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Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize: Collecting with Intention

Sarah S Pipkin12 April 2021

The Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize is an opportunity to celebrate student collectors and the diverse collections they build and nurture. Last year we wrote about how you can be a student book collector without even realising it. But what is the difference between a book collector and someone who just owns a lot of books? For us, and the judges on the Book Collecting Prize panel, the difference is collecting with intention.

What is Collecting with Intention?

Collecting anything is about building a collection of material around a common theme for a specific purpose. You could be collecting because you really love the subject, author or artist. Or it might be about raising awareness or preserving a history you believe is important. But it becomes a ‘collection’ when it forms a cohesive whole. Think of books or items that if you would give away as a unit rather than one item at a time.

The intention behind your collection can be academic or it can just be something that you are passionate about. Some of last year’s finalists collected in areas that overlapped with their studies, while the 2020 winner submitted a collection of books she had since her childhood. You can also submit material such as letters, postcards, and comic books.

It’s all well and good talking about this in the abstract, but what exactly does an intentional collection look like? Let’s look at some examples:

Vicky’s Collection of Music for the French Horn

Potential Collection Title: Milestones for a Music Student

Vicky, our Head of Outreach, has a collection of sheet music for the French horn. Her sheet music cover different milestones of a student’s journey to learning how to play the instrument. The music was primarily bought when she was learning the instrument herself as a child. None of the music in the collection are particularly rare, but some of them are now out of print.

Selected items from Vicky's music collection

Selection of sheet music from Vicky’s French Horn collection.

When Vicky started the collection, it was music that she needed to proceed to the next milestone of learning music. It wasn’t really a collection at the time – it was just the assigned sheet music for learning the French horn. However, over time she filled her books with annotations that documents her journey as a musician. This includes names of music teachers, recitals and more. They now serve as a history of her progress as a music student. Once she finished her studies, she kept the collection as a single unit. They have a certain amount of sentimental value – they represent the journey she took when learning the French Horn and remind her of the teachers and concerts that helped her along that journey. But it also represents what the musical journey of most French horn players – the music pieces that she has are very popular amongst people learning the French Horn and become more technically difficult over time. If she was to give the collection away, she’d give it to a music student at the beginning of their learning journey as, in theory, they then wouldn’t need to buy another piece of music until they finish their studies. But it’s also a collection that’s still in use. Vicky returns to old music to practice her skills and finds that the music she learned years ago is still challenging for different reasons. Why she isn’t actively adding to the collection, it serves as a physical representation of a learning journey.

Notations inside music book

Notations inside of one of Vicky’s music books.

What does this mean for you, a potential applicant to the Anthony Davis Book Prize? Books that you may have purchased over the course of learning something new, but then changed in significance to you overtime, may be a great thing to submit to the Book Prize. When looking at your collection, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What does this collection represent to you?
  • What about it tells a story that I think is important?
  • What about my relationship to these items has changed that makes me think of them as a cohesive whole?

Sarah’s collection of modern science fiction and fantasy written by women

Potential Collection Title: Imagined Feminist Futures

I collect science fiction and fantasy novels written by women. These are primarily books published in the past five years, but I am also actively seeking earlier works. A few years ago I realised that despite the fact that I love the science fiction and fantasy genre, almost all of the authors I’ve read were men and the authors I had on my shelves were entirely men. So, I decided to change that by intentionally reading and buying science fiction and fantasy books authored by women. It started out as just a reading project – I read primarily library books or ebooks. But as I realised how many authors I had been ignoring, my purchasing patterns started changing as well. The moment I started seeing it as an intentional collection was when I bought a special edition of the collected Binti novellas – a series of novellas that had initially been published online but were re-issued in a physical format.

Selection of books from Sarah's collection

Selection of books from Sarah’s science fiction and fantasy collection.

As my collection has grown, it has become a reference library for suggesting authors to friends who are also looking at expanding the authors they read. It now serves as a reference library for myself and other people in my social circle. I also am more likely to buy a book by an author that I haven’t read if I believe it will fill a gap in my collection. While my collection is also dependant on the books I enjoy – part of it has been regifted to friends when I didn’t enjoy the story – there is a core set of books that I would be very reluctant to part with and serve as a representation of women’s contributions to the genre.

Book cover of Binit Collected Novellas

Binti: The Complete Trilogy. While tracking down this edition, I started to see my books as a collection.

If you, like me, started a collection to fill a knowledge gap or encourage better buying habits, these questions might help you think a bit more deeply about your own collection:

  • Why do you buy the books you buy (beyond them being required reading)?
  • Why do you buy particular editions?
  • What have you learned from building your collection?

Final Thoughts

Even though Vicky and I both collect printed material, your collection doesn’t have to be limited to printed books or sheet music. Instead, it can be a collection of letters or diaries, postcards or greeting cards. The items you collect do not have to be old or historically valuable – modern material is welcome. What we want to see in applications to the Anthony Davis Book Prize is intention and purpose. If you can tell us why these items serve as a cohesive whole and the story they tell, then you’ll be the ideal applicant to the Book Prize.

 

We are now accepting applications for the 2021 Anthony Davis Book Prize! The prize is open to all students at a London based university and applications close on 30 April 2021. For more information, visit our main page for the Anthony Davis Book Prize.

Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize: Books that built a zoo

Sarah S Pipkin16 March 2021

The 2020 winner of the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, Alexandra Plane, has written about her book collection: ‘Books that built a zoo.’

The collection which I entered for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize brings together various editions of books by the naturalist Gerald Durrell, printed from the 1950s to the 2000s. Durrell was a pioneer of animal conservation who believed that zoos should prioritise conservation and education rather than entertainment and profits. He needed money to realise his vision, and he raised it by writing. His books proved enormously popular—particularly his humorous accounts of his childhood in Corfu, which you might have seen adapted for TV as The Durrells. However, he did not actually enjoy writing; it was a means to an end. That end was the foundation of Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands, which continues to be a leading organisation in animal conservation today.

Image of books from the collection 'books that built a zoo'

Selection of books from Plane’s book collection.

You might be thinking that this is an odd choice for a book collection—why collect mass-market books which aren’t particularly old or rare? Why collect books by a reluctant, lowbrow author rather than his brother, the celebrated novelist Lawrence Durrell? In truth, these questions did not trouble me when I first started buying Durrell’s works. This started out as an accidental collection. By the time I discovered Durrell’s writing, many of his books had gone out of print. I began buying them simply because I wanted to read them, not out of any lofty ambitions to be a collector.

It was only later that I began to comprehend the significance and interest books have as physical objects. For example, at the back of my early mass-market paperbacks, Durrell had placed requests for donations from readers to support the work of Jersey Zoo. The evolution of these advertisements over the years reveals how vital the publication of the books was to the foundation and success of the zoo, the first of its kind in the world. In the pre-internet era, these seemingly unimportant paperbacks were able to physically convey Durrell’s appeals for aid into the hands of readers across the globe.

Applying for the prize gave me an opportunity to look anew at my bookshelf. Most of my Durrell books only cost a few pounds, but I realised that this does not mean that they are unworthy of being described as a ‘collection’. Presenting my books to the panel (made up of Anthony Davis himself as well as representatives of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, the Bibliographical Society, the Senate House Library, and UCL Special Collections) was a wonderful experience which enabled me to further expand my understanding of what it means to be a book collector.

I have since completed an MA dissertation on a nineteenth-century atlas collector, and I have just started a PhD on the library of King James VI and I. The reflective nature of the prize’s application process enabled me to tie together my own experiences of collecting with my academic work. Many of the questions I discussed with the interview panel continue to resonate in my research and book-buying, whether I’m rooting through an Oxfam bookshop or studying sixteenth-century royal libraries. If you are a student at a London university with a collection of books which you are passionate about, I would urge you to apply for this year’s prize. You might not identify with the label of ‘book collector’ now, but you may be surprised to discover that it does in fact apply to you, too!

Applications for the 2021 Anthony Davis Book Prize are open! The prize is open to all students at a London based university and applications close on 30 April 2021. For more information, visit our main page for the Anthony Davis Book Prize.

How to be a student book collector (and apply for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize)

Helen Biggs17 April 2020

This year, UCL Special Collections is hosting the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, to be awarded to a current student studying towards a degree at a London-based university. For many students, the label of ‘book collector’ is a grandiose one, and while the tiny space on their bed-side table may be crammed with text books and novels these don’t seem to match the image conjured up by the words ‘book collection’.

However, the Anthony Davis Prize does not require you to own first editions, or signed manuscripts, or books so old they are crumbling to dust. So if you’re interested in a £600 cash prize and a chance to talk about the books that you own and love, read on to learn how you can be a book collector – and then apply for the Prize.

You’re actually already a book collector

‘Collecting’ as a hobby is often seen as something for the rich, or the obsessed, or both. Whether it’s stamps or classic cars or Pokémon cards, the idea that a collection is prized for its rarity and monetary value above all else has become standard, as has the image of collectors as always collecting, always trying to one-up their rivals. This image is not untrue of every collector, but ignores the real reason many people collect: the love they have for their chosen collectable, and the joy they experience in finding something new to them, and sharing it with others. It ignores, too, that collections do not have to be rare and expensive to be enjoyed. It ignores that you probably, entirely unintentionally, already have a collection of your own.

A shelf full of books, shelved in no apparent grouping or order.

If you’re a lover of books then you probably have a good number of them. They may not have been amassed with any particular purpose beyond reading them, but the pile of unread paperbacks on the floor next to your bed, the childhood favourites stacked on top of your wardrobe, and the romance novels stuffed in shoe boxes that you can’t quite bring yourself to give away are a collection of books. That makes you a book collector.

The first question is: what books are you collecting?

Turning your collection of books into a book collection

For the Anthony Davis Prize, it is not enough to own books. We’re asking that your collection ‘consists of no fewer than 8 printed and/or manuscript items reflecting a common theme, which the collector has deliberately assembled as the start of a collection and intends to grow’. So you’ll need to find a common theme among your book collection, one which you’d like to expand on as you buy more books.

A good place to begin is looking at subject, genre, or author. If you have an interest in baking cakes, you may have amassed a good number of food magazines. You may have a good collection of graphic novels. You might have every book written by J. K. Rowling.

Some book collections have links that are less obvious but perhaps more intriguing, and it might help to remember why you bought the book or were given it in the first place. Do you own more than one Booker Prize winning novel? Were you drawn to some of your books because of the art on the front cover? Did you at some point decide that you were going to read every book on Wikipedia’s list of ‘novels considered the greatest of all time’, or that you were going to focus on reading sci-fi written by BAME authors?

A collection of Giles annualsOnce you’ve got a broad theme for your book collection, you may need to narrow it further. Think about the books you have and what links them together, what really appeals to you, or makes them different from the books that your friends have. It could be that you have a really good collection of manga, but your particular interest is magical girls, and most of your collection has been translated from Japanese into Spanish. Or your cookbooks are all written by 21st century TV chefs and focus on Italian cuisine. Or the book covers you are most drawn to in second hand book shops were all designed in the 1970’s. Or maybe your collection is very narrow indeed, consisting simply of different editions of exactly the same book, showing the different ways it has been published, marketed and interpreted through the years.

And voilà! You have your book collection. You should be able to describe it in a sentence – “I collect autobiographies of women who grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles”. But for the Anthony Davis Prize, the sentence needs to be a little longer. “I collect children’s picture books on space exploration because…”

Why is your book collection interesting?

Part of your application for the Prize will include ‘an essay of not more than 500 words explaining the coherence and interest of your collection, and why and how it was assembled’. ‘Interest’ in this case means not just why it’s of interest to you, but why it may be of interest to other people. Don’t panic – there’s a good chance that what is interesting to you is of interest to other people. Children’s picture books on space exploration are of interest to you because they show how we, as a society, view space as scary/exciting/a potential utopia. Northern Irish women’s autobiographies interest you because their voices are often missing in films/novels/school curricula.

So far I’ve mostly described the content of books as the reason for collecting them, but it’s worth noting here that it may be the physicality of a book collection that makes it interesting. If you’re someone who buys your books second-hand or loves browsing used-book stores, then you may find that you’re drawn to books that have been made or bound in a particular way. The history of individual books can also be intriguing – you may find you are interested in collecting books that have bookplates from past owners, or inscriptions from past gift-givers. In these cases, you’ll need to be able to explain why these bindings, these book plates, or these inscriptions are interesting.

a collection of printed music for the French hornIt’s worth noting as well, that the Anthony Davis Prize is for ‘book collecting’ but isn’t only restricted to books – collections of sheet music, manuscripts, magazines, booklets and other ephemera are all admissible for the Prize. The selection of music here is from the collection of Vicky Price, Head of Outreach at UCL Special Collections, who has been collecting (and playing!) music for the French horn for over 20 years.

Adding to your book collection

I made the point at the start of this post that book collecting does not need to be an expensive hobby. Unfortunately, it is seldom a completely free hobby either. If you are going to grow your collection (and the Anthony Davis Prize asks you to list five items you could realistically add to it) then you are going to need to spend some money. It does not, however, have to be a lot.

A collection of 'Chalet School' hardbacks and paperbacks in various states of repairHere I’m speaking from experience. The adjacent image shows my own collection – books in the ‘Chalet School’ Series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, originally published between 1925 and 1970. If you click to enlarge the photo, you’ll see these books have a variety of different histories. Some of them I bought new, as recently republished books. Some of them came from scouring second-hand book shops, or visiting sales at public libraries (a great source of pre-loved books!). More relevantly for this time of lockdown and self-isolation, some came from purchasing used books through sites like Amazon, eBay, and the more specialist AbeBooks.

If my focus had been just on collecting first editions, then I could easily have been spending hundreds of pounds at a time to build this collection. Instead, my focus has always been on ‘completing’ it – that is, owning every title in the series – which often meant spending only a couple of pounds on a cheaply made paperback. But it has also meant finding undervalued hardbacks, with or without the dustjackets, which has always given me a nerdy thrill. And it has meant connecting online with other people who collect the series, swapping titles that I’ve doubled up on with titles that they don’t need.

What happens next

Putting the Prize to one side for the moment, what happens next to your collection is up to you. If you are like me, then the size of your collection will be limited by the size of your bedroom, flat or house. My Chalet School collection still resides with my parents, as I have less living space as an adult than I did as a teen, and I have to have a strict one-in-one-out policy with new book purchases (well, strictish).

wooden shelves crammed full of books from Laurent Cruveillier's cookbook collectionBut you may also find that, as time goes on, you have fewer limits, and your hobby grows into a passion. In contrast to the smaller collections I’ve discussed above, here’s one from UCL Special Collections’ Project Conservator, Laurent Cruveillier. His intent was to create a collection of cookbooks signed by their authors, and over 25 years he has put together a collection of over 500 books, from the 19th century to today. His collection is vast enough to include a sub­-collection, of recipe booklets produced by American food and appliance companies.

Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself what it is about book collecting that you find fulfilling. Whether it’s the hunt for a title your collection is ‘missing’, the chance to connect with other people who share your interests, or simply owning books that you find special, book collecting should bring you joy.

Applying for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize

If you’ve got this far, you’re excited about book collecting, and you’re a student studying for a degree at a London-based university, you should absolutely consider entering the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize. In brief:

  • Applications are due by May 25, 2020
  • The winner will receive £600, an allowance of £300 to purchase a book for UCL Special Collections (in collaboration with library staff), and the opportunity to give a talk on and/or display of their collection as part of the UCL Special Collections events programme.
  • Applicants must fill in the Application Cover Sheet, appending an essay of not more than 500 words on their collection, a list of items in their collection, and a list of five items to add to their collection. More details on the requirements are listed in the cover sheet.

For more information on the Prize, including more information on how to enter and who qualifies for entry, please visit our website.

Further Reading:

With thanks to Laurent Cruveillier, Vicky Price and my parents for providing images of their own collections!