How are unpublished manuscripts unearthed at the Ransom Center?
By Elana Estrin
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.
The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28, 2011, issue of The Strand.
This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?
Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.
“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.
When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.
“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”
It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.
Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.
When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.
“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.
Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.
Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.
“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”
On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”