Stephen Enniss puts mark on storied Ransom Center

Updated Aug 27, 2016

Just inside the office of Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss stands a glass display case. In it is a commemorative chapbook of the speech author Salman Rushdie gave last year when the University of Texas research library celebrated the opening of the archive of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez.

News that the Ransom Center had purchased the García Márquez archive brought international attention in late 2014. But it was hardly the first time in its nearly 60 years that the storied institution had grabbed the limelight.

Illustrious acquisitions just in the past decade or so include the $200 million monumental archive of the Magnum photo agency, the Watergate-related paper of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and archives of authors including Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace, David Mamet and Spalding Gray.

This from an institution already in possession of rarities ranging from the world’s first photograph to Scarlett O’Hara’s iconic dresses from “Gone With the Wind” to a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Since Enniss took leadership of the Ransom Center and its $10.6 million budget in 2013, he’s also lassoed the archives of the lauded British novelist Ian McEwan, two-term U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel “The Remains of the Day.” Yet the García Márquez acquisition remains auspicious on several fronts.

Enniss had only been on the job for a little more than a year when he masterminded its acquisition. And though the Ransom Center has long built its global reputation as a repository for American and English author archives, the papers of the Colombian-born García Márquez are in Spanish.

“The challenge with just collecting to existing strengths is that you just perpetuate certain circles of writers,” Enniss says during a recent interview. “Institutions like this need to pay attention to voices that may not have always been a part of the canon.

“We share a border with Mexico, and yet the Ransom Center’s gaze has usually been across the pond to England. However, it’s important that we don’t just follow what has been done before,” he says.

Reading roots

Leading the Ransom Center is a dream job for the 56-year-old Enniss.

“In hindsight it may look like I was intent on it from the beginning of my career, but in reality it was a surprise when I got the call,” he says.

Born in Atlanta, the book-devouring Enniss spent his growing-up years in Louisville, Ky., and Tallahassee, Fla., before attending Davidson College in North Carolina. As an English major, his interest in rare books and author archives was piqued, and after graduation he immediately headed to library school at Emory University.

After obtaining his master’s degree, he joined the staff of Emory’s special collections library, but Enniss was still intellectually restless and enrolled at the University of Georgia, where he pursued a doctorate. He wrote his dissertation on American novelist John Dos Passos.

Emory University in the 1990s began a concerted effort to build its academic distinction, and strengthening its literary collection became part of its strategy. As first curator and then director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Enniss made some impressive acquisitions, including the archives of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, Booker Prize winner Rushdie and onetime poet laureate of Great Britain Ted Hughes.

Of course, the Ransom Center was always in Enniss’ sights. Since its founding in 1958, the institution virtually defined what a modern literary research library is by collecting — and often paying handsomely for — the papers of living authors.

But Enniss’ work at Emory attracted attention, too.

“After we got the Rushdie collection, I think it was then that (former Ransom Center Director Thomas Staley) noticed what we were up to,” Enniss says.

It would be a few more years before Enniss got the call about the Ransom Center, though. And in 2009 he took the post as head librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, repository of the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.

Enniss found the opportunity to delve into the Folger’s breathtaking book holdings immensely rewarding.

“I’ve always responded very much to the artifact, to the object itself and what an object says about the past,” he says.

Digital future

Enniss succeeded the sometimes showy Staley, who over 25 years made a world-famous array of acquisitions.

Enniss has a measured personality, his conversation exceedingly well-composed. Yet acquiring archives takes an unusual combination of skills: sharp-eyed scholarship to be sure, but also a deftness in negotiating the high-dollar purchases while simultaneously navigating the often emotionally charged process of a writer letting go of a lifetime’s most personal creative material.

Enniss recalls that when he convinced poet Collins to let the Ransom acquire his archive, the author called the UT library “the best orphanage in the world.”

“It’s can be a very emotional process,” says Enniss. “We’re offering a posthumous life for their work, but there’s a letting go as well.”

Though he is notably more transparent than previous Ransom Center directors — last year Enniss published the institution’s first ever public annual report — his style has proved less so when it comes public disclosures of archive purchase prices. Last year the Austin American-Statesman and the Associated Press filed a freedom of information request after Enniss and UT officials refused to make public the purchase price of the García Márquez archive. The university claimed that to do so would jeopardize the center’s ability to negotiate future purchases.

The Texas state attorney general’s office ruled otherwise, and the center revealed that it had spent $2.2 million to acquire the García Márquez archive.

Enniss stands by his decision not to reveal prices. “Our competitive position is eroded. We can’t negotiate without showing the larger market our vulnerability,” he says.

Building the archives is merely part of Enniss’ purview and priorities. Digitizing the more than 30 million manuscripts and over 5 million photographs is urgent. And there’s preserving digital material, too.

“Decades ago, the Ransom Center made a mistake,” says Enniss. “It mistakenly thought of itself as an archive of rare historical artifacts that was somehow in opposition to or in competition with digital materials. That’s not the case.

“Our job is not to pine for the good old days when a letter had a stamp on it. Our job is to take the archival material in whatever form it arrives. We would never presume to tell authors that we only want what they wrote in longhand on yellow legal paper.”

And that includes accepting digital material — email files on floppy disks, hard drives and entire computers.

With characteristics similar to conversation, and with a record of both sides of a correspondence, Enniss says that email holds enormous potential for future scholars.

“The computer is uncaring about what it saves. Everything is there. There’s a tremendous completeness (to an email correspondence) that future researchers will find very fruitful,” he says.

The ironic upside of digitization launching visual material far and wide is that once-singular institutions like the Ransom Center are more widely popular than ever before.

“There’s a desire and hunger for the authentic today,” Enniss says. “We capture that. We offer access to the authentic to a broadly intellectually curious audience.”

In his short tenure, Enniss has expanded the Ransom Center gallery hours to seven days a week and says he is committed to keeping admission free. Last year, 125,000 people visited the center’s exhibitions.

Since arriving in Austin, Enniss and his wife, Lucy, are enjoying the city as empty-nesters, their adult children — son Harris and daughter Rebecca — away at graduate school and college, respectively.

In 2014, Enniss published “After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon,” a biography of the Irish poet. And Enniss is currently working on another book about Northern Irish poets from the 1960s.

With a life spent steeped in the culture of collecting, it begs the question, does he himself collect?

“I like to own books by authors that I read,” he says. “And of course much of my reading is of authors we have here.”