Fannie Elizabeth Ratchford, librarian and scholar, was born on June 5, 1887, in Paint Rock, Texas, the seventh child and youngest daughter of James Wylie and Malinda (Rose) Ratchford. Her early education took place at home and in the local two-teacher school. Instead of leaving school at the usual age of fourteen or fifteen, she continued her studies and qualified through examination for the highest level of teacher certification. She taught school in Brownwood, Fort Worth, and various West Texas towns while attending college intermittently. She entered the University of Texas in 1905 and completed one year of study, then attended Daniel Baker College in Brownwood (1911–12) and the University of Kansas (summer 1914) before returning to the University of Texas for two summer sessions (1918 and 1919). She graduated in 1919 with a B.A. from the university and did subsequent work by correspondence at the University of Kansas. Professor Reginald H. Griffith, a scholar of eighteenth-century literature at the University of Texas, encouraged her to work toward a master's degree (awarded in 1921) and to accept the position of assistant in the newly acquired Wrenn Library.
From 1919 until she retired in 1957, Miss Ratchford was associated with the rare book collections; in various positions-Wrenn Library assistant, Wrenn librarian, rare book librarian, curator of rare books and lecturer in bibliography, and curator of rare books and director of research in rare book bibliography-she nurtured and extended the collections, overseeing the addition of the Aitken and Stark libraries (1921 and 1925 respectively), as well as the acquisition of numerous gifts and purchases. During her tenure as librarian-a term she considered inappropriate because of her lack of formal training in library science-Miss Ratchford insisted on special cataloging and treatment to preserve the materials under her care. She also promoted recognition of the collections in the scholarly community through exhibitions and publications.
Ratchford's scholarly interests had their genesis in the Wrenn Library. Intrigued by a tiny Charlotte Brontë manuscript written in a microscopic hand, she steadfastly pursued and located additional miniature manuscripts by Charlotte and Branwell Brontë in an effort to determine the significance of these early pieces. The resulting works, Legends of Angria (1933), written in collaboration with William Clyde DeVane, The Brontës' Web of Childhood (1941), and Ratchford's edition of Emily Brontë's Gondal's Queen (1955), were widely recognized as lasting contributions to Brontë scholarship. In another blaze of literary detection, Ratchford, assisted by the Wise-Wrenn letters in the collections, investigated further the role of Thomas J. Wise in producing forgeries of nineteenth-century pamphlets-an investigation that implicated Sir Harry Buxton Forman as Wise's accomplice. Called a "formidable controversialist in print" by chancellor emeritus Harry Huntt Ransom, Ratchford did not hesitate to challenge the conclusions of respected scholars John Carter and Graham Pollard in her studies Letters of Thomas J. Wise to John Henry Wrenn: A Further Inquiry into the Guilt of Certain Nineteenth-Century Forgers (1944) and Between the Lines: Letters and Memoranda Interchanged by H. Buxton Forman and Thomas J. Wise (1945). In addition to the works mentioned, she wrote or edited numerous books and articles in her lifetime, ranging from her first publication, Some Reminiscences of Persons and Incidents of the Civil War (1909), as told to her by her father, to works on genealogy, folklore, local history and English literature. In addition, as a member of the first Book Club of Texas she did pioneering work in promoting fine printing in the state. Her edition of A. W. Terrell's From Texas to Mexico and the Court of Maximilian in 1865 was named one of the "fifty books of the year" by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Ratchford's endeavors were supported in part by Guggenheim fellowships for 1929–30, 1939–40, and 1957–58, and by Laura Spelman Rockefeller research fellowships for 1934–36. Other honors conferred on her included the Texas Ex-Students' Association Centennial Lecture Award (1936) for a series of lectures she delivered in Texas colleges and an honorary LL.D. from Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (1954). After her retirement in 1957, Fannie Ratchford assisted in editing the Oxford edition of the complete works of the Brontës. She was a lifetime member of the Presbyterian Church. She died in Austin on February 9, 1974.