Thomas Staley

Harry Ransom Director Thomas Staley announced his retirement Monday after 25 years of employment collecting and acquiring rare literature and art for the university. During his retirement, Staley plans to continue exercising his love for literature by beginning to write again.

Photo Credit: Marshall Nolen | Daily Texan Staff

Since taking up the role of director of the Harry Ransom Center in 1988, Thomas Staley has personally helped make humanities research a more tangible facet of education for UT students. The Ransom Center now houses approximately 45 million items in its archives, many of which have been acquired by the director himself.

After a 25-year tenure, Staley announced plans on Monday to step down from his position at the research institution.

“I always think that [for the things you love], you have to bring something to the table as well as take from it,” Staley said. “I hated to leave, but it’s time — I want to write again.” 

Prior to assuming his current position, Staley worked as Chair of Modern Literature and Provost for the University of Tulsa. When he visited the University of Texas in 1980, he said was captivated by the “entrepreneurial” spirit of Texas and the school’s untapped network of benefactors, scholars and other resources.

Staley’s undeniable affinity for collecting was apparent from an early age. Starting a small library in grade school, he charged his friends late-fees in order to purchase more books and fuel his fascination with literature. By his sophomore year in college, the work of James Joyce caught his attention and Staley discovered that his plans for law school no longer appealed to him.

“I’ve got books everywhere. I keep getting them. I know I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway,” Staley said. “The value of a book and the nature of a book is aesthetic, but also very visceral as well.”

To say that Staley enjoys books would be an understatement. The corner office that he will occupy until August is itself a small museum. Surrounded by all kinds of sculptures, literary dissertations, signed photographs and other artifacts, Staley stakes out what he calls  “a peaceful way to live.”

“Whenever you’re around him, the energy level goes up,” said Larry Carver, head of the Liberal Arts Honors Program. “He’s been the second reincarnation of Harry Ransom.” 

A close personal friend and admirer of Staley, Carver argues that the director carried on Ransom’s legacy of bringing culture and arts to the people of Texas.

“More than anything else, what Professor Staley has done is opened the Ransom Center … I remember when he first came, it was a fortress over there,” Carver said. “People didn’t go in and it was kind of cold and forbidding. [He was] a breath of fresh air.” 

According to Staley, the magnetic reputation of the Ransom Center often makes acquiring new manuscripts and pieces of art a smooth process. In cases where acquisitions are more difficult, however, Staley resorts to rather unconventional tactics. 

In one particular instance that occurred a few decades ago, Staley and a few colleagues managed to purchase an archive of Stuart Gilbert’s scholarship in France. The small group knew that they would have to get past unfriendly French customs. Hiding the manuscripts in a small bread truck on Holy Thursday, Staley’s crew transported the artifacts to a British airport. The Gilbert collection later turned out to contain over 12,000 Swiss Franks and missing excerpts from other works. 

Stephen Enniss, the new hire poised to take Staley’s position, is familiar with the director’s work and has expressed excitement to carry on Staley’s vision for the Ransom Center. 

“I would sometimes arrive in London and hear that Tom Staley had just been there,” Enniss said. “I wondered if Tom ever arrived in Dublin say, or another city, and heard that Steve Enniss had just been there. But we were definitely doing very similar work and have known each other for years. I’ve always admired the good work that Tom has done.”

In the coming years, Staley will retain his position as a professor of English, teaching undergraduate honors students and writing his memoir. 

“We try to make literature live here at UT, and it does. [The documents are] a living embodiment of what we do,” Staley said. “This museum is value added, if you want it.”

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After 25 years as the Director of the Harry Ransom Center, Thomas Staley will hand over the responsibility of leading the staff and acquiring collections to Stephen Enniss. 

While at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., Enniss was responsible for the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and the largest collection of early English printed books in North America. Enniss worked as curator and director of Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library before joining the staff at the Folger. Enniss will start at the Ransom Center on August 1 and assume all responsibilities upon Staley’s retirement August 31. The Daily Texan interviewed Enniss about his expectations and motivations for his future tenure at the Ransom Center. 

The Daily Texan: How do you expect your new job as Director of the Ransom Center to differ from your current position?

Stephen Enniss: Well, I think that the Folger and my previous experience at Emory University have been perfect preparation for the Ransom Center’s very broad and deep collections, spanning from the Renaissance to the most contemporary writers and artists. Really, the past experience I’ve had touches on each period of history that the Ransom Center has documented. Coming to the Folger, I was at Emory University for 16 years, and it was while at Emory that I was very active in acquiring major literary archives, which of course is a special strength of the Ransom Center. 

To elaborate, I was always aware when I was building collections at Emory how I was engaged in an activity that paralleled the works that Tom Staley and the staff at the Ransom Center were doing. So, in that way, I think the transition should be an easy one.

DT: What led you to want to lead these large literary institutions? 

Enniss: I certainly have been a literary creature from a very young age and a consumer of poems, and novels, and short stories and plays. So that’s primary. But I also respond very much to the artifact, the object itself and what these objects say about the past and what they contain about the past. So working in research libraries that are known from their acquisitiveness has been a perfect fit for me. I’ve always had an acquisitive streak myself, whether it was natural history artifacts that I would pick up as a child or later books that I would collect. In some ways, I feel like the act of collecting is really the first act of scholarship and certainly a foundation of what the Ransom Center is engaged in. 

DT: Do you have a favorite author, or an area you’ve studied extensively?

Enniss: That’s something like asking someone to pick your favorite child. I presume that [Staley] can say that he prefers “Ulysses” because Joyce is safely dead. But I’m involved in collecting so many contemporary and living authors at this point that I wouldn’t want to pick among them. My own research interest is focused on contemporary Irish poetry, but my own graduate work was in the American novel. I should be equally at home in developing the collections of major novelists and short story writers as well. 

DT: Looking forward to your time as director of the Ransom Center, do you have any personal goals? 

Enniss: I think the first task is really to sustain the program of excellence that’s been achieved there and that’s not necessarily a new initiative. In terms of things that might be purely new, I think all of us in the research library community that collect major archives know that the nature of modern archives changed in the mid 1980s. We have to plot a smart path forward for managing and making digital archives available for research. 

DT:  Do you have any coveted collections you dream of acquiring?

Enniss: The most important acquisition is always the next one. What often focuses one’s attention is the next opportunity. I can’t tell you at this point what that will be, but we have to be oriented very much to the future. Certainly, literature is a personal research interest and a personal passion of mine, but the Ransom Center collections extend far beyond modern literary figures. Things that have been acquired over the years create a kind of DNA record. When you look at the collection strengths that are there and map that DNA, you find that those strands lead you to other collections that are complemented by the existing holdings. I will very much be using my sense of that genetic map to further the Ransom Center’s collection activities. 

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According to a recent press release from the University of Texas' Office of the Provost, the new director of the Ransom Center has been chosen. 

Stephen Enniss, the head libraran of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., will be joining the Ransom Center in the fall to serve as the successor to Director Thomas Staley. 

Dr. Enniss received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Davidson College in 1982, a master’s degree in librarianship from Emory in 1983 and a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia in 1996. 

"The Ransom Center is among the finest research libraries in the country with unparalleled holdings and a storied past,” Enniss said in the press release. "I am honored to join my new colleagues there in helping to extend further its important and ongoing cultural work.”

Enniss will begin at the Ransom Center on Aug. 1, and take over full responsibility upon director Staley's retirement on Aug. 31. 

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The four recipients of this year’s Presidential Citation Award come from a diverse range of fields, but they share a common dedication to the University and its impact on the community, UT President William Powers Jr. said.

The University created the award program in 1979 to recognize distinguished alumni or members of the UT community, and each year the UT president chooses two to four nominees to honor. This year, Powers chose United States Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk, a UT Law School alumnus; Shirley Bird Perry, UT’s Senior Vice President and a UT alumna; philanthropists and UT alumni Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long; and Thomas Staley, the director of the Harry Ransom Center and a renowned humanities expert.

Powers said while the selection process is difficult, honoring outstanding faculty and graduates is one way the University can give thanks.

“Each of the recipients have given so much back to UT,” he said. “We talk about taking education from UT and making a difference with it, and these are the people changing the world.”

Staley came to the University in 1988 and focused on acquisitions and cataloging manuscripts for student use. He wrote or edited 15 books on topics including James Joyce, Italo Svevo and modern British women novelists. An accomplished humanities scholar, Staley is promoting the growth of modern literature and said he wants to see the center acquire more photography and film.

“This award is very important to me not just for its honor, but because it makes my service at UT meaningful,” Staley said.

Perry’s nomination for the award comes after a half-century-long career at UT, when she was involved in numerous leadership roles and clubs around campus. She started her career at UT as program director and eventually became Union director. Perry then served as vice president and vice chancellor for development and external relations with the UT System until 2004, when she became UT’s senior vice president.

She now works with the Briscoe Center for American History and seeks to create a better historical record of the University.

“We pick key people to interview and do research on background and facts with oral historians from the Briscoe center,” Perry said. “We then conduct interviews which are archived via call transcripts and videos. This way, we have raw materials to look at of our University’s history with varying perspectives.”