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Collecting Contest

The “old college try” could be worth $2,500 and a trip to Washington
By Christopher Lancette

When Yale University student Basie Gitlin won the second place award in the 2008 National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest (NCBCC), he became even more passionate about his hobby and walked away with the certainty that collecting would remain a part of his future.

“It’s going to be a lifetime hobby,” said the senior history major who became fascinated with rare books at Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, Connecticut, when he was just thirteen. “I’m not exactly sure yet what I’m going to do with my career but it’s going to go in a direction that involves libraries, rare book dealing, or academia—something that involves books and learning.”

That’s music to the ears of the 2010 NCBCC organizers.

“College students are a new audience for us,” said John Y. Cole, founding director for the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. “The national collegiate competition serves our mission of stimulating interest in books, reading, literacy, libraries and the study of books.”

The Center is working with a number of partners to host the contest, including the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, and the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies. They are receiving major support from the Jay I. Kislak Foundation.

Established in 2005 by Fine Books & Collections magazine to recognize outstanding book-collecting efforts by college and university students, the program aims to encourage young collectors to become accomplished bibliophiles. The magazine conducted the annual competition before turning over the leadership to the new collaboration of institutional partners last year.

Book collections, for the purposes of the competition, must be based on some unifying principle, such as subject, a single author or group of authors, genre, or place of publication. Collections are judged on their substance and scope, rather than on size, rarity, or financial value. To be eligible to enter by June 4, 2010, contestants must be the top prizewinner of an officially sanctioned American collegiate book-collecting contest held during the 2009-2010 academic year. The winner of this year’s NCBCC will receive $2,500 while second- and third-place finishers will take home $1,000 and $500, respectively. All three will earn a trip to the awards ceremony this fall at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

“This is a great opportunity to introduce college students to book collecting,” said Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. “It’s really exciting to nurture younger people and help them become full-fledged collectors. This shows that you don’t have to be established in your career and have a lot of money to collect books.”

Gitlin didn’t need a bank loan to launch his collection, and he’s still studying his area of focus: canvassing books and materials relating to the subscription book trade from the Civil War through the 1920s.

“Subscription books are incomplete books with order forms that agents carried door to door,” he said. “That’s how a lot of people who lived out of the range of a bookstore ordered books back then.”

This year’s contest is sure to draw a range of entries as diverse as those from the 2008 competition. Rhae Lynn Barnes of the University of California, Berkeley took top honors that year. She built her collection around the theme of something she detests: racist, black-faced minstrel plays. She told Fine Books at the time that she collects what she hates in order to shed light on an unhappy period in American history that most libraries and collectors have avoided.

Organizers of this year’s contest expect the 2010 competition to cover just as much ground—and they’re learning something, too.

“I didn’t know there were so many colleges already sponsoring these kinds of contests until we got involved with the national competition,” Cole said. “I view promoting an interest in book collecting with college students as a natural opportunity for the Center for the Book.”

Christopher Lancette writes articles and blogs about American history and books.

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