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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To honor acclaimed novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014), the Ransom Center is highlighting materials from his archive in its lobby.
Matthiessen was born in New York City to a well-to-do family and educated at Yale. Determined to pursue a writing career, Matthiessen moved to Paris where he became one of the founders of The Paris Review, which, he later admitted, he invented as a cover while working briefly for the CIA. In his 45-year career as a writer, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works, winning National Book Awards for The Snow Leopard (1978) and Shadow Country (2008), a one-volume revision of a trilogy of frontier Florida novels published in the 1990s. In writing to the Ransom Center about Shadow Country, Matthiessen confessed, “I was dismayed to find upon opening the finished product at long last that it was still unfinished.”
Matthiessen’s rich archive was acquired by the Center in 1995, and materials were added in succeeding years. It includes manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files that span his writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, and essays, often in multiple drafts.
Writer James Salter, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, paid tribute to Matthiessen in The New Yorker.
The materials in the lobby are on view through April 27.
Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close.