My Life in the Stacks: For Your Reference

Award-winning writers in Texas have a secret weapon.

The array of unexpected delights gathered within UT’s library system shouldn’t have come as a surprise given that my first job in Austin was at the LBJ Library cataloging the contents of the Johnson Social Files. The highpoint of that job was enshrining dozens of slivers of Lynda Bird Johnson’s wedding cake. Nearly all of my Austin writer friends have made equally sweet discoveries on campus.

While working at the Harry Ransom Center on his latest book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright connected with an unlikely source: actress Gloria Swanson. “She was one of the early triumphs of Scientology’s celebrity recruitment drives, and the HRC has some priceless correspondence between her and L. Ron Hubbard.”

The Ransom Center was also where novelist and historical non-fiction author Carol Dawson found some equally revealing material. She was delving into the life of Adah Menken, the highest-earning actress of the Civil War era, and came upon “a trove of half-naked photos of Adah Menken in her theatrical roles.”

Prolific author and frequent contributor to Esquire, GQ, Slate, and the New York Times, Jan Reid reports that he wouldn’t have dared attempt his latest book Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards without the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Among the items in a collection whose index alone fills 700 single-spaced pages, Reid discovered the unpublished correspondence between Richards and journalist Bud Shrake. “Her life was so frantic and he was off writing screenplays and roaming the world that they couldn’t carry on a conventional correspondence, nor connect on a telephone. So they discovered that faxes allowed them to communicate in real time. I don’t know how anyone could read those faxes and think they weren’t love letters. They continued writing each other to the end of her life (she outlived him by two years) but the record was abruptly lost. Somebody invented email. Damn.”

SwansonG_30_9_001-1During a research fellowship at the HRC devoted to William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, and his astronomy-obsessed family, John Pipkin, author of the award-winning historical novel Woodsburner, stumbled across a cache of loosely cataloged items that illuminated the Herschel family’s true character. “Shoeboxes full of tea menus, scraps of newspaper, the corners of envelopes—all filled with drawings of the order of the planets, formulas for making adjustments to lenses, and numbers for factoring square roots. They exuded this sense of frenetic activity and allowed me to see the raw edges of the primary material.”

Whether it’s scraps of tea menus or pucks of old baked goods, one never knows which of the system’s inexplicable oddities might actually be the key that unlocks a researcher’s explorations. Thankfully, UT believes in collecting it all so that scholars can have their cake and annotate it, too.       

Sarah Bird, MA ’76, is the author of Above the East China Sea, which will be published next May 2014 by Knopf.

Top, Lynda Johnson Robb and Charles Robb on their wedding day; courtesy the LBJ Presidential Library.

Inset, A telegram from Gloria Swanson to L. Ron Hubbard; courtesy to Harry Ransom Center and Gloria Swanson, Inc.


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