Collecting Conversations: An Interview with William Fliss, Archivist of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette University. Curator, J. R. R. Tolkien collection

Kevin Segall

J.R.R. Tolkein Collection Curator, William Fliss Interview

William Fliss, Archivist of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette University. Curator, J. R. R. Tolkien collection

 J.R.R. Tolkien Collection – Marquette University


KS: What was your background before becoming an archivist at the Marquette libraries and how did you begin your career?

WF: My background was in history. I was training to be a history professor but then decided I did not want to continue down that road.  As an historian, I most enjoyed doing research in the archives. This led me in the direction of becoming an archivist. I saw it as a way to indulge my love for historical records. So, I acquired the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree, which is the primary accreditation now for archivists. I have spent almost my entire career at Marquette. I have resisted ascending to the position of unit head either here or elsewhere because I have noticed that these roles involve becoming a middle manager who spends most of his time dealing with personnel issues and little time actually interacting with the stuff!

KS: Have you ever been a collector yourself?  If so, of what?

WF: I avidly collected certain toys as a child, but I have not collected anything as an adult. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that early in my adult life I moved quite a bit, and so I developed the lasting habit of not accruing that many possessions. The second reason is that my work as an archivist satisfies any propensity in that direction. I collect all the time, but not for myself; and I am perfectly fine with this arrangement.

KS: What are the origins of the Tolkien collections at Marquette?

WF: When Marquette University built a new state-of-the-art library (indeed the first stand-alone library in the school’s history) in the mid-1950s, it hired William Ready from Stanford University to be the library’s director. Ready had a talent for stocking libraries with books and manuscripts. Since Marquette is a Jesuit school, Ready decided he would try to collect the papers of Catholic authors. He identified Tolkien as somebody whose manuscripts he wanted, and so he hired a friend of his in London, a rare book dealer, to act as Marquette’s agent in negotiating a sale. This was late 1956—soon after publication of The Lord of the Rings but before that work became a phenomenon. Tolkien sold the manuscripts to Marquette for about the equivalent of a year’s salary as a professor at Oxford. Marquette had the good fortune to be the first to ask! It may be one of the greatest manuscript acquisitions in history.

KS: Do you have any favorite items in your archives?

WF: The Tolkien manuscripts at Marquette consist of over 11,000 pages of material. My favorite aspect of the collection is not confined to a single item or handful of items. What I most enjoy is the organic, evolving interconnectedness of all the manuscripts, especially as seen in successive drafts of chapters and scenes. If I had to pinpoint a single favorite individual item, I would say that my favorite is always changing. At present my favorite would probably be a page of doodles from late summer 1938 when the Tolkien family was on holiday in Devonshire and the author was jotting down plot notes for The Lord of the Rings. This item was shown in the BnF’s (The Bibliothèque nationale de France) Tolkien exhibition last year in Paris, but the image was not included in the exhibition catalogue.

KS: Is there any unique coursework at Marquette that takes advantage of the Tolkien collections?

WF: Although the Tolkien collection has been at Marquette for over 60 years, only in the last decade have there really been any significant courses at Marquette devoted to Tolkien. I think this is because there used to be a prejudice against Tolkien in the English department. He was not seen as part of the literary canon. That has changed completely. One of our English professors periodically teaches a course on Tolkien, and some students have used the collection for their final papers. I have had the opportunity to teach my own freshman honors seminar on The Lord of the Rings. It is limited to 12 students. We sit and discuss Tolkien each week, and I work the manuscripts into the instruction.

KS: Have there been any books, films, or other projects that have taken advantage of the Tolkien archives that you’d like to highlight?

WF: Many scholarly books and articles have drawn from material housed in our archives. A question I always get is did Peter Jackson visit Marquette when he was doing his movies? The answer is no; however, some of the talking heads on the ‘extras’ DVDs for those films have visited Marquette. One of the most interesting visitors I have encountered in my time at Marquette was a crew of Canadian filmmakers that did a documentary called Conlangers, which focuses on people throughout the world who have constructed their own languages. The documentarians did not intend to visit Marquette, but as they talked with these “conlangers” (as they’re called) from around the world, they discovered that Tolkien inspired many of them. So, the filmmakers decided they must include a segment on Tolkien in the film.

KS: Is there any plan or effort to digitize your holdings in the Tolkien collections?

WF: Yes, the entire Tolkien manuscript collection has already been digitized. Because of the copyright situation, the scans must be consulted at Marquette. They cannot be shared online. The scans are part of an enormous project to digitally reprocess the Lord of the Rings manuscripts to make them easier for researchers to access and navigate. It is still ongoing and has proven to be a herculean undertaking (but a lot of fun as well). If anybody is interested in learning more, please read the third section of an article ( I wrote a few years ago for the journal Mythlore.

KS: What advice do you have for young people interested to become a special collections archivist?

WF: I would offer three pieces of practical educational advice. First, become as technologically savvy as possible. I see the role of archivist becoming more and more a hybrid blend of traditional archivist and IT professional. Second, study how to be a project manager. Much of my work has been project-driven, and I would have appreciated being instructed at the outset on how to effectively plan and implement a project. Instead, I have learned most of what I know the hard way through trial and error. Third, read up on Emotional Intelligence. Being able to effectively manage your own emotions and accurately interpret and respond to the emotions of others is an important skill in a profession where the archivist is increasingly a team player working alongside colleagues in other departments and disciplines.

KS: What are some of the more interesting changes that Tolkien made from his working drafts of The Hobbit and LOTR?

WF: As a writer, Tolkien would sometimes stop and jot down plot notes on where he saw the story going, although when he got there he often went in a different direction. In the case of The Hobbit, it is clear that Tolkien originally intended to have Bilbo Baggins slay Smaug himself by sneaking up on the sleeping dragon and then stabbing him with his little knife! As for The Lord of the Rings, the most significant change in my opinion concerned the character of Aragorn. In the original drafts, the hobbits do not meet a mysterious man named Strider at Bree. Instead, they encounter a mysterious hobbit named Trotter who then leads them to Rivendell. Tolkien eventually decided to turn the hobbit Trotter into a man. This broke the story open in the sense that Tolkien was now able to work in other material he had been developing about Númenor and the Men of Westernesse. Aragorn became the last kingly heir of that exiled people. Without this change, there would have been no king to return at the end of the third volume!

KS: Karen Wynn Fonstad authored the celebrated Atlas of Middle Earth; and Ruth Noel authored The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth as well as The Mythology of Middle Earth. Does your repository try to collect original manuscript maps, and manuscripts by authors such as these, and other authors, in support of your Tolkien collection?

WF: We try to collect everything published on Tolkien each year. We have not actively sought out manuscripts by Tolkienists, although original maps, drawings, and artworks have found their way into the collection over the years. I am moving toward actively collecting the papers of prominent Tolkien scholars. I am not so much interested in the manuscripts of their scholarship, unless these are unpublished, because the published version suffices as the most mature expression of their thought. (Researchers are interested in studying the drafts produced by Tolkien himself, but drafts by Tolkien scholars? Not so much.) I am very interested in the correspondence among Tolkien scholars because I believe that the history of Tolkien Studies itself will eventually become an area of scholarly interest. Marquette also documents Tolkien Fandom, which is a whole other story, and way beyond the scope of this newsletter!

KS: Before his death, what kind of contact did you have with Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien? What was the general nature of those contacts?

WF: I did not have any direct contact with Christopher Tolkien since becoming the Tolkien Archivist in 2012. I dealt with him through the Estate’s solicitor. Most of our exchanges related to issues of copyright and permissions. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, Christopher Tolkien had a close working relationship with the Marquette Archives because he relied on us for assistance as he researched and wrote certain volumes within his magisterial 12-volume History of Middle-earth series. If people are interested in learning more about this, they can read a recent In Memoriam piece ( I wrote about Christopher Tolkien on behalf of Marquette.

About the Interviewer

Kevin Segall is a board member of the Manuscript Society and a member of the Tolkien Society. He is a bibliophile and collector of pop culture memorabilia. He and his wife Stephanie are owners of the Historic Winston House in Los Angeles and he can be reached at