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Gently Mad

Texas Tornado

Making this rich new resource especially attractive to scholars is the easy availability of two other major research centers close by. The vast 20th-century collections of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center are at the University of Texas 122 miles due west in Austin, and the admirable holdings of the DeGolyer Library of Southern Methodist University are just a two-hour drive away in Dallas.

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Why Texas A&M chose in the 1990s to pursue a strategy counter to what was going on elsewhere in the country is instructive. “I think the university understood that to improve, we simply had to improve the library,” Steven Escar Smith, associate dean for collections and services, and from 2001 to 2007 the head of special collections, told me while I was in College Station to speak at the ceremony. Smith began working for the library in 1993, just as the expansion was getting underway. “Texas A&M set some very high goals for itself. We were very lucky to have a group of administrators, faculty members, and librarians who understood that the library was key to improving our standing. A great university begins with a great library.”

‘Our goal is to be a little Beinecke on the Brazos.’

Along with a determination to grow, of course, must come financial support, and the university has been fortunate in having the help of benefactors who have signed on to the program. “Two things make a donor open a check book,” Smith said. “First you need to demonstrate success in what you’re doing, and then you need to have vision. By showing them that we have been successful—and I believe these wonderful catalogs we publish go a long way to accomplishing that—we can tap into their enthusiasm. We couldn’t do any of this without our friends. But our greatest benefactor of all, I have to say, has been a supportive administration.”

Commenting in the “Decade of Promise” catalog on the character of the collections, Colleen Cook, dean of libraries, points out that the new books, manuscripts, and archives “represent an expanse of intellectual inquiry (not to mention a growing resource for the campus community), which matches the inclusive nature of the university itself. The maturation of the Cushing Library parallels, in many ways, the ambitions of the university as a whole.”

The overall vision at work, as Smith sees it, is fairly straightforward. “Our goal is to be a little Beinecke on the Brazos,” references to the world-renowned rare books and manuscript library at Yale and the river that runs through College Station. And his approach to collection development is not terribly complicated, either. “What we are looking at first and foremost is the quality of the collection. We always have to ask ourselves, if we get this book, or if we get this collection, will it help a student or a faculty member do important research, and will it encourage scholars to come here?”

For all the new material Smith has helped bring to the university, having to pick a favorite from the decade of promise is not difficult. “I always love the last one the most,” he said. “I feel like every one gets a little bit better than the last.”

Find more on Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library exhibition.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.