The tradition of book collecting contests is solidly anchored in the domain of American undergraduate colleges. The oldest book collecting prize is Swarthmore College’s A.E. Newton Award, established in the 1930s by a Philadelphia book collector. Other long-standing contests include Scripps College’s Slocum Award for Book Collecting (established in 1936), Duke University’s Andrew T. Nadell Prize for Book Collecting (1947), and Yale University’s Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prizes (1957).
Book collecting contests have never swept the nation as a craze, but they have proliferated sporadically over the years, with an uptick in the late 1960s through early 1980s at prestigious institutions such as Boston University (1967) and Harvard University (1977). In the past 20 years, book collecting prizes have multiplied. There are now around 35 contests in the U.S., and contests have begun popping up overseas, beginning with Europe’s first book collecting contest, established in 2006 by Cambridge University.
At universities, book collecting contests are often endowed and named in honor of alumni, librarians, and university supporters with significant book collections or collecting interests.
Stanford University’s Byra J. and William P. Wreden Prize is an endowment established to honor two lifelong book collectors. Alumnus William P. Wreden was a distinguished antiquarian bookseller in the Bay Area, and Byra J. Wreden was the founding director of the Associates of the Stanford University Libraries and notable collector of the works of Kate Greenaway.
At Bryn Mawr College, Seymour Adelman, honorary curator of rare books, gave his collection of books and manuscripts to Bryn Mawr College Library in 1976. In 1979, he established the Seymour Adelman Book Collector’s Prize “in order to encourage students to think about their books in a new way.”
The University of California–Riverside’s Adam Repán Petko Student Book Collecting Contest was launched in 2003 in memory of Adam Repán Petko, who had a lifelong interest in promoting literacy within immigrant groups.
Some contests run with support from outside of their institutions. The University of Kansas’ Snyder Book Collecting Contest is co-sponsored by a division of the university’s bookstore. Celebrated author Nicholas Basbanes sponsors Sweet Briar College’s Nicole Basbanes Student Book Collecting Contest, which is named after his daughter, who is a librarian. And the John Russell Bartlett Society sponsors the Margaret B. Stillwell Prize, which is open to undergraduates at any Rhode Island college or university. It honors Margaret Bingham Stillwell, who graduated from Brown University in 1909 and was the school’s first female professor of bibliography and a renowned early printing scholar.
In addition, stepping away from campus, there are a few independent contests. Honey & Wax Booksellers in New York runs the Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize to encourage women younger than 30 to develop book collections, and The California Young Book-Collector’s Prize is open to collectors younger than 35 in that state and is sponsored by the Northern and Southern California chapters of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA).
Book collecting contests center around the same objectives. Overall, contests intend 1) to promote the joys of reading, usually for pleasure, but sometimes to support academic reading or lifelong learning, 2) to promote an appreciation of a book’s physicality either in full form or its components, such as bindings, printing, paper, or construction, and 3) to engage younger people in book collecting, with hopes of encouraging lifetime participation.
The language used in contest literature is often aspirational. Mississippi State University contest guidelines say, “Developing a personal library can be a lifelong pursuit and this competition might be the first step towards a love of and a passion for books.” The University of Puget Sound’s contest encourages students “to read for enjoyment and appreciate the special qualities of printed or illustrated works, to develop personal libraries throughout their lives, and to read, research and preserve the works collected.” Boston University intends “to introduce students to the joys of creating their own libraries and to encourage them in this gratifying pursuit.”
Although generally not explicitly stated as an aim, book collecting contests teach curation and train one to hone their eye to evaluate condition, describe a book’s physicality, and place a copy or a work within a broader context of thought. Through the submission process, collectors are asked to write essays describing the genesis of their collection and the scope of their dream collection and to create bibliographies. Some contests allow students to speak to an audience about their collections, which teaches public speaking skills, and some contests give the winners the opportunity to display parts of their collections in an exhibit, through which they can learn visual presentation skills.
In an increasingly digital age, these contests promote the appreciation, use, and preservation of physical books. Across contests, ebooks are prohibited or are conspicuously not mentioned or encouraged.
Contests are generally held annually, and most are open only to undergraduates or students in select college class years, such as sophomores or seniors. With non-academic-hosted contests, age and residency limits may apply.
The specific application requirements for book collecting contests vary, but typically, contests require applicants to write an essay describing their collection, detailing their impetus for collecting, and articulating the importance of the subject they are collecting around.
At Stanford University, contest rules note the following:
Contestants are encouraged, as applicable, to describe their collection’s cultural, literary, historical, or scientific merit; the significance of its representation of graphic design, typography, or printing technique; the merit of its illustrations, binding, or cover art; and how it may celebrate a specific attribute of works on paper or the book arts. … Contestants are further encouraged, as applicable, to tell why they chose to collect materials in a particular field; on how items in the collection may have inspired them to change their personal attitudes or ideology; and how and why they may elect to expand or alter the collection’s content or subject matter in the future.
Across contests, applicants are also asked to compile an annotated bibliography or inventory of their collection that judges review. Some contests request photographs of books to aid in judging. Others ask contestants to include a wish list of future acquisitions and articulate the ways each would expand and strengthen their collection.
Typically, submission instructions expressly outline what the judging committees are not looking for in the contests, such as textbooks amassed during the course of study or groups of unrelated books. Furthermore, contests encourage—and most explicitly state—that collections are weighted on thoughtful pursuit and not on monetary worth.
Typically, book collecting prizes are juried contests, evaluated by a small panel of representatives from the host institution. Judges generally are librarians with an expertise in book collecting, bibliography, book arts, or general library-related interests. Some judging panels perform site visits to meet contestants and evaluate their collection in situ. Some interview contestants at the host institution, and during the pandemic, virtual and photographic reviews proliferated.
Generally, with well-stated missions to promote the appreciation and understanding of books, the criteria set to determine winners clearly evaluate a collector’s ability to define a subject area and articulate the thought process undertaken to assemble the collection, rather than weight the monetary value or size of the collection. Contest instructions for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia’s Book Collecting Contest state, “Judges consider collections on the basis of coherence of focus, method of collecting, progress made in creating the collection, and the quality of the explanation of the collection’s focus. Where appropriate, the quality of the description of the books, that is, of the physical characteristics such as binding, cover decoration, and illustrations and bibliographical features such as format, printing and publication details, is taken into consideration. Collections are not judged on dollar value or size.”
As would be expected, bragging rights abound, alongside cash prizes. Contests typically award multiple levels of prizes, either for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places or for top winners in different age classes.
Winners of Swarthmore College’s A.E. Newton Award are invited to give a talk at McCabe Library about their collections. The two first-place winners of Case Western Reserve University’s Book Collecting Contest receive $50 gift certificates to Loganberry Books, and all four placing winners get a complementary 1-year membership to the Northern Ohio Bibliophilic Society. All students who submit complete entries at Trinity College receive a $20 gift card to Barnes & Noble.
Oberlin College awards its placing winners $100–$300, winners of the Collins Memorial Library Book Collecting Contest at the University of Puget Sound receive prizes between $250 and $500, and finalists of the Neureuther Competition at Washington University in St. Louis collect between $500 and $1,000.
At the University of Chicago, winners of the T. Kimball Brooker Prize receive between $1,000 and $2,000, a 1-year membership to the Caxton Club, a subscription to the monthly Caxtonian, a copy of Other People’s Books: Association Copies and the Stories They Tell, and the opportunity to display a portion of their collection at the library.
In the U.S., the top monetary prize is given by Harvard University, where first-place winners of its Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting competition earn $3,000.
The National Competition
Collegiate contest winners are eligible to enter the ABAA’s National Book Collecting Contest, newly renamed the Susan Tane Prize for Student Book Collectors after the eponymous bibliophile and philanthropist. Entry into the annual national book collecting competition is also open to undergraduates enrolled at universities and colleges without a formal book collecting contest.
The ABAA, which was “founded in 1949 to promote interest in rare and antiquarian books and book collecting, and to foster collegial relations,” coordinates the national contest. The competition is co-supported by the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies, the Grolier Club, Fine Books & Collections magazine, and the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book and Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The contest was established in 2005 by Fine Books & Collections and expanded to include the aforementioned supporters, the Kislak Family Foundation, and Susan Jaffe Tane.
The Susan Tane Prize for Student Book Collectors is open to students enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate degree program in the U.S. For entry, each contestant must be sponsored by a faculty member or a member of their institution’s rare book or special collections department. Contestants must own the books included in their submission.
To apply, contestants must provide general contact information for themselves and their school, a copy of their winning collegiate entry (essay, bibliography, and supporting materials), a letter verifying their collegiate prize, and optional supplementary materials that “may include information on collections or items not included in the winning entry, more detailed bibliographical details, photographs, or other materials.” Direct entries from students enrolled at colleges without formal collecting prizes are required to include a bibliography and an essay describing their collection, its aims, scope, and origin and “how the contestant envisions the collection will evolve.”
Submissions are judged in two rounds. A five-person panel drawn from the ABAA, the Fellowship of Bibliographic Societies, and the Library of Congress evaluate the first round of submissions and narrow the contest to the top 10 entries. During the second round, judges review collection information and interview the candidates. Overall, the criteria are as follows:
Judges will award prizes based on the intrinsic significance, innovation and interest of book collections as presented in entrants’ descriptive essays and bibliographies. As part of the judging process evaluations will be made of the entrants’ understanding of their collections’ subjects, their use and citation of previously-published bibliographical materials, and their knowledge and appreciation of the items in their collections both for content and as objects of craft. The judges will also consider how collections may help preserve material that could otherwise be lost or forgotten, and the potential of collections to expand and evolve. Age, rarity and uniqueness of items will be assessed independently of monetary value.
The top three prizewinners are invited to the award ceremony at the Library of Congress, with event sponsors covering their transportation and accommodation expenses.
Prizes are awarded to both student winners and their collegiate libraries. The ABAA encourages libraries “to use their prize money to support future book collecting contests at their institutions by increasing available prizes, hosting banquets or receptions for entrants to future contests, sponsoring contest alumni gatherings, or other similar activities.”
First-place collectors win $2,500, second-place winners are awarded $1,000, and third-place winners earn $500. Host libraries win $1,000, $500, or $250, pending their student’s ranking. In addition to a prize for collection, contestants can win $500 for the top bibliographic essay describing their collection and the thinking behind its creation. In addition, the Grolier Club, America’s oldest book collectors’ club, located in New York, extends a complementary 1-year membership to the winners.
The reigning national first-place winner is Jessica Camille Jordan from Stanford University, with her collection of works by illustrative designers Leo and Diane Dillon that spans their 60-year career. Read Brown from New York University holds second place, with his collection of books covering the history of video games. Shannon Bohle from Johns Hopkins University holds third place, with her collection of autographed first editions relating to important contemporary breakthroughs in science.