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Meet the Staff: Rick Watson, Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Rick Watson started at the Ransom Center as one of the first graduate interns in 1989 and now oversees the graduate intern program alongside his work as Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in English from the University of Tulsa.

 

What does a typical day at the Ransom Center look like for you?

A typical day for me includes answering emails and phone calls about our collections, meeting with patrons in the reading room, and helping them find materials in our manuscript collections. I also direct them toward collection materials that they may not have known about. Many of our manuscript items are not cataloged to the item-level, or cataloged onsite, and therefore not online.

 

You started out at the Ransom Center as a graduate intern. Can you tell me about that experience and how your career has developed since then?

I started in 1989 as one of the first graduate interns. It was a very exciting time to be at the Ransom Center, and there were lots of new collections coming in. My career has taken a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve been able to stay at the Ransom Center since then. I worked with previous director, Thomas F. Staley, managing the Joyce Studies Annual, which is no longer in production. I started working in the performing arts collection as a research associate in 2001 or 2002, and the art collection in 2004,and that’s what led me to this position, Head of Reference Services for the manuscript collection.

 

What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?

Well, what is there not to like? It’s just a constant discovery. There is such a wealth of material here, and I like being able to help people find things. Whether they are doing genealogical research or biographies or theoretical or critical studies—when you have over 42 million manuscripts in your collection, there is a nugget in there for everybody. I was told that I would know if I liked it from the day I stepped inside, and I have. I really appreciate being here every day.

 

Is there a favorite collection you have worked with here?

There are so many! That’s a tough question, but I’ve been drawn to a couple different collections lately. One is the Peter Matthiessen collection. I’ve been looking at the notebooks for his travel journal, The Snow Leopard, which documents a fascinating trip through the Himalayas, a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.

 

Also, the J. M. Coetzee archive has been getting a lot of use, so I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with it. The wealth of materials in that collection is just amazing, but one thing in particular I like is a list of banned books from when he was teaching in South Africa. It’s an amazing list of books. It’s not just English and American literature, but it’s literature from all over the world. I usually pull that one out for classes that visit.

 

Have you read any on that list?

Yes, I have! A few. It’s actually a really good reading list.

 

Tell us a little about managing the graduate intern program.

Typically we get around 30 to 40 applications per year to fill six positions. Each graduate intern is enrolled full time in a University of Texas at Austin’s Master’s program or a Ph.D. program, and we get people from the Information School, American Studies, English, Radio-Television-Film, Art History—really all over the place. The graduate interns amaze me because they are some of the smartest people I know. They are all really good in their own field, great learners, and super valuable to us in Research Services. They’re hilarious too—just great people to work with.

 

Have you lived anywhere else outside Texas?

Most of my family is from the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, where I was born, but my parents relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. After living there for a while, I moved to the Austin area, and I’ve been here ever since. I do love to travel, though!

 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Well, for the past two years, a lot of my time has been spent with my wife and my little girl who is about to be two. It has been a great adventure and a lot of fun. We like to get outdoors as much as possible, and now that she’s a little older, we’ve started to get into rock climbing again and a little bit of camping. We have a long agenda of things we want to do, but most of it includes travel and being outdoors. Introducing our daughter to the outdoors is really important to us.

 

Have you always been interested in rock climbing?

Yes, I’ve been part of the rock-climbing community since I moved to Austin. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and I’m still on the board of the Friends of Enchanted Rock. I was a rock-climbing instructor and guide for many years and then co-owner and operator of a rock-climbing guide service for a little over 10 years. I started climbing when I lived in Oklahoma. There are rocks in the Midwest, believe it or not.

 

Have you gotten to travel anywhere interesting for your outdoor adventuring?

Most of my interesting travel involves rock climbing. I spent some intense times in Mexico, California, Colorado, and various other places. I also love spending time at Padre Island National Seashore, which is about 65 miles of undeveloped barrier island in South Texas. It’s a wonderful, wild place.

 

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Acclaimed writer Ian McEwan’s archive acquired

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer Ian McEwan (b. 1948), one of the most distinguished novelists of his generation.  The archive documents McEwan’s career and includes early material from his childhood and adolescence, as well as his earliest abandoned stories dating from the late-1960s and early 1970s. The archive includes drafts of all of McEwan’s later published works including his critically acclaimed novels Amsterdam and Atonement up through On Chesil Beach and Solar.

 

McEwan composed his novels partly in longhand, typically in uniform green, spiral-bound notebooks, and party on the computer. After an initial draft, he would transfer the entire text to a computer, printing out multiple drafts, which he would revise further by hand. McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam is represented in the archive in its earliest form as a handwritten notebook, followed by two further revised drafts. McEwan often notes details of composition in these drafts, including their completion or revision dates.

 

“The writer tends to forget rapidly the routes he or she discarded along the way,” McEwan said, commenting on his manuscripts. “Sometimes the path towards a finished novel takes surprising twists. It’s rarely an even development. For example, my novel Atonement started out as a science fiction story set two or three centuries into the future.”

 

Read a Q&A with McEwan, where he shares insights about his archive, writing process, and more.

 

McEwan’s archive will reside at the Ransom Center alongside the archives of many of his peers and contemporaries, including his longtime friend Julian Barnes, as well as J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Tom Stoppard. The McEwan materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

 

McEwan will visit Austin and speak at the university on Sept. 10. More details about this event will be posted here later this summer.

 

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Ransom Center to host more than 80 scholars in fellowship program’s 25th year

By Bridget Ground

The Ransom Center will support more than 80 research fellows for 2014–2015, the 25th anniversary of the fellowship program. Since the program’s inception, the Center has awarded fellowships to more than 900 scholars from around the world.

 

The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.

 

The 2014–2015 fellowship recipients, more than half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Literary,” “Imagined Heartlands: Post-Postmodern Literature and the American Midwest,” “The Films of Powell and Pressburger,” “Norman Hall: Photo-Editing and International Connections in Mid-Twentieth Century Photography,” and “Dawn of a New Day: New York City Between the Fairs.”

 

The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.

 

The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and The University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Graduate Studies, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and program in British Studies.

 

The Ransom Center will host eight additional scholars in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme (IPS). This program, funded and administered by the U.K.-based AHRC, offers early-career researchers and AHRC-funded doctoral students from U.K. universities the opportunity to enhance their research with a fellowship at one of its six participating host institutions.

 

Image: Cover of Eric Gill’s Twenty-five Nudes (1938; reprint, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951); James Salter’s notes on possible titles for his novel Light Years, ca. 1974–5; cover of Paul Hayden Duensing’s 25: a quarter-century of triumphs and disasters in the microcosm of the Private Press & Typefoundry of Paul Hayden Duensing (Kalamazoo, Mich.: The Private Press and Typefoundry of Paul Hayden Duensing, 1976); signaled message from the Royal Air Force to John Pudney requesting a poem for the organization’s 25th anniversary, March 24, 1943; photograph of 25th Street Theater, Waco, ca. 1962.

 

Research at the Ransom Center: “To Cape Town and back, via Mongolia”

By Abigail Cain

A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.
A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of J. M. Coetzee’s 1981 novel Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting—an imaginary empire, one lacking a specified place and time. Yet, when Coetzee penned the first draft of the novel, it was set in Cape Town, South Africa.

David Attwell, a Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K., provides an in-depth look at the development of Coetzee’s third novel. He visited the Ransom Center this year to explore Coetzee’s archive.

Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town, enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages.