By Donna Hemmila
Three days after the Mark Twain Project Online went live in November, a gentleman from the Tennessee State Archives contacted UC Twain editor Robert Hirst about three Clemens family documents he'd uncovered.
Thanks to the new digital incarnation of the Mark Twain Papers and Project, the archivist in Tennessee was able to search the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library's collection for references to the family land dispute that produced the Twain-related legal documents in the state archives.
"He would never have been able to do that in the past," said Hirst, who has been editor of the UC Twain collection since 1980. "I expect more of that to continue."
"More of that" means more access to UC's vast collection of priceless papers and archives for researchers, students and the local and global communities the university serves. Collectively the UC libraries house more than 34 million volumes and 36 miles of archives and manuscripts. Within those holdings, the special collections departments feature some of the word's greatest literary figures including iconic American writers such as Twain, Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston and Irving Stone.
Not one to merely collect and hoard these treasures, UC shares its riches through active publishing programs, special exhibitions and now, more and more, through the use of digital technology.
The Twain project has been publishing scholarly print editions of the great humorist's works and letters for 40 years, said Hirst, but such extensively annotated, authoritative and lengthy publications – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn runs 1,164 pages – have a small purchasing audience.
"Frankly this work is so expensive to produce, anything that will extend the reach means the investment is more valuable to the world," Hirst said.
The goal of the Mark Twain Project Online is to produce a critical digital edition of everything Samuel Langhorne Clemens wrote. So far, the project, a collaboration of the Mark Twain Papers and Project, the California Digital Library, and the University of California Press, has put 2,300 letters online with more to come. In 2008, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court will go digital with more literary works, letters, notebooks and journals and Mark Twain's Autobiography added as time goes on. The National Endowment for the Humanities, along with institutional and private support, is funding the massive digital project - and massive it is.
The Twain letters alone fill a row of file cabinets four-drawers high and 20 feet long. A one-page letter, Hirst said, goes on the collector's market for $6,000, a three-pager for $15,000. If you're wishing you could find one, your chances are pretty good.
"We estimate he wrote 50,000 (letters), and we have about 10,000," said Hirst. "We're still finding them on an order of one or two a week."
The collection, once designated for Yale University, has lived at UC Berkeley since 1949 when Twain editor Dixon Wecter talked the writer's last surviving daughter into letting him keep the papers on campus while he was researching a Twain biography. When Clara Clemens Samossoud died in 1962, she bequeathed the collection to the UC Regents. Since then, UC has been adding to the core collection – not always an easy task in today's competitive collecting market where deep-pocket institutions like the oil-rich University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center can fork over millions to acquire literary archives, ($2.5 million in 2005 for Norman Mailer's papers).
Victoria Steele, head of special collections at UCLA, plays up the university's public mission and generous access policies when she's on the hunt for additions to her campus library. In Southern California, she considers the privately endowed Huntington Library her biggest competitor with its 120-acre botanical gardens, Victorian-style conservatory, tea room and opulent architecture.
"Sometimes it's hard for a working library like ours to compete with those atmospherics," said Steele. Yet at The Huntington, people must apply for library privileges.
"We are a public institution and we serve people," Steele said. "We're very liberal in our access policies and we're populist. Frequently people who are placing a collection want people to have access to it."
In 2002, her first day on the job, Steele pulled off a major acquisitions miracle. She was attending a luncheon where writer and critic Susan Sontag was the guest speaker. In talking to Sontag, Steele asked what her plans were for her papers. Sontag said no one had asked her about them. That conversation led to the purchase of Sontag's papers, library, manuscripts and private letters for a reported $1.1 million, financed by a private UCLA donor.
As part of the Sontag acquisition, the university asked for right-of-first-refusal for any Sontag papers that turned up after the initial purchase. When the writer died in 2004, other materials were discovered in her apartment including things from her childhood such as a UCLA bluebook from a summer school history class. (Sontag's grade was an A-minus.)
Since UCLA acquired this important collection, the users have ranged from UCLA undergrads doing a class assignment to doctoral degree candidates, a documentary filmmaker and professors from around the globe.
"I think things end up where they are supposed to end up," said Steele, who like other UC special collections librarians keeps an eye open for collections that might be ripe for purchasing.
Sometimes archives end up in a particular UC library because an author or collector has a personal connection to the university. UC Davis has the papers of Zen poet and environmental writer Gary Snyder, who is a professor emeritus in the English department. Novelist Donald Heiney was director of the MFA fiction program at UC Irvine, where his archives reside.
Other times it's about geography. The Dr. Seuss Collection came to UC San Diego because Theodor Seuss Geisel lived in La Jolla for 40 years. The UCSD library is named after him and his wife, Audrey. The collection has not only the original drawings of his children's books but also his political posters and advertising illustrations. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and his wife, Virginia, lived in Santa Cruz and his archive is housed in the library's special collection.
Every UC campus has its own collections of literary treasures as well as historical archives and art collections. For more about UC libraries, visit the individual campus library Web sites.