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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Library Unlocks Its Attic

A University of Texas research center mirrors a trend by exhibiting its trove of literary papers and artifacts, both scholarly and mundane.

August 05, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Texas — No disrespect is intended to your local public library. But to glimpse 36 million of the most coveted pages in all of literature, and possibly also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's underwear, serious book folk know they must come here, to the same Hill Country that gave this nation Lyndon B. Johnson, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and its largest public university.

Once arrived, they look for the tall glass-and-concrete box at the edge of the University of Texas campus, and step into the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, home to a staggering trove of papers and artifacts from thousands of writers, artists, musicians, actors and others.

Down these corridors, elaborately indexed, preserved and arranged, is the smoking-gun evidence that James Joyce liberally amended the final page proofs of "Ulysses," that William Blake hand-colored some copies of his 1789 "Songs of Innocence," that D.H. Lawrence toyed with many titles before naming his novel about Lady Chatterley. In late July, 37 boxes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate papers arrived.

For decades, scholars have rummaged here in solitude and wonder, sorting through a collection laid out something like a bottom desk drawer eight stories deep. But now, for the first time in its improbable 46-year history, the center has a clean, well-lighted place to show off its massive holdings for a wider audience. And as an increasing number of libraries nationwide begin to behave more like museums, this Austin building may stand as a hint of things to come.

In May, the institution unveiled a $14.5-million renovation that includes tall new windows, abundant natural light and 40,000 square feet for an exhibition area, theater and second-floor reading room. Attendance, previously around 180 visitors per week, now hovers around 1,200 -- and that's with most of the university's 52,000 students on summer vacation.

"It's wide open. We're in a conversation now with the public," says Associate Curator Peter Mears.

Every research library has its own philosophy, from those whose musty reading rooms admit only credentialed scholars to the less exclusive (and often publicly funded) facilities that welcome anyone curious and well-behaved. But throughout the discipline, librarians have been brushing up their displays or thinking about it.

The Morgan Library in New York, long a pioneer in literary exhibitions, closed in May for an ambitious three-year, $100-million expansion project that will further enlarge the institution's exhibition spaces, reading room and auditorium. The Boston Atheneum reopened in September after a three-year, $30-million renovation that moved its exhibition space from upstairs to a prime spot on the ground floor.

These days, says Atheneum director and librarian Richard Wendorf, "you have to provide a broader public with a better sense of what you're collecting and why you're doing it."

At the Huntington Library in San Marino, researchers still need credentials, but librarians have welcomed all comers to broadly pitched exhibitions that since the early 1990s have included Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and the California Gold Rush.

"The museum world has a great deal to teach the library world about how to show their rare and unique holdings. Libraries have been needing to make some strides in that area, and they're beginning to do so," says Victoria Steele, head of special collections for UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library.

The Getty Research Institute's director, Thomas Crow, suggests a pair of factors that might lie behind this trend: First, there's the growing number of artists and museums showing works that involve arrangements of found objects, thereby widening the audience's idea of what to expect in a museum setting. Next, there's the galloping advance of the computer as a prime tool for storing and transmitting information, a development that "makes you more aware of the physical nature of the object" when you look at a book, manuscript or document.

At any institution that acquires large collections, part of the fun is finding surprises, as the Ransom Center's staffers did more than 30 years ago, when the underwear arrived along with a dealer's collection of materials from Doyle, who created detective Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Living authors, too, have been known to lose track of exactly what they've handed over.

Terrence McNally, the prize-winning, Texas-bred playwright whose works include the book for the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman," says he was thrilled when the Ransom Center asked for his papers several years ago, "since my apartment was overflowing with old manuscripts." But he can't explain the unopened roll of wallpaper that's filed there in Austin under his name.

In an archive with 36 million manuscript pages, 1 million rare books, 5 million photographs and more than 100,000 works of art and design, these things happen.

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