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A Work in Progress: Staley’s Next Chapter

After 25 years as director, Tom Staley leaves an indelible mark on the Harry Ransom Center. Watch a slideshow containing key acquisitions and read about his legacy.

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“It’s a research center, but it’s also a great place for students. We have poetry readings. We have exhibitions. It’s a center of learning. It’s an opportunity to see so much of our culture,” says Tom Staley, with his usual verve and twinkling eye.

He’s talking about the Harry Ransom Center, a jewel on campus and one of the world’s finest humanities research centers. Staley has been the Center’s director since 1988 and will retire Aug. 31, closing a 25-year chapter that brought such notable collections as Robert De Niro’s papers and costumes and Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate Papers to the 40 Acres.

“‘The Watergate Papers,’ it’s not a typical kind of collection that the Ransom Center would collect, but these papers were so much a part of American history,” Staley explains. “Woodward and Bernstein wanted them to come here, and for students to have an opportunity to study this material is wonderful.”

When Staley arrived on campus, he had his work cut out for him. The Ransom Center had earned a solid reputation in the years after it was founded in 1957 but had lost much of its momentum over these years.

Staley wasted no time getting the Center back on its feet. He refocused the Center’s mission, redefined collecting practices, established development and public affairs departments, and cultivated a closer tie to the university. One of his major legacies is expanding the Center’s endowments from $1 million to $31 million.

His fundraising abilities have allowed him to acquire many of the Ransom Center’s highlights, including the David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Tom Stoppard, and Norman Mailer archives. But Staley’s efforts have never ended at the acquisition.

Once collections are cataloged, Staley doesn’t want them to sit untouched on dusty shelves. To encourage scholars and students to study these materials, Staley initiated a fellowship program that sponsors more than 50 fellows a year.

“It’s an opportunity to look at a first edition of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ to read manuscripts of James Joyce, to look at poems that John Milton made changes in, in his own hand,” Staley says.

Staley has also made it his mission to invite more than just academics into the Ransom Center; he wants the public to enjoy its holdings too. In 2003, Staley unveiled a newly renovated and much more welcoming Center, complete with a new reading room, a spacious gallery and theater space, and windows etched with highlights from the Center’s collection. The Center also established a membership program and extensive public programming, including lectures, film series and tours.

“If you can make your collections vital and alive and living and part of the cultural life of the institution, then you have succeeded, then you have done something that really enriches the texture of the intellectual life of an institution,” Staley says.

Special collections libraries all over the world credit Staley with widening the scope of special collections to include such fields as film and photography, renewing interest in collecting manuscripts, boosting the acquisitions market, and raising the overall standard in the special collections field.

“Dr. Staley has made the Ransom Center a kind of benchmark for the rest of us,” says Richard Ovenden, Deputy Librarian of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. “Alan Bennett, who gave us his archive a couple of years ago, mentioned that he had been visited by Dr. Staley. The immediate sense of panic always pervades a British special collections library whenever those words are mentioned. We regard that as a narrow escape.”

Tom Stoppard, whom Staley has deemed “Britain’s greatest living playwright,” recalls his first encounter with the Ransom Center in 1967 when he lost his bid for an Evelyn Waugh manuscript to the Ransom Center. Twenty-five years later, Stoppard sold his archive to the Center, where it now resides alongside Waugh’s collection.

“I felt vaguely distinguished at being under-bidder to this famous, great institution, which seemed to have all of the literature and manuscripts I most liked,” Stoppard says.

“On the occasion of his retirement, one wishes him some joy in return,” Stoppard adds. “One wants him to just enjoy his laurels.”

Read the Aug. 31, 2013, New York Times story about Tom Staley’s legacy.

The original version of this story first appeared on the Harry Ransom Center’s website.

Home page photo by Eric Beggs.