Lesser known dimensions of US Universities – Archives of history and literature

Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin

Lesser known dimensions of US Universities – Archives of history and literature

During my seven years at the University of Texas at Austin, I went a few times to Harry Ransom Center (HRC) which is an archive and a museum of art, literature and other historical documents. I now think, given what I have to say in the latter part of this post, that I should have gone there more and explored it in greater detail. When I first stumbled in there to discover the treasures it was holding, I was surprised why many students are not aware of this museum although this huge magestic building sits at a very busy interesection, located right on the busiest street of the university (the Drag, Guadalupe St) and across the much frequented 27 stories high Dobie Mall/Dorm and a few paces from the oft-visited central library (PCL). As mentioned in this wonderful article on Harry Ransom Center in the New Yorker:

“Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin, contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair. It houses one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles; a rare first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, thought poorly printed, and which they suppressed; one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for “On the Road”; and Ezra Pound’s copy of “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot scribbled his famous dedication: “For E. P., miglior fabbro, from T. S. E.” Putting a price on the collection would be impossible: What is the value of a first edition of “Comus,” containing corrections in Milton’s own hand? Or the manuscript for “The Green Dwarf,” a story that Charlotte Brontë wrote in minuscule lettering, to discourage adult eyes, and then made into a book for her siblings? Or the corrected proofs of “Ulysses,” on which James Joyce rewrote parts of the novel? The university insures the center’s archival holdings, as a whole, for a billion dollars.”

Lyndon B Johnson Presidential Library, UT Austin

Universities like UT Austin not only define their mission as teaching, research and creating impact through the creation of new knowledge, but also consider preservation of history, arts and literature as part of their vision. UT Austin also boasts the LBJ (Lyndon B Johnson) Presidential Library housing over 20 million documents from the LBJ era. I remember not only the moon rock from Apollo mission on display inside the lobby, but also the beautiful lawn and the LBJ fountain next to the stadium and the Bass Concert Hall, where I would often go with my kids who used to immensely enjoy running around the open spaces and the green field slopes of the park.

Main Building, UT Austin
Another of my favorite haunts was the South Asian Collection which during the late1980s was housed in the intriguing tower of the main building. The watch lobby of the tower was closed to the public because of the infamous massacre by a student in the late 1960s, however, the climb up the tower that housed not only the old clock, but also the collection of books from South Asia was a mystifying experience.

I believe the collection of Urdu fiction books here may have been bigger than many of the libraries in Pakistan. I remember searching in 1988, the name “iqbal” in the titles held in the UT online catalog. The search returned over 1025 results showing what a treasure trove the sixth biggest educational library of USA at that time can yield. How many libraries in Pakistan can boast of over 1000 titles having the name “Iqbal”. Most of the books from Pakistan were obtained as part of the PL480 US aid program during the Ayub Khan era. I remember reading many books on urdu literature from this collection. Thanks to my friend Nasir Rahman for introducing me to this wonderful collection.

It is so unfortunate that so many students who go and study in universities in USA, especially those from Pakistan, often do not take time out to go and visit such wonderful museums and collections that are there at all major universities.

We in Pakistan destroy history. I am trying to get some good recordings of the classic PTV dramas of the 1970s by Hasina Moin, and am unable to find good quality recordings. The first drama serial Khuda ki Basti (based on the book by Shaukat Siddiqi) aired during the late 1960s is lost. The latter remake done in the early 1970s has a pathetic recording. Recording of Shahzori (based on the story by Azim Baig Chughtai) and other plays written by Hasin Moin are incomplete and have pathetic recordings [please guide me from where I can get some good recordings].

The point I am trying to make is that we can’t even preserve the arts and literature of forty years ago. How are we going to safeguard the manuscripts, writings and historical documents of hundred years ago of the times of Ghalib, Zauq and Sauda. They may already be lost. I know of the effort during Hakim Said’s time at Madinat ul Hikmat library at Hamdard University where they are trying painstakingly to safeguard handwritten manuscripts of hundreds of years ago. But, such examples are few and far between. I think this is a task that should be taken up by our universities. Lack of such preservation of historical records has led to the incorrect interpretations of history and concoction of narratives related to the creation of Pakistan as seen in the Dawn Supplement of Aug 14, 2013 masquerading as scholarly.

Preserving history is tedious and requires resources and manual effort. I know how difficult it is because in trying to safeguard some of the letters, correspondence and old books of my parents, I have learned that this requires patience, resources, time and dedicated people. Without this, my preservation effort some times appears to be a loosing battle.

We have already lost many rare and invaluable manuscripts stored for the last ten centuries in Tumbuktu libraries during the recent violence there. I hope many of them may have slipped through to the West and I wish they get preserved in collections there.

A nation that has no history, has no future. Those who forget history are then forgotten by the history. Ah! Would we be able to learn?


  1. Salam!
    Very well said dr. sahab. If we care, then only history will have mercy on us. Or else, we should not expect anything good, that is quite authentic (yes, sometimes not every good is authentic) at the same time, can be transmitted to our upcoming generations.
    Also, you are correct on the part that lack of historical preservation leads to incorrect interpretations as we see today that many debates revolve around interpretations of debators, not what actually had happened and not what is or has been geniune. Thanks for shedding light on this one of the core objectives of universities.

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