The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, one of the world's leading archives of modern literature, will be using a $195,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support a two-year project to organize, digitize and open the archives of PEN International and English PEN.
“At this time, when freedom of expression is in peril all over the globe, the support from the NEH to safeguard PEN’s extraordinary history in defending literature and the right to speak and write freely is vital,” said Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, in a press release. “Over the past 100 years in every place where censorship has tried to quiet voices, PEN has worked to support both the individual and collective truth.”
Dubbed “Writers Without Borders," the project will convert some 100,000 documents from the years 1912 to 2008; the documents address PEN's core issues, including the plight of imprisoned writers, free speech and international human rights.
The documents are also coming from a time period covering several flash-points when writers were in peril, such as during World War I and World War II. Among the authors who have correspondence featured in the archive are Chinua Achebe, Elizabeth Bowen, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Nadine Gordimer, Günter Grass, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, Octavio Paz, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Suu Kyi, Virginia Woolf and W. B. Yeats. Some 4,400 images will be also digitized and made free to use online.
That the grant comes just as the Trump administration has announced plans to potentially defund and eliminate the NEH and NEA is "entirely coincidental," said Steve Enniss, director of the Ransom Center. “These archives offer unique insight into human rights crises and document important cultural, historical and literary debates of the last century. There has been demand from scholars to have better access to these documents and their digitization has been a top priority for some time."
Enniss, who is a veteran of Washington D.C., where he previously served as Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library, did note that he felt the threats to the NEH and NEA are not as dire as many people think.
"We survived the culture wars of the mid-90s and I think have evolved since then," he told PW. "At the Folger, we benefited from bipartisan support for the work we did to advance the humanities, and I still think that exists."
Enniss noted that the NEA and NEH were both founded in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, whose Presidential Library is part of the University of Texas' campus in Austin.
"The year the the Ransom Center itself was founded, 1957, is the same year Sputnik was launched into space," Enniss said. "That prompted significant investments in science and technology education, much in the same way money is being poured into STEM education today. But it was also acknowledged at the time that investments in the humanities could equally benefit our lives. I still believe the Congress understands that."