have you made your own book before?
Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.
Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?
Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.
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Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Daniel Zmud, who joined the Ransom Center in 2001, manages everything web-related and supervises the digitization of the Center’s archival sound recordings, videotapes, and motion picture films. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film from The University of Texas at Austin in 1996 and has led the Ransom Center through two major website redesigns, the latest of which launched in 2008.
Can you tell us a little about what you do here at the Ransom Center?
My responsibilities have grown over time. At first I was only producing the public website and online research tools, but since then I’ve also been supervising the audiovisual digitization lab and creating interactive installations for the exhibition galleries.
What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?
I like being a part of activities that shine some light on our collections. They could sit on a dark shelf forever, but it’s much more enjoyable to take them out for exhibitions or research. I was lucky enough to be around when we were scanning the Gutenberg Bible. It’s almost never out of its display case, so it was a pretty rare opportunity to have it there on the scanning station, turning every page, and getting to see it up close. We had to have an armed guard on duty…it was an incredible experience.
I hear you have spent some time building the web exhibition for The Making of Gone With The Wind. How has that been going?
It has been a whirlwind of activity this spring and summer. The web exhibition will include Gone With The Wind content that we’ve previously published, but we’re also integrating a fan-mail database. People can search by name or topic and read actual correspondence that was sent to David O. Selznick’s film production company before, during, and after the making of the film. You’ll be able to type in your relatives’ names to see if they sent in any comments or applied for a job.
Do you have a favorite item or collection here at the Ransom Center?
I haven’t seen every collection, but I always want to tell people about the Norman Dawn collection. He was a special effects inventor for film projects in the early 1900s. We have over 150 display cards from him, and each one describes a different special effect. Special effects at that time were so new—directors didn’t want to spend money on them unless they knew that they were actually going to work. He used a variety of artistic techniques like sketching, watercolor, and painting to sell the special effects to whoever was making a movie, and then he went back after the fact and inserted film stills of the finished special effect. The skill and artistry involved is incredible.
Can you tell us about your car restoration hobby and the cars you’ve been working on lately?
Well, I go to antique malls pretty often, and one time around three years ago I came across this stack of car-customizing magazine from the ’50s and ’60s. They really showed me the creative element in repairing and customizing old cars. I never thought it was something I would be able to do, but flipping through those magazines, I realized that older cars are actually simple machines. So, I was going through Craigslist around that time, and I came across a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that just intrigued me. It was in rough shape, and I thought to myself, “Here’s a blank slate!” With the help of many people giving me advice and directing me to spare parts, I was able to get that car looking really nice within a year, and I ended up reluctantly selling it. What I learned was that once you finish a project, you are eager to start another one. Right now, I’m working on two Mazda Miatas.
Below, watch Zmud drive the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair that he restored.
Where is your favorite place to travel?
Every year since 1988 I’ve gone to Taos, New Mexico for a week or two in the summer. I like to hit the reset button there. I’m with my family, and it’s not a typical trip where every minute is scheduled. I just get to relax, take in the scenery, and escape the heat.
Do you happen to collect anything?
I collect snapshots. You’ll find these buckets full of snapshots in antique stores, and I like flipping through every last one of them. When one sticks with me as interesting or artistic, I decide to take it home. People can be accidentally artistic, even when they are just taking a picture of their aunt and uncle, or the picture isn’t in focus.
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Meet the Staff is an occasional series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Albert A. Palacios has been the Film Curatorial Assistant at the Ransom Center since January 2010 and is a doctoral student in Latin American history at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Master of Science in Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. He was recently awarded the 2014 prize for best graduate essay for Book History. The judges noted “Not only is his research breathtaking, he offers a whole new approach to the issue of Spanish colonial censorship, and beyond that, a new perspective on the mechanics of censorship in general.”
Palacios has coordinated several major volunteer projects, including the digitization of the Alfred Junge collection, the preservation of the Perry Mason film, and the fan mail database in the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.
What does an average day for you entail?
Typically I manage eight to 15 graduate volunteers working at the film department each semester. We work on a range of projects, from creating digital collections and preserving film media to processing archives. However, this past semester we had 24 graduate and undergraduate students helping develop content for the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.
Tell us about your role in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind?
I was the project coordinator for the Gone With The Wind fan mail database, which shares thousands of letters that Selznick International Pictures received between 1936 and 1939. I recruited and trained graduate volunteers on preparing letters for scanning, digitization, image cropping, database records, transcription, as well as writing feature stories about the different types of letters. I also reviewed for quality and approved each entry. To date, we have records for more than 3,000 letters and transcripts for more than 6,000 pages.
What’s the most rewarding part about your job?
I think working with the volunteers is the most rewarding. They help us accomplish many high-quality projects, and they are always so excited and engaged. I am particularly glad to see that the myriad experiences and skills we offer can support their professional development. They help us preserve and make our collections accessible, while we help them define their career aspirations.
Tell us about your academic background and interests.
I started as an undergraduate at UT, pursuing a dual degree in architecture and anthropology. I knew I didn’t want to be an architect or an archaeologist when I finished in 2009, but I still wanted to explore questions of design and cultural representation. I started looking at museum exhibition design while I was studying architecture in Italy. That was when I decided to combine my architecture and archaeology/anthropology majors within the context of museums and archives at the School of Information. I graduated with my master’s degree there and jumped over to Latin American studies, where I wrote my thesis on book censorship in sixteenth-century Mexico. After receiving my master’s degree, I began in the history Ph.D. program. Ultimately, I’m working toward becoming a curator of Latin American special collections.
Did you travel to research your thesis?
I have gone to Mexico City, Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities the throughout past two years to hunt down Mexican “inculabula” and manuscript sources that elucidate publishing practice in sixteenth-century Mexico. I am analyzing the censorship process, printing privilege (akin to copyright) and the social networks that intellectually and economically favored New Spain’s authors. I’m happy to say that two papers from that research are being published this year—one will be a chapter in a book and another in an academic journal.
What’s your favorite movie?
Spellbound! I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers. At the Ransom Center, we have original storyboards, construction drawings, and props that were created for the movie’s dream sequence.
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Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Rick Watson started at the Ransom Center as one of the first graduate interns in 1989 and now oversees the graduate intern program alongside his work as Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in English from the University of Tulsa.
What does a typical day at the Ransom Center look like for you?
A typical day for me includes answering emails and phone calls about our collections, meeting with patrons in the reading room, and helping them find materials in our manuscript collections. I also direct them toward collection materials that they may not have known about. Many of our manuscript items are not cataloged to the item-level, or cataloged onsite, and therefore not online.
You started out at the Ransom Center as a graduate intern. Can you tell me about that experience and how your career has developed since then?
I started in 1989 as one of the first graduate interns. It was a very exciting time to be at the Ransom Center, and there were lots of new collections coming in. My career has taken a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve been able to stay at the Ransom Center since then. I worked with previous director, Thomas F. Staley, managing the Joyce Studies Annual, which is no longer in production. I started working in the performing arts collection as a research associate in 2001 or 2002, and the art collection in 2004,and that’s what led me to this position, Head of Reference Services for the manuscript collection.
What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?
Well, what is there not to like? It’s just a constant discovery. There is such a wealth of material here, and I like being able to help people find things. Whether they are doing genealogical research or biographies or theoretical or critical studies—when you have over 42 million manuscripts in your collection, there is a nugget in there for everybody. I was told that I would know if I liked it from the day I stepped inside, and I have. I really appreciate being here every day.
Is there a favorite collection you have worked with here?
There are so many! That’s a tough question, but I’ve been drawn to a couple different collections lately. One is the Peter Matthiessen collection. I’ve been looking at the notebooks for his travel journal, The Snow Leopard, which documents a fascinating trip through the Himalayas, a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.
Also, the J. M. Coetzee archive has been getting a lot of use, so I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with it. The wealth of materials in that collection is just amazing, but one thing in particular I like is a list of banned books from when he was teaching in South Africa. It’s an amazing list of books. It’s not just English and American literature, but it’s literature from all over the world. I usually pull that one out for classes that visit.
Have you read any on that list?
Yes, I have! A few. It’s actually a really good reading list.
Tell us a little about managing the graduate intern program.
Typically we get around 30 to 40 applications per year to fill six positions. Each graduate intern is enrolled full time in a University of Texas at Austin’s Master’s program or a Ph.D. program, and we get people from the Information School, American Studies, English, Radio-Television-Film, Art History—really all over the place. The graduate interns amaze me because they are some of the smartest people I know. They are all really good in their own field, great learners, and super valuable to us in Research Services. They’re hilarious too—just great people to work with.
Have you lived anywhere else outside Texas?
Most of my family is from the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, where I was born, but my parents relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. After living there for a while, I moved to the Austin area, and I’ve been here ever since. I do love to travel, though!
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Well, for the past two years, a lot of my time has been spent with my wife and my little girl who is about to be two. It has been a great adventure and a lot of fun. We like to get outdoors as much as possible, and now that she’s a little older, we’ve started to get into rock climbing again and a little bit of camping. We have a long agenda of things we want to do, but most of it includes travel and being outdoors. Introducing our daughter to the outdoors is really important to us.
Have you always been interested in rock climbing?
Yes, I’ve been part of the rock-climbing community since I moved to Austin. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and I’m still on the board of the Friends of Enchanted Rock. I was a rock-climbing instructor and guide for many years and then co-owner and operator of a rock-climbing guide service for a little over 10 years. I started climbing when I lived in Oklahoma. There are rocks in the Midwest, believe it or not.
Have you gotten to travel anywhere interesting for your outdoor adventuring?
Most of my interesting travel involves rock climbing. I spent some intense times in Mexico, California, Colorado, and various other places. I also love spending time at Padre Island National Seashore, which is about 65 miles of undeveloped barrier island in South Texas. It’s a wonderful, wild place.
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