The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin was established in 1957 as the result of Harry H. Ransom's accelerated program, initiated in the early 1950s, to acquire rare books and manuscripts. This collecting activity, which emphasized the works of twentieth-century American and English authors and included the purchase of the Parsons Collection and the T. E. Hanley Collection in 1958, established the University of Texas as an internationally recognized scholarly research center. In establishing the center, Ransom had two fundamental concepts underlying his approach to collecting: one literary, the other iconographic. The basic literary concept is that a first edition is not the beginning of the literary process but rather its end, and that a study of all of the artifacts leading to a first edition is required for an understanding of the process. The iconographic concept is that visual and verbal materials are intimately connected, and that visual materials relevant to books in the collection should be included. Early purchases of special-collection materials were financed through support from private sources, but gradually the main source of special funding became interest derived from the investment of oil income. Beginning around 1980, however, there grew a renewed emphasis on obtaining private donations.
In 1972 the Ransom collections-along with the other rare-books collections, including the (John Henry) Wrenn Library, the Aitken Collection of English literature, and the (Miriam Lutcher) Stark Collection-were moved from the Academic Center to the new Humanities Research Center building (both buildings are located on the university campus). In the early 1990s the Humanities Research Center holdings included about 36 million manuscripts (mainly American, English, and French literature), 1 million rare books, 5 million photographs and negatives, a large collection in theater arts (documents, posters, set designs, and costumes), and more than 100,000 pieces of literary iconography (images of literary figures or events, paintings or drawings by literary figures, engravings, and statuary). Also under the jurisdiction of the center were nineteen special rooms containing furniture, silver, and assorted objets d'art. Four conservation units (books, manuscripts, works of art on paper, and photography), staffed by professional conservators and trainees, direct the efforts to reduce deterioration in the center's holdings. The quarterly Library Chronicle, edited by the center's staff and published jointly with the University of Texas at Austin General Libraries, carries scholarly articles that document current center acquisitions, works-in-progress based on its holdings, and its collections in general. In the early 1990s the Humanities Research Center served an average of more than 14,000 clients a year who visited for academic purposes; additional thousands came to see various exhibits, including the Gutenberg Bible. The exhibitions program was established by the center in 1957, and from that year through the late 1980s some 200 exhibits had been mounted and more than 100 exhibition catalogs based on the collections had been published. In the late 1980s Humanities Research Center holdings were used in the generation of about sixty new books and numerous articles each year.