No ‘Fear and Loathing’ at MU

J.R.R. Tolkien. T.S. Eliot. H.G. Wells.

Besides all going by their initials, these authors are also linked by another fact: their writings are housed in various university libraries. And with the death of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" author Hunter S. Thompson Feb. 20, many university libraries may be considering adding his manuscripts to their collection.

Such authors' manuscripts fit into a complex mission for most university libraries. Many search for writings that complement the mission of their university.

For example, Marquette collects documents relating to Catholic social action and American Indians and Catholicism, according to Matt Blessing, head of Special Collections and University Archives for Raynor Memorial Libraries.

"It's an extension of the university's heritage as a Catholic, Jesuit university," Blessing said.

Marquette also holds the writings of Tolkien, a Catholic and fantasy writer.

In 1957, the university negotiated with Tolkien to bring some of his manuscripts to the university, Blessing said. Many years after Tolkien's death in 1973, his son, who served as executor of his estate, sent more manuscripts to Marquette.

Marquette also personally contacted Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to invite her to bring her writings to the university. She had visited Marquette several times and began to bring her writings to Marquette in 1962, Blessing said.

Marquette's libraries stick to their mission and do not try to expand beyond it, Blessing said. The archives focus on Catholic history.

"We don't try and compete with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or other groups on documenting Wisconsin history," he said.

Other universities search for authors who are locally-based.

For example, the University of Chicago holds the writings of Saul Bellow — a writer and former faculty member there — and the archives of Poetry magazine, which is based in Chicago and includes works by T.S. Eliot, according to Alice Schreyer, director of the University of Chicago's Special Collections Research Center.

The University of Chicago also holds the writings of many physicists who worked on the atomic bomb, Schreyer said. Of note are the writings in which the physicists sought to have atomic power brought under civilian, not military, control when they saw the devastation atomic bombs could cause.

Whatever is brought into a university's archives must have research value, so faculty interest in a topic is vital to expanding archives and special collections. For example, manuscripts written by author H.G. Wells were brought to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of faculty interest in his works, according to Bruce Swann, interim head of Rare Book and Special Collections at the university.

Some universities' special collections don't have a specific focus. For example, at the University of Indiana, the Lilly Library holds the writings of such varied authors as Sylvia Plath and Kurt Vonnegut. Other universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, pay top dollar for such documents as the Watergate papers of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

"Unlike Lilly, we don't have resources — the money or the space," Schreyer said. "We try to really focus our acquisitions."

Thus Thompson's death has not stirred the University of Chicago or Marquette to push to obtain his manuscripts.

"We're not part of an auction culture," Schreyer said.

Blessing agreed.

"You have to identify what you want to collect, so that you're not reactive," Blessing said.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 15 2005.