Libraries Vie for Writers' Treasure or Trash Gifts and Purchases of Manuscripts - Even Wastebasket Contents - Fill Literary Archives

Article excerpt

A SCHOLAR researching the work of C.P. Snow expected to find the British writer's papers at Cambridge University in England, where Snow studied, or maybe at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., where he delivered his famous "Two Cultures" lectures. Instead they turned up at the University of Texas in Austin, 6,000 miles from the late novelist's London flat.

Want to study manuscripts of James Joyce's books? Forget Dublin; head for Oklahoma and the large Joyce collection at the University of Tulsa, or to Austin again to see page proofs of "Ulysses" with corrections in the Irishman's hand.

In the active trade in literary archives, not even national pride or the Atlantic Ocean can overcome the gravitational pull of scholarly interest and collecting zeal backed by big money.

Not all the rare books, manuscripts, and letters of writers, musicians, politicians, and other famous people that reside in library collections are purchased. Many great collections at institutions like Harvard's Houghton Library, Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Conn., Indiana University's Lilly Library in Bloomington, Ind., and the New York Public Library began with large donations of books and archives from private collectors.

And every special-collections librarian or curator can tell of welcome and sometimes surprise gifts. Truman Capote left his papers to the New York Public Library, which learned of the gift only after the writer's death. An early manuscript by the playwright Eugene O'Neill recently arrived at Yale, a bequest from a woman previously unknown to the Beinecke librarians.

To a great extent, though, libraries must pay top dollar to obtain the nuggets - or in some cases entire gold mines - they covet to attract scholars and enhance institutional prestige.

Money - especially oil royalties - enabled the University of Texas to wade in as a major literary collector starting in the late 1950s, when Harry Huntt Ransom established the school's Humanities Research Center. Today the center, best known for its collections of 20th-century American, British, and French literature, houses about 1 million books and 30 million manuscripts. (The center purchased C.P. Snow's papers from a British dealer in 1981.)

Librarians at the Ransom Humanities Research Center, like their counterparts at many of the large collecting libraries, won't disclose their annual budget for new acquisitions. The amounts are substantial, though. The Lilly Library can spend up to $700,000 a year to expand its special collections, according to its director, William Cagle.

Even six-figure acquisition budgets don't stretch too far, however, as collectors' demand for high-quality books and literary documents has pushed prices up.

"Archives of important modern writers often cost $250,000 or more," says Leslie Morris, curator of manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library.

As a result, librarians devise innovative ways to purchase materials. Ms. Morris tries to work out deals to buy part of a writer's archive if the writer will donate the rest. In a recent article for writers thinking of selling their papers, Thomas Staley, director of the Ransom Center in Texas, advised: "Be prepared to receive payment without interest over two or three years if the purchase is a fairly large one."

Judith Lowry, a dealer in rare books and manuscripts in New York, once represented a woman who had "20 to 30 very funny love letters" written by the humorist James Thurber many years earlier. None of the libraries she approached would pay the $10,000 price Ms. Lowry put on the letters, but, she says, "an `angel' bought the letters and donated them to Cornell University" in Ithaca, N.Y.

Librarians and curators are always on the lookout for that first-edition book, hand-written manuscript, or packet of letters that will complement materials they already hold. …