This blog post is about my entry to the University of London Anthony Davies Book Collecting Prize 2018, and about my experiences having won the prize. Hopefully it might inspire others to think about their books in a different way, and to enter the prize themselves.
As part of my MA in Archives and Records Management, I took Anne Welsh’s course in Historical Bibliography — the only ARM student who did, the other students were all from LIS. It was a great course, and because of it I received an email from Anne advertising the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize run by the Senate House Library. I decided to submit an entry of books which I had been accumulating over many years. These books were loosely based round the theme of Household and Domestic management, and ranged in date from the mid eighteenth century to the mid twentieth.
The details about the Prize were a little sketchy, but the deadline for the entry was fast approaching, so I listed 12 books from my shelves and wrote a short essay and submitted them to the Library. I was very pleased to hear a couple of weeks later that I had been shortlisted and that I was invited to make a presentation to the judging panel. I was assured that the judging would not be an intimidating experience. Despite this, when I arrived rather nervously at the Senate House on the appointed day, clutching a box containing some of my books, I was ushered into the Durning Lawrence Library, a beautiful and imposing room. Ranged along one side of a long wooden table were five august judges.
Quickly, however, they put me at my ease and I talked to them about my books. I didn’t have a slick presentation, I just talked about my favourite things about my books, what it is that makes me love them. Many of the things I like about my books are not the sort of things that most book collectors like, particularly signs of use such as grease-spatters or smoke-stains, or annotations made by previous users. Some of my books are not published works but are handwritten account books, including one of my favourites which was written by Mrs Eliza Blackmore, housekeeper, for the year starting 16 July 1767. Most of them were written by women, and were aimed at women, and I like the social insights they afford us into women’s lives over the last 250 years.
The judging panel asked a lot of questions, especially about my collection parameters, and buying strategies, which I answered as best I could, although it did bring home to me that I didn’t really have much of a strategy, I just buy books I like which are not too expensive.
The interview passed very quickly, and I left having enjoyed myself but convinced that I would not have won because of my very non-theoretically based approach to collecting books. I was delighted to receive an email a couple of weeks later telling me that I had co-won the prize, together with Musa Igrek from Goldsmiths College.
For the prize, as well as money (£300) I was given the opportunity to put on an exhibition in the Senate House Library, which was on display in October and November 2018, and Musa and I had a display case each. I enjoyed the experience of picking which books to include, writing the labels and liaising with the curators about making the stands for the books to display them. The publicity was a little slow to come out, but finally it did.
Another part of the prize was to choose an addition to the Senate House library within the scope of my collection. Together with Dr Karen Attar, Rare Books Librarian at the Senate House Library, I decided on a manuscript book, because I am an archivist, and my collection includes manuscripts, and Karen found an 1802 Account Book from a London based household, which was purchased for the Library.
I was asked to give a seminar as part of an Institute of English Studies Seminar Series, and also to take part in a Panel Discussion run by the University of London Society of Bibliophiles. I found the experience of both of these very enjoyable, and it was especially good to hear my co-winner, Musa, talking about his collection, and to meet finalist from the Cambridge University Rose Book Collecting Prize, Julie Blake. Her exhibition at the Cambridge University Library runs until 2 February.
The best benefit of the Prize has been the way it has caused me to re-think my collection. Indeed, to think of my books as a collection at all instead of just the result of a slightly random book-buying habit. I have thought carefully about the parameters of the collection and about the areas I might expand it in the future, (mainly 20th century ephemera, but also more manuscript books, both of which are strangely affordable) and have also dipped my toe into buying from booksellers catalogues rather than just from actual physical bookshops. Furthermore I have met some fascinating people and learned a lot about books.
If you are a member of the University of London and have books, think about whether a selection of them may actually be a collection. Like me, you may be book collector without knowing it. The details of the 2019 Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize will be announced soon — consider entering!