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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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Meet the Staff: French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth Garver

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Ransom Center. Elizabeth Garver has held several positions at the Ransom Center since 2000, including graduate student intern, manuscript archivist, and in 20052006, she co-curated the Technologies of Writing exhibition. Currently, she works with the Ransom Center’s extensive French and Italian collections, and she is a co-curator of the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. She speaks four languages—English, French, Italian, and Russian—and holds a variety of degrees, including a Master’s in Library and Information Science, a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the University of Paris, a Master of Arts in Nautical Archeology, and a Bachelor of Arts in Archeology. She is also a current Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Why do you enjoy working at the Ransom Center?

Well, this is my 14th year here, and almost every day I see something new that I’ve never seen before. I also like being able to do research, which is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of jobs, and I like helping other people with their research and answering any questions they might have. The job is always changing and always interesting.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about curating the current World War I exhibition?

Jean Cannon and I were officially brought on board for the current exhibition about two years ago. She wrote her dissertation on the war poets, and I have an interest in the topic as a UT PhD student in Modern History, so we both had some expertise. There was a lot of reading on our own, but it was also looking into the collections in depth, and since there isn’t a single World War I collection to draw upon, it was basically like a treasure hunt. Then, when you find the treasures, there is a choice to make because the space is not infinite.

 

Is there a “one that got away” item that was cut from the current exhibition for space that you wish could have been included?

Yes, actually there are a couple, but there’s a really touching letter that holds an interest for me in the Édoard Dujardin collection. He was a French writer, and he had a mistress named Madeleine Boisguillaume who wrote him a letter toward the beginning of the war about the conditions in the West of France. All of the doctors were gone because they were at the front, and there was no one to help women to deliver babies and things like that. There were only old men left, old doctors who couldn’t travel, and no hospital in the town. Because of this, she said women and children were dying in childbirth. It’s really emotional and also gives an interesting perspective. People don’t usually think about the women’s experiences during the war.

 

What has visitor response been like for the exhibition?

I think visitor response has been very positive. It’s a response that I don’t think many exhibitions get, where people have their own stories to tell. Quite a few people have been sharing stories about their families and what their grandparents did in the war, and it’s just been wonderful.

 

I hear you speak French fluently. Do you have any chances to speak French around Austin?

Yes, we have a French lunch once a week where we speak only French, and there’s actually a large French community here at The University of Texas and around Austin. It’s pretty amazing how often I hear French, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak it. There are groups and of course the French department, and there are always French movies. Also, when I communicate with scholars, I’m able to use a lot of French. I think that’s why my Italian and Russian kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pretty devoted to this language.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I do a lot of gardening, and I love baseball. My family and I are pretty hardcore baseball fans—I grew up with it and I watched my brothers play. The season is over now, but I’ve had season tickets to the Longhorns for probably around 10 years. Otherwise, I do a lot of reading (although I feel like lately I’ve only been reading about the war for this exhibition), and I really enjoy cooking, especially French food.

 

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at the Ransom Center?

Obviously the French collections are amazing, but my favorite piece changes every once in awhile. Currently, I think my favorite item in the collections is the manuscript for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his annotations and drawings. We also have some of his artwork, which is all amazing.

Meet the Staff: Jean Cannon, Literary Collections Research Associate

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. Jean Cannon has been the literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center since March 2012. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a Master’s degree from Tulane University, and a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Cannon is responsible for helping patrons in the reading room, answering research queries, and curating exhibitions. She spent the last two years working with colleague Elizabeth Garver to co-curate the current exhibition, The World at War: 1914–1918.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working at the Ransom Center?

I love the moment when you see a student or researcher come across an artifact that really just makes their jaw drop, the “wow” moment.

 

Can you tell me more about curating the current World at War exhibition?

We started that process about two years ago. I did my dissertation research using several World War I collections at the Ransom Center, but even having done that, I had no idea just how much was here. I had worked in the literary collections, but we also have photographs and posters and all sorts of things that made it a very exciting treasure hunt throughout the building. It was a long process of researching and amassing material from the collections, and then the painful part was choosing the items and having to cut things out because you only have so much space in the gallery. We did a lot of what I like to call “dreaming and scheming.”

 

What is it like picking and choosing items for the exhibitions?

It’s exciting and can also be kind of chaotic. I think research on that large of a scale is a process of ducking down lots of different rabbit holes every day.  Even if you try to be systematic about it, you will find yourself getting drawn to different items. For example, I went through about a month of being obsessed with carrier pigeons, and Elizabeth went through a month being obsessed with pilots.

 

Did carrier pigeons actually work?

Absolutely. On the western front, telephone lines would get blown up really easily with all the shelling on the western front, so carrier pigeons were actually more reliable. It was a strange meeting of the old world and the new, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century technologies co-existing on the battlefield.

 

If you could pick a favorite item in the Ransom Center’s collections, what would it be?

One item that really means a lot to me is Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother. That’s one of the most affecting of the letters that I’ve read here, and it’s in the gallery now, right in the middle of the show.

 

Can you tell me a little more about your educational background and how you ended up in your current job at the Ransom Center?

It’s a long, twisty tale. I started graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans, and the second year I was there, Hurricane Katrina hit. So I ended up evacuating and coming to UT because the university had a large enough program that they were able to absorb some of the Tulane students, for which I’m ever grateful. The wonderful thing about being here was being able to do the two-year graduate internship at the Ransom Center. I just fell in love with the place, and I continued volunteering and doing freelance research in the reading room. Then, as I was finishing my doctoral degree, the director at the time recruited me to come in and serve as literary collections research associate. So I defended my dissertation, took two weeks off to hike the Grand Canyon and then came back to start working here full time. It was a whirlwind!

 

I hear you are a talented hat maker. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Well, I’ve always loved hats and have always worn a lot of hats, even as a child. Then, when I was working in New York, I saw that there was a night class at Parson’ School of Design, so I just decided to take it! At that point I didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine, and I loved it even though I was really out of my depth. Since then, I’ve sought out classes here and there and found old millinery text books and manuals in the archives. My house is full of 50 or so hats.

 

What is a perfect Saturday for you?

I would probably go for a run on the Greenbelt, maybe go for a swim, read a good book on the porch (for which it has to be sunny, but not 100 degrees), work on a hat, and cook a nice dinner and have people over! Possibly a good film also, especially if it’s hot outside and I can go to the Paramount Summer Classics series.

 

What book would you consider a “must read” this summer?

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It will take you awhile, but it’s really worth it. She’s a big believer that a book can be escapist but also very smart, and I really love that combination.

 

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