Meet the director of the Harry Ransom Center

Photo Credit: Alejandro Silveyra

Dr. Thomas F. Staley has been the director of the Harry Ransom Center for the last 25 years. The Ransom Center boasts a variety of historical materials including the first photograph ever taken, a Gutenberg Bible and the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers. In addition to his duties at the Ransom Center, Dr. Staley is an English professor, the Harry Huntt Ransom Chair in liberal arts and was a Fulbright Scholar at Italy’s University of Trieste in both 1966 and 1971. 

Longhorn Life: What are your responsibilities as director of the Ransom Center?

Thomas Staley: I direct the Ransom Center’s efforts to advance the study of the arts and humanities by acquiring original cultural materials, preserving and making these materials accessible, supporting research in our collections and providing education and enrichment opportunities through our exhibitions and programs.

LL: What is a typical workday like for you?

TS: One of the wonderful aspects of this job is that there is no typical workday at the Ransom Center. I never know when a great writer or photographer may call looking for a home for his or her archive. Most days include meetings or phone conversations with staff, visiting scholars, rare book and manuscript dealers, faculty members, donors and other interesting visitors. The day often extends well into the evening with one of the Ransom Center’s public programs, often followed by a late dinner with visiting speakers.

LL: What is your favorite item in the Ransom Center?

TS: The Ransom Center has remarkable collections, from drafts of plays by Tom Stoppard to the lyrical letters of James Salter. As difficult as it is to choose, the page proofs of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which are covered with Joyce’s handwritten notes, will always be my favorite.  

LL: Had you always wanted to be the director of a humanities research center?

TS: I began my career as an English professor and James Joyce scholar, but was always drawn to archives, manuscripts and rare books and used them extensively in my research. I later became provost of the University of Tulsa and was very involved in building the modern literature collections for the library. My work as a professor, scholar and provost helped prepare me for my role as director of the Ransom Center.

LL: What about the Ransom Center do students take the least advantage of? 

TS: The Ransom Center’s collections are rich resources for the students of our university, who can see, and in turn be inspired by, the original texts, artwork and photographs that they study in their classes. Students can learn so much about the creative process by studying the false starts, cross outs and hand-corrected drafts of some of the most important writers of our time. Students can conduct research in our reading and viewing rooms, view collection materials in our exhibitions and hear interesting speakers at our programs.  

LL: You were planning on retiring by 2011, what made you stay? 

TS: It has been a privilege and an honor to serve as director of this remarkable institution. When I was asked to continue my tenure for a brief period, I agreed.