January 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Are eBook Collections Eligible for Book Collecting Prizes?

A very modern dilemma was posted to the ExLibris listserv earlier this week:  Are eBook collections eligible for book collecting prizes?

The issue was raised by Richard Ring, Curator of the Watkinson Library and manager of the Webster Book Prize, a book collecting prize awarded to students at Trinity College. Ring received a query from a Trinity college freshman asking if his eBook collection could be considered for the Webster Prize.  Ring then raised the issue with the ExLibris listserv, seeking the input of other book prize managers and the rare book community at large: "I am of two minds, and I would welcome serious responses.  Clearly he [the student] should be encouraged in his collecting, and yet, I'm sure his collection would be considered unacceptable for the national prize sponsored by the ABAA.  Have other collegiate contest managers addressed this issue yet?"

The question, predictably, sparked a debate on the listserv, as librarians, book dealers, and collectors all attempted to sort through the cloudy issue.

Sarah Baldwin, president of the ABBA, which co-sponsors the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, offered this response: "We declined a possible e-book collection entry last year; however, the cosponsors are open to considering the question more thoroughly.  I'd welcome reasons why e-book collections are appropriate."

Several listserv participants suggested that eBook collections could be included if the criteria focused on judging the imaginative spark behind the collection: what inspired it, how it was assembled and arranged, and how it is now, and could in the future be, utilized. 

Several reasons were also offered against the inclusion of eBook collections.  Issues of aesthetics, ease of ownership, and even the murky waters of eBook licensing agreements were raised.

As the debate died down, however, the general consensus appeared to be this: eBook collections should be judged against other eBook collections, while codex collections should be judged against other codex collections.  The two mediums are different enough in character to warrant separate competitions.

Speaking for myself, and not for Fine Books as a whole, I side with this idea of judging the collections separately.  As a collector, I would wince if my copy of, for example, the WPA guide to North Carolina, complete with a fine dust jacket, was judged equally with a competitor's digital copy of the guide which he acquired for free online.  Of course, as we move boldly into the future, more and more books will be published exclusively as eBooks and the eBook format will expand in wild new directions from the basic electronic assemblage of text and pictures it is today.  At that juncture, eBook collecting will likely come into its own right.  For the time being however, it would seem the most fair to split book collection judging into two categories: the eBook and the codex.

But I'm not sure how keen collectors, or prize managers, will be to split the prize money.

In the meantime, Sarah Baldwin wrote me to add the following: "The cosponsors of the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest will review the possibility of e-book entries, as components of a collection in whole or in part, for the 2013 Contest. (Time constraints will not allow the cosponsors to change the rules for the 2012 Contest).  I cannot predict what the decision will be, but we do not want arbitrarily to exclude a format."

So the future is up for debate.  Anyone have anything else to add?

(Quotes from the original debate have been used by permission of the authors).