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Archivist seeks help in identifying manuscript waste material

By Micah Erwin

Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Because manuscript waste is particularly difficult to identify due to its fragmentary nature, I started early on to think of ways to harness the knowledge of other rare book and manuscript enthusiasts to help describe these objects. Inspired by individuals who had made extraordinary discoveries about historical photographs by sharing them on the popular image-hosting site Flickr, I hoped that something similar could be done with images of medieval manuscript waste. This served as the inspiration for posting quick, point-and-shoot digital camera images on Flickr and inviting members of the rare book community to examine and share insights they might have about the items.

The response has been promising. Out of the 65 images (from about 40 items) posted thus far, we’ve had a total of 2,422 views, 26 comments and–thanks to the work of some very diligent people–more than 16 partial or full identifications of the fragmentary texts. This page is a great example of how users have offered up expertise on transcribing and dating one fragment. It’s likely that a majority of all known fragments in our collections will have been identified by Flickr members by the time this project is complete. Notifications about new images are posted on a related Facebook page. But plenty of work remains, and there are many fragments to be commented on.

Crowdsourcing is a popular buzzword these days and for good reason. By placing images of these rather obscure, archaic objects on a popular image hosting site, a twenty-first-century technology brings together the skills of a highly specialized and niche community and opens up these medieval objects to interpretation by potentially anyone.

* The author would like to add that although digitization and image sharing has many benefits, nothing compares with up close physical examination of medieval manuscripts. It should also be noted that the images we are posting are primarily for identification and rapid dissemination and are not publication-quality, high-resolution photos. Researchers may request high-resolution images through the Ransom Center’s website.

Artists’ books bring text to life through art

By Jacqueline Muñoz

The definition of what constitutes an artist’s book varies significantly depending on the social or critical circle observing the book.  Is it an artist’s book, a livre d’artiste, an artist’s illustrated book, bookart, pop art, or a fine press book?  If one were to look up the term and read any of the numerous essays about it, there would certainly be canonical titles offered and artists’ names as well—Henri Matisse, Ed Ruscha, and even William Blake, to name a few.  Seeing these three artists of vastly different periods, styles, and mediums is proof that a single definition would not suit all audiences.  In the preface in Artists’ Books: a Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Dick Higgins writes, “There is a myriad of possibilities concerning what the artist’s book can be; the danger is that we will think of it as just this and not that.  A firm definition will, by its nature, serve only to exclude many artists’ books which one would want to include.”

Although the history of artists’ books is as vigorously debated as the definition, artists’ books truly began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular with the idea of the “democratic multiple”—well suited to the social and political climate of the times. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and George Brecht’s An Anthology of Chance Operations are just a couple of examples from this period housed at the Ransom Center.  Though it may be difficult to define artists’ books, often times you will know one when you see it because they can be quite unique—like a work of art.  Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books offers one distinction as “books made as direct expressions of an artist’s point of view, with the artist involved in the conception, production, and execution of the work.”  A few of the more “artful” examples in the Ransom Center collection include Clair Van Vliet’s Aura and Countercode archeo-logic by Timothy Ely.  Some of the characteristics present can include plates or illustrations cut from wood, linoleum, stone, or even metal; the bindings can be made of leather, wood, metal, etc.; the paper can be handmade, stitched, rolled, cut, or folded; and there is no limit to shape, size, and sometimes even sequence. Some artists’ books are even designed to be shuffled like a deck of cards and read in any order.

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  At the Ransom Center there are numerous examples of artists’ books, ranging from Henri Matisse’s famous Jazz to Henry Miller’s heartfelt Insomnia or the Devil at Large to smaller press items like the collaboration of artist Steven Sorman with poet Lee Blessing in Lessons from the Russian. There are even a few gems in the collection that have until now escaped categorization as artists’ books.  We are reviewing seminal bibliographies that address the evolving definitions of the genre and plan to revise and expand available resources to make the books in the collection more accessible.  To search for artists’ books in the Ransom Center’s collections, access the UT Library Catalog: type in “artists’ books” (in quotation marks) and limit the results to the Harry Ransom Center.  There is also a checklist of artists’ books available in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms.

Lynne Maphies also contributed to this blog post.


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Research at the Ransom Center: “Modernism and Christianity”

By Io Montecillo

George Bernard Shaw's responses to a questionnaire about God. 1931. George Bernard Shaw collection.
George Bernard Shaw's responses to a questionnaire about God. 1931. George Bernard Shaw collection.

Dr. Erik Tonning is Research Director of the “Modernism and Christianity” project at the University of Bergen, Norway. He visited the Ransom Center in June 2011 to view a range of its modernism holdings and to gather information on behalf of his research team from several of the Ransom Center’s rich collections.

Tonning writes about his research and his findings, including manuscripts that highlight George Bernard Shaw and D. H. Lawrence’s approaches to a new theology, as well as a letter from T. S. Eliot, one of the most famous modernist converts to Christianity.

Hyde Park host provided home away from home for scholars

By Elana Estrin

Cultural Compass: Can you tell us about some of your most memorable guests?

Martha Campbell: Oh, heavens!

Martha Campbell, 73, is not your typical B&B owner. During the time she hosted Ransom Center scholars at her home between 1995 and 2010, Campbell helped one renter woo her future husband, competed with a guest in a bake-off, hosted a frequent renter’s book launch, and became a close friend and confidante to many of the scholars who stayed with her.

“When I first started doing this, I thought: ‘How would I feel if I were a stranger in a strange place? How would I want to be treated?’ That’s guided me through the years,” Campbell said.

Campbell quickly became a legend among the Ransom Center scholars, in part for her breakfasts. Vanessa Guignery, past guest and former Ransom Center fellow, reports that Campbell served fruit, juice, muffins, and either waffles, pancakes, or french toast every morning.

“Other scholars stayed with other people who were very nice, but there was no breakfast. So each time I arrived at the Ransom Center and said, ‘Mmm I had waffles for breakfast!’ the other scholars would say, ‘Stop it!’ Everybody wanted to stay with Martha,” Guignery says.

Campbell’s hospitality didn’t stop at breakfast. She invited her guests to dinner parties with her friends and to Austin’s famed live-music concerts. (“I got a kick out of introducing them to Texas music.”)

“It wasn’t just coming back, closing the door, and that’s it. She didn’t make you feel as though you were actually paying to be there. It truly felt like home,” Guignery says.

Campbell’s guests have formed a network, and many of them became close friends and colleagues. During one of Guignery’s stays, Campbell invited two Norman Mailer scholars staying elsewhere, Michael and Donna Lennon, over for a wine and cheese party. Guignery told Michael Lennon about her work on British writer Julian Barnes, whose archive Guignery was researching at the Ransom Center. He suggested that she publish a collection of interviews with Barnes, put her in touch with an editor, and three years later Guignery published Conversations with Julian Barnes. The book now sits on Campbell’s table.

Campbell made her own contributions to her guests’ work. She introduced a few scholars studying spiritualist writers like W. B. Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle to a spiritualist church down the street. During one of his stays with Campbell, Michael Lennon was invited to read at the Ransom Center’s monthly Poetry on the Plaza event. He asked Campbell if she happened to have any beat poetry around, and he ended up reading from her copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which she bought at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1960.

Built in 1910, exactly 100 years before Campbell hosted her last guest, the home is a registered historical landmark in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Campbell started housing renters in 1994, soon after her husband passed away.

“I had never had a job. I always thought I couldn’t do anything since I always had my husband,” Campbell says. “Every time I did something like change a light bulb or carry something heavy or fix a toilet, I kept getting more and more self-confidence to live by myself. So I grew as a person along with the house. It really made me a different person. The house is kind of the third big chapter of my life.”

Before hosting Ransom Center scholars, Campbell housed mathematicians and scientists visiting The University of Texas at Austin. Her very first renter was a Japanese man who spoke little English.

“When he left, he looked really forlorn, so I gave him a hug. Then I thought, ‘Am I supposed to do that?’ When I cleaned his room, I found five or six beautiful origami cranes placed around the room. I found out later that was a compliment. He came back once to say hello, so I figured I must’ve done a pretty good job,” Campbell said.

Though she stopped renting in 2010, Campbell periodically hosts informal gatherings for current Ransom Center scholars and staff.

“Somebody said I fall in love with all my guests. I think it’s true. I have a charming man who has breakfast with me, talks to me like what I have to say is important, he stays for a month, then another one comes and takes his place,” Campbell laughs.


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More than 50 fellowships provide opportunity to research at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.

The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.

Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”

Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.

When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.

My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?

The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.

Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.

Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.

Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.

Related content:
Information about fellowships.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies the Sandinista revolution and the Contra War through the lenses of photojournalists

By Ileana Selejan

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.

Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.


The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.

For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.

For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.

In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.

The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.

Related content:

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s 2008 exhibition Inside El Slavador.

Norman Bel Geddes: From the Nutshell Jockey Club to War Game to Futurama

By Jennifer Tisdale

Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.
Weekly report of Yellow Army's losses and gains. © Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes/Harry Ransom Center.

From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.

Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.

Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.

Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.

“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”

“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”