Student book-collecting prizes celebrate creative classification

Anthony Davis, the sponsor of prizes at Oxford and the University of London, explains why this form of bibliophilia must be encouraged

October 30, 2014

Source: Alamy

Truffle hunt: the unearthing of cheap unexpected treasures in antiquarian bookshops is also possible online if you have the expertise to know what to look for

Student book-collecting prizes, run by universities or their libraries, took a long time to reach the UK.

They seem to have started in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1920s and are now fairly common in American universities. Yet it was not until 2006 that an endowment from Emily Rose and James Marrow, an American academic couple, enabled Cambridge University Library to create its own Rose Book-Collecting Prize – believed to be the first in Europe – in honour of Dr Rose’s parents. Open to all undergraduate and graduate students at Cambridge, it is designed to recognise not the most valuable set of books but the one which best demonstrates “the intelligence and originality” and “coherence” of the collection and “the thought, creativity and persistence” of the collector.

The eight winners to date have specialised in everything from “Landmarks of Classical scholarship” to “Japanese popular publications” and “Canvassing books”.

The latest winner, Christopher White of Darwin College, for his collection “Eugenics in the 20th century”, described in the essay that formed part of his submission how “it is easy enough to nod and forget that the eugenics movement was no Nazi peculiarity and was instead a worldwide phenomenon agreed on by leading scientists and the public alike. Indeed, Germany was not the first country to write eugenics into law and their policies were strongly influenced by the United States, a country that sterilised more people than Germany ever did.”

Fascinated by “this combination of distaste and wilful forgetfulness”, Mr White embarked on his prizewinning collection of books on eugenics, which “range from well-known portrayals of eugenics in fiction and non-fiction to lesser known items by plant breeders, cult science fiction authors and evolutionary biologists”. He hopes that it “will encourage a more informed discussion of eugenics, not just as a mistake to be forgotten, but as a lens through which we can view our future. After all, in an age where at least one country has started to screen and voluntarily abort embryos with specific genetic defects, it is best not to forget our own countries’ dark pasts.”

A shadow over the stacks

This may represent only a modest start, but there are signs that such prizes are beginning to gather momentum.

Anthony Davis, a retired lawyer, has been a book collector since his schooldays, with a particular interest in English fine bindings before 1820 – and “books with a story attached”. When a friend told him he was sponsoring a student book-collecting prize in the US, he started reflecting on why the idea had hardly caught on in Britain – and decided to sponsor two of his own in the institutions where he had studied. Hence the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford presented the first Colin Franklin Book Collecting Prize earlier this year, while the University of London’s first Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize was announced this month. Also in the pipeline is the University of Edinburgh’s David Laing Student Book Collecting Prize, for which submissions are invited by June 2015.

Asked about why he decided to get involved, Mr Davis said that “I think book collecting needs a bit of encouragement, because it can be unsociable – you can’t talk about book collecting too much at dinner parties, take it from me. People find it difficult to find others who are interested in old books and so realise they are not strange.”

It might seem an odd moment to start a new book-collecting competition, when the rise of e-books and decline of bookshops have cast a serious shadow over book-collecting and indeed the future of the book.

Yet Christopher Fletcher, keeper of special collections at the Bodleian, believes that “the proliferation of digital material” has also “thrown emphasis back on the material form of texts, their beauty and inherent interest”. The history of the book, material culture more generally and “networks of knowledge” are increasingly topics of academic interest, and that has challenged the notion that there is something intrinsically “precious” about book-collecting. The traditional “truffle hunt”, whereby collectors unearth cheap unexpected treasures in antiquarian bookshops, is still perfectly possible online for those with a deep knowledge of different editions of the same text.

The first Anthony Davis Prize of £500 (plus £250 to purchase a book of the winner’s choice for Senate House Library) is about to be presented to Hazel Wilkinson, a PhD student at University College London, for a collection of editions of works by major English poets published between 1758 and 1957 designed to illuminate the social history of reading such canonical authors. The prize for runner-up went to Kayleigh Betterton, an MA student at Birkbeck, for a collection of Oscar Wilde material she uses for teaching in an inner-city school.

The first winner of Oxford’s Colin Franklin Prize, meanwhile, was Sophie Ridley, a student of archaeology and anthropology at St Hugh’s College. What she described in her submission as “an accidental collection” began as a “truffle hunt” in local charity shops, where the abundance of interesting material “made a heady contrast to the lack of finds at the Iron Age hill fort where I had been patiently excavating as a volunteer each weekend”.

Eventually she began to focus on “traditional rural crafts” and the manuals about them which burgeoned after the educational reforms of the 1870s transformed literacy rates. Ms Ridley’s collection, “School texts for crafts training”, therefore, captures an important historical turning point, when schools were encouraged to “liberate the curriculum from ‘the three Rs’ to one which was more suitable to the needs, not only of the pupils but also of society”.

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