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Special Collections a Boon for Universities, Public

For public universities in Texas that are striving to distinguish themselves — particularly those vying to be the state’s next tier-one research institution — special collections in their libraries can provide a boost.

John Young, a professor at Marshall University in West Virginia, does research at the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center. The Ransom Center’s approximately $7 million budget, of which roughly $3.74 million comes from the university, dwarfs that of other collections throughout the state.

At age 90, William Blair Jr., a former Negro League pitcher, Dallas-area civil rights leader and longtime newspaperman, came to the realization that much of the history he had lived through had already been forgotten by younger generations.

“They don’t know. They don’t read nothing,” he said by telephone this week from his office at The Elite News, the publication he founded in 1960 to bring light to Dallas’s often-overlooked black community.

He recently turned over the photographs, newspapers and memorabilia he had collected to the University of Texas at Arlington Special Collections Library. It took seven trucks to haul Blair’s collection to the university, which intends to develop a public exhibition around it.

Blair hopes visitors to the exhibition, particularly young ones, will develop a deeper appreciation for the area’s history. “There’s stuff in there they don’t know,” he said. “That’s stuff I’ve had for years.”

UT-Arlington officials, meanwhile, hope their future William Blair Collection will bolster their library’s reputation as a repository for artifacts of black history. For universities striving to improve their reputation — particularly the handful, including UT-Arlington, vying to be the state’s next tier-one research institution — special collections can provide a boost. And for a general public largely unaware of the items stored in public universities, they can be a veritable treasure trove.

“Tier one is all about scholarship and recognition by your peers from around the world for the great and wonderful research that you do,” said Ronald L. Elsenbaumer, the provost at UT-Arlington. “And special collections bring that uniqueness to your university. Having those unique, scholarly activities going on that distinguish you, that’s important.”

Twenty-six years ago, Bill Wittliff, a screenwriter and photographer, and his wife, Sally, founded what became the Wittliff Collections, which now include a Southwestern writers collection and a collection of Southwestern and Mexican photography, at Texas State University in San Marcos. The collections were initially based on the Texas writer J. Frank Dobie’s belongings, which Wittliff had occasion to retrieve from Dobie’s secretary after his death.

In addition to preserving the materials, Wittliff said, “The idea from the beginning was that the collection be a place of inspiration where anybody who had the itch to create but maybe not yet the courage could come and see how even someone like John Graves struggled to find just the right words, just the right sentence, to express what he wanted to express.”

The collection, the first major one of its kind at Texas State, has grown significantly. Contributions from Dobie and Graves, who wrote Goodbye to a River, are joined by those from other Texas literary giants. It now houses the literary papers of the novelist Cormac McCarthy — one of the few archives they have had to buy.

The eclectic mix includes an original 1555 edition of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación, the first known European writings about Texas, as well as a songbook written by a preadolescent Willie Nelson, memorabilia from the 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove (Wittliff wrote the teleplay) and the writers’ archives of the animated sitcom King of the Hill.

Texas State has grown along with it. Recently, the state reclassified the university as an “emerging research university,” putting it in the running for a pot of prize money for universities that can reach ambitious criteria for a tier-one status established by the state, including having an elite library.

“Major special collections help your library holdings,” said David Coleman, the director of the Wittliff Collections, “and that, in turn, burnishes the star of Texas State.”

Tom Staley, who will retire next year after more than two decades as director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, one of the country’s premier archival collections, said the role that such libraries played in the humanities was the equivalent of state-of-the-art science laboratories.

“You think of people in the sciences and the wonderful spaces they have the opportunity to do their research in,” he said, noting that it can attract top faculty members and students. “Here you are. You don’t have to travel all the way across the world to write a strong book or teach a seminar.” 

The Ransom Center’s holdings include a complete Gutenberg Bible; Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's "View From the Window at Le Gras," the first permanent photograph; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate papers; and manuscripts by writers including James Joyce, Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace. Writers’ having their work in the Ransom Center, Staley said, “qualifies their place in the canon.”

Even being added to a library with less national renown than the Ransom Center can affect an artist or subject. This month, the University of North Texas announced it was acquiring six decades’ worth of historical materials on the region’s gay, lesbian and transgender movement from Resource Center Dallas, an LGBT service organization.

“We hope this creates more of an awareness that these materials exist, that they are important and that they deserve to be preserved,” said Morgan Davis, head of the UNT archives and rare book room. She noted that they were not in the running for much of the materials that end up at the Ransom Center, which can afford to pay for acquisitions.

The Ransom Center’s approximately $7 million budget, of which roughly $3.74 million comes from the university, dwarfs that of other collections throughout the state.

At Angelo State University, Suzanne Campbell, the head of the West Texas collection at the Porter Henderson Library, has had to sweat to build her collection, which focuses on historical documents and photographs from the Concho Valley region, many intercepted en route to the trash. (Dobie’s artifacts were similarly bound for an estate sale before Wittliff spotted them.)

“We try to encourage people: please don’t throw things away,” Campbell said. “We will come clean it out for you if necessary, which we have done in the past.”

No matter the size of their operation, archivists around Texas are feeling the pressure of state budget cuts. At UT-Arlington, the budget for special collections has decreased by more than 20 percent since 2010. “It has had an effect,” Staley said, noting that money for personnel has been cut, “which means service can be slower, the curatorial work can take longer.”

Despite such struggles, the internet has made it easier to attract the attention of researchers and the public by posting catalogs of a collection’s holdings and occasionally by digitizing documents. “We still believe in the original, the real,” said Staley, “but at the same time, the virtual can be very good.”

UT-Arlington intends to make some of the materials available online. But Blair’s son, Darryl Blair, who now edits The Elite News, said people in the area should take advantage of the opportunity to see those historical items in person.

As Wittliff said: “We all go out from our own history, our own culture. It’s better to go out from it knowing than in ignorance.”

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