The past (and present) as future

I recently read Toby Lester’s new book, DaVinci’s Ghost, which examines centuries of cultural and intellectual history that led to Leonardo daVinci’s drawing known as “Vitruvian Man.” One interesting thing I learned is that Pavia, Italy had a fantastic library which Leonardo visited. Like many of history’s lost libraries, Pavia’s collection was dispersed as power changed hands and descendants of the library’s owner had other priorities. Some manuscripts and books turned up elsewhere, some may be lost forever.

Last night I read Anne Trubek’s piece in the Atlantic about the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas.  Trubek decribes this humanities library, archive, and museum:

“WITH 36 MILLION manuscripts and a million rare books, the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, is a standout in the exclusive club of the world’s great museum-quality collections. The requisite Gutenberg Bible is on display, along with treasures rarer still: Shakespeare folios; James Joyce manuscripts; the archives of Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, George Bernard Shaw.”

What Trubek finds intriguing is that the center’s director, Thomas Staley, is working to preserve the papers of contemporary authors, people who are still writing. To choose whose work should be archived, he asks experts: ” academics, book reviewers, and other authors.” But he also asks readers, and Trubek describes a moment on campus when he asks a student reading poetry about poets. The center is watching the careers of 600 authors, to determine which literary legacies to collect.

I find it heartening that in the midst of passionate discourse about the future of publishing and physical books, a library in Texas is betting its future on preserving the past, while actively seeking reader and writer input as part of the process. What authors writing today do you consider important to preserve for future generations?