Guest Blog: A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference

Guest Blog by Roger Layton, Communications Manager, The Harold B. Lee Library at BYU on the A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference March 17-18, 2011.

Imagine yourself in a small quiet room passing rare, even one of a kind, books around a table surrounded by book lovers. You can hold the books, turn their pages, feel their weight and smell the paper or velum. Thanks to the efforts of a rare book curator you can do that once a year at the A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference. The curator who created the conference is Brad Westwood (pictured here at left), and he was certainly the right person in the right place to share his dream with other book collectors. Westwood grew up in Provo, Utah, as the son of a local businessman. One of his jobs was to help out at the Greyhound Bus Terminal located in a building his father owned. Westwood met all kinds of people at his job, and he never lost his interest in meeting new people and hearing their stories. In college he worked in the Special Collections Library at Brigham Young University before moving to Philadelphia for graduate school. Eventually he returned to BYU where he became the head of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library.

Once established at BYU, Westwood never failed to promote his philosophy that the materials in Special Collections were available to researchers. While he was an expert in preservation, he knew that the value of the collection was enhanced by careful use. He also made outreach a part of his job. He gave presentations on the collection to community groups and invited local scholars, historians, architects, and other professionals to present lectures in the library. Westwood had the vision to combine all these elements into an annual event to promote the library while encouraging book collecting in the surrounding communities.

In 2003 Westwood, with the support of the other curators in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, organized a conference titled "The Gentle Madness of Book Collecting," named in honor of Nicholas Basbanes' book. The conference had six seminars on divergent subjects--Back in the Saddle: Collecting Western Fiction, It's My Press and I'll Print What I Want To: Collecting Modern Fine Printing, The Top 50 Most Influential Books Ever Printed, Mormon Incunabula: The Infancy of Mormon Publishing, Conservation and Preservation: The Art of Preventing Dilapidation, and Street Literature: Common Reading, Uncommon Times. This initial conference set the tone for all future conferences (and the tradition of putting colons in all titles). It was well attended with over 60 guests and well received by the local book collecting community. Attendees included both book collectors and book dealers. The presenters were drawn from the curators in Special Collections, scholars from the university, and experts from outside organizations, for example, James S. Winegar, President of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum.

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BYU librarians from October, 1971. From left to right: Chad Flake, curator of special collections; Donald K. Nelson, director of libraries; Donald T. Schmidt, assistant director of libraries; and A. Dean Larsen, assistant director for collection development. Image courtesy of the Perry Collections.

For the next three years the conference moved forward. In 2004 its name was changed to the A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference. A. Dean Larsen was one of the driving forces behind the development of the BYU's Special Collections Library. At a time when BYU was growing into its university status Larsen actively sought out rare books and built strong collections that put the library ahead of the curve. For example, today the library has a strong Victorian collection including the largest Louisa May Alcott collection outside Orchard House thanks to Larsen's work with dealers such as Madeline Stern and Leona Rostenberg in New York. The collection's western Americana materials are strong, including materials from Zane Grey and a newly expanded Yellowstone collection that includes over 1,800 items from Larsen's own collection. He even acquired Johannes Hevelius' only surviving manuscript for the library. The fine press books and incunabula he purchased in the 1960s and 1970s were obtained for prices that are unimaginable bargains compared to today's market. Beyond Special Collections Larsen worked to build the university's general research collection. During Larsen's 40 years with the library he purchased over three million volumes. Larsen passed away in 2002, but his family generously supports the conference with an endowment that helps keeps the price low so that even students can attend.

There was no 2006 conference because conference organizers realized that by changing from a fall to a spring event there would be fewer conflicts with other events at the university. So the conference history jumps from 2005 to 2007. By 2009 Westwood moved on to work as the Collections Development Manager for the LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. His successor as head of Special Collections, Russell Taylor, and Scott Duvall (pictured at left), the library's Associate University Librarian (a title equivalent to associate dean), made sure that the conference continued to grow. They had worked with Brad since the beginning so the conference remains on track for the foreseeable future. In 2010 the conference continued the tradition of offering two pre-conference workshops, one on early photographic techniques and another on book binding. Other years the pre-conference classes have featured workshops on book forensics and illuminating manuscripts. The list of seminars has grown over the years to include seven or eight sessions that are repeated throughout the day. Popular sessions are taught three times to allow more people to enjoy the small sessions.

One of the paradoxical reasons the conference works so well is that the Harold B. Lee Library is large enough to host a number of small sessions. While 70 plus people attend each year they are only all together for a few minutes during the welcoming session and during lunch when they listen to a keynote speaker. The rest of the time everyone disperses into the library's conference and seminar rooms where they gather around tables in small groups and literally rub elbows with other collectors and dealers. Seminars are limited to 12 to 15 people depending on the size of the room. Presenters are close enough that microphones aren't needed and books can be passed around the table for everyone to see in turn.

The conference benefits from the library's ready-made pool of professional book lovers. Librarians and curators call on knowledgeable student staff members who serve as seconds to help manage the organization and delivery of materials to the seminar rooms. The library is also able to provide campus security for the rare materials which have been pulled from the vaults under the library. These items are never left unattended during the conference.

Each year the organizers of the conference review the feedback from attendees and each year they work to make improvements. There are always more people interested in western Americana and Mormon collecting than any other topics. In fact those are the sessions that consistently fill up the fastest. But there are also requests for more information on how to get into collecting and how to find areas that are still affordable to collectors. This raises a dilemma. The conference is a great system to give small groups and individuals access to some of the rare items in the library collections, but some of those items are not likely to be on the market or may be out of reach for many new collectors. The library has worked to balance the desires of people who wish to see rare items and yet grow their collections by hosting seminars that address both needs. Participants may sign up for a session in the morning and hold a copy of Galileo Galilei's Dialogo and after lunch they might attend a session on leaf books or collecting correspondence.

One of the most valuable features of the conference are the breaks between sessions. While all the sessions are held in one building and lunch is served in a building nearby, the breaks are a generous fifteen minutes. This gives everyone more than enough time to move from room to room. It also allows time to ask presenters one last question, get one last look at a particular item, or best of all get to know other people in the session. It's an open secret that when Brad Westwood imagined the Book Collecting Conference he wasn't just thinking about books and ephemera. Westwood was thinking about the people in the book collecting community and how much they needed a place to meet in neutral territory and build relationships. With the book world moving more and more online the opportunities for book collectors to meet and for dealers and customers to see each other face to face are declining. At the same time, the library benefits from a healthy community of book collectors because they are likely to be friendly toward the library and supportive of the library's mission of preserving materials while providing access for research.

Quick facts about the A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference:

It's typically scheduled in the middle of March each year.
The 2011 topics include movable books (pop-ups), writers who worked together, illuminated manuscripts, and Mormon publications.
Thanks to the Larsen family's underwriting, the cost for the conference has been reduced to $35.00. This includes lunch and a conference program with notes and resources for each session.
The cost for each pre-conference workshop is also $35.00. Attendees are on their own for lunch on the day of the pre-conference workshops.
All conference sessions are held in the Harold B. Lee Library located in the center of the Brigham Young University campus. Free visitor parking is located on the edge of campus.
The conference schedule and list of topics are released in late January. Registration is first come, first served.
Information and registration is posted online at This website is also a good resource for information on past conferences.
The A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference is held on the campus of Brigham Young University, which is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That means there is not only no smoking or alcohol permitted on campus but coffee and tea are not served with meals.