The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin has long been one of the best-kept secrets in the nation. With the opening of a new building and viewing galleries, it no longer will be. Its collection of literary and photographic artifacts is surpassed in size and quality only by those of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library: 40 million books, manuscripts, and photographs. There's a very rare first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; a Gutenberg Bible; three copies of Shakespeare's First Folio; Joyce's manuscripts; and such curiosities as model ships, 19th-century marionettes, Houdini's props, and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yiddish typewriter.
The story of how all this came to be there is slightly scandalous. Ransom was a chancellor at the university and a very persuasive man. Under his leadership, which began in 1958, the center spent tens of millions of dollars—royalties from university-owned oil fields—buying up every rare-book collection and authorial archive that could be found. The British and the French complained that these Texans were pillaging their heritage; other libraries on campus felt that their more practical holdings were being neglected. By 1971 the mad run of acquisitions had ended. Then came years of cataloguing. Attendance remained relatively low. The building was forbidding; the treasures were hidden deep in the stacks. The $14 million renovation project—a new lobby, galleries, reading rooms, and a theater, totaling 40,000 square feet—will bring everything into the light. 21st St. at Guadalupe St., Austin, Tex.; 512/471-8944; www.hrc.utexas.edu.