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,
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
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,
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. …