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.