Competitive collegiate book collecting went transcontinental this year when Cambridge University, which will celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2009, held the first book-collecting contest in its long history. As far as anyone can tell, Cambridge is the first college outside of North America to award such a prize. Given the august history of the school and the high caliber of its students, it is not surprising that the institution’s inaugural winner, David Butterfield, walked away with top honors in the 2007 Fine Books & Collections Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship. The championship competition was a run-off among the top-prize winners from each college that held a book-collecting contest during the 2006–07 school year. The complete list of contestants is online here.
A panel of judges reviewed all of the entries and honored three students with cash prizes and a trip to the awards ceremony, scheduled for October 12 in Seattle. Fine Books will also make a donation to each winner’s college library. On the following pages are photographs and interviews with the 2007 champions. Joining Butterfield on the winners’ podium will be Diana Looser from Cornell University and Craig Citro, a student at UCLA. Anyone who worries that electronic media is displacing books in the minds of our young men and women will be heartened by the passion for books shown by these three students.
Book-collecting contests began at Swarthmore College in the late 1920s. The idea took off a few years later when A. Edward Newton, the leading promoter of book collecting in his day, endowed Swarthmore’s contest and promoted the idea in the Atlantic Monthly. Across the United States, bibliophiles took up Newton’s challenge and launched contests at their alma maters and local universities. Today, nearly forty colleges in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom host contests—some annually, most every other year. The precise rules vary from place to place, but all colleges all ask students to write a short essay and supply a bibliography of their books, just as Newton did at Swarthmore eighty years ago.
Newton hoped to instill in the contestants a life-long love of books. “I am thinking only of the pleasure with which a man in [later] years will point to the collection of books made when he was a student in college,” Newton wrote. “‘Those books,’ he may say, ‘established in me the love of reading, and the love of reading has been the joy and solace of my life.’”
The motives behind the new Cambridge contest were slightly different. Two Americans, James Marrow, a medieval scholar, and his wife, the historian Emily Rose, endowed the book-collecting contest this year. Marrow and Rose, who split their time between Princeton and Cambridge, wanted to promote the university library. Cambridge is divided into colleges, which maintain their own specialist libraries. “The university library is kind of a foreign tower” that students rarely visit, Marrow said. The contest brought students from all over campus to the main library for the competition.
Marrow had a second goal: building a sense of community around books. “Collecting,” he said, “can be a very private thing.” Marrow and Rose hoped that students would enter the contest and “suddenly discover there are other people doing it and that there are people outside the university, too.” That sense of community is cultivated by many other book-collecting contests, through introductory lectures, tours of special collections, and awards ceremonies that bring together librarians, collectors, and book-loving students.
Book-collecting contests have a good record of encouraging and supporting young collectors. Past winners of book-collecting contests hide in the halls of academia and in the stacks of libraries, among the ranks of the leading booksellers, and in the lists of pioneering collectors. Two of the judges of Fine Books & Collections’s book-collecting championship were past winners of collegiate contests. The Los Angeles bookseller Ken Karmiole won contests as both an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Bruce Epperson, an attorney based in Florida, won the Snyder Prize at the University of Kansas and subsequently married one of the judges. He continues to collect, focusing on jazz discographies. (The third judge, Claudia Skelton, is active with the Book Club of Washington, the host of the awards ceremony.)
All three of this year’s winners plan careers in academia, and their book collections provide a strong foundation for their research. First-place winner Butterfield spends most of his time exploring the writings of classical Greek and Roman writers, reading their works in early editions and in the original languages. According to Karmiole, who specializes in early printed books, Butterfield’s collection is a classic scholar’s library of a sort that has been popular for centuries among Oxford and Cambridge students and professors.
More typical of contemporary students are the collections of Looser and Citro, which emphasize more recent materials. Looser, a native of New Zealand, has assembled more than 170 plays by playwrights from Pacific Island nations. The plays date from 1970 to the present day. Many have never been formally published and the majority issued from small island presses with limited distribution. “Most of these books and manuscripts are unremarkable in themselves,” said Epperson after the judging was over. “If you saw them in the dollar bin of your local used bookstore, you would likely give them a pass. But when assembled they comprise what may be the most significant collection of such material in the mainland United States.” A check of library holdings suggests that only the University of Hawaii owns a collection of comparable depth and breadth. Citro, who won third prize, also focuses on twentieth-century material. He collects the works of German mathematician Emil Artin and his followers. “Citro has imaginatively addressed the problem by collecting works on the specialized fields in which Artin labored and lining them up, in chronological order, to show how each discipline was changed by Artin’s writings and lectures,” Epperson said.
A diversity of subjects is a common feature of book-collecting contests. Looking back on the entries for the inaugural Cambridge contest, Marrow said, “The range and the interest was tremendous.” When he endowed the contest, contributing £12,000 (about $24,000) to provide a permanent source of prize money, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “Because this was so new,” he said, “we sort of wondered if anyone would apply.” For what he considered a very reasonable investment (a biennial contest could be endowed at most colleges for about half as much), Marrow was able to pass on his passion for books. The Cambridge contest, called the Daniel and Joanna Rose Book-Collecting Prize after Marrow’s in-laws, both of whom collect books, is off to a good start. Marrow hopes other British universities will follow suit in coming years. “The whole thing has been very gratifying,” he said.
Readers of Fine Books & Collections are invited to the 2007 Collegiate Book-Collecting Championship awards ceremony, to be hosted by the Book Club of Washington on Friday, October 12. The awards will be presented by the bookseller Anne Bromer during the club’s annual dinner on the night before the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. All three prize-winning students plan to attend, courtesy of Fine Books and the championship sponsors. Advance reservations are required. The event, to be held at McCormick & Schmick’s restaurant at 1200 Westlake Avenue North, in Seattle, is $45 per person. Call the Book Club of Washington at (206) 323-3999 for reservation information.