Giving Something Back: Prizes encourage a new generation of book collectors

Book Collecting Prizes
by Sarah Bennett

Universities in USA started the trend in the 1930s with the A. Edward Newton Student Book Collecting Competition at Swarthmore College; the first endowed, and longest-running book collecting prize. The number of prizes picked up in the 1960s. Fifty years later, Book Collecting competitions finally arrived in England with the Rose Book Collecting Prize at Cambridge University, endowed in 2006 by Professor James H. Marrow and Dr Emily Rose, in honour of Daniel and Joanna Rose. Since then many other prestigious universities have followed suit in England and Scotland.

Anthony Davis, graduate of the University of London, has been an indefatigable champion of student book collecting, and generously sponsors book collecting prizes in London and Oxford. Bill Zachs is the still more generous endower of four prizes in Scotland; and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, like its US counterpart, now promotes a prize-winners’ prize across the UK.

“These prizes are a wonderful way for young collectors to make contact with the book collecting world”, says Davis. “Collecting books can be an isolated business: it is rarely good for dinner party conversation and there are relatively few social events dedicated to book lovers. Prizes help young collectors recognise that they are not alone or (excessively) eccentric or at least that if they are, it is not because of the book collecting. We try and make sure that the students who enter the prizes get a chance to talk to the judges and even sometimes to each other. There is a lot of benefit from talking with other enthusiasts - it broadens the outlook and helps to identify the best sources for books (even if there is a rival present!). Other book collectors can be good company too.”

It is customary for the competitions to be named for prominent figures from the University’s history or, as in the US, for the person providing the prize. The most recent addition is the Tony Fothergill Prize in York, sponsored by Tony Fothergill, the proprietor of Ken Spelman Books.

Colin Franklin, distinguished author, book collector and bookseller, is honoured by the Colin Franklin Book Collecting Prize at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. The David Murray Prize is named for the Glaswegian lawyer and book collector who donated 15,000 books and 200 manuscripts to his city’s university in 1927. St. Andrews named their prize for James David Forbes (1808-1869), an eminent scientist and College Principal, whose collection was presented to the University in 1929.

At Harvard University there are two competitions for Book Collecting. One is The Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting, established in 1977 and sponsored by the Members of the Board of Overseers Committee to Visit the Harvard Library. The other is named for Philip Hofer, who earned the nickname “prince of the eye” after a long and unique career collecting books and art. Entrants for this prize are encouraged to consider Hofer’s legacy and submit collections that “best exemplify the traditions of breadth, coherence and imagination” he represents. Some US universities have separate prizes for graduates and undergraduates and perhaps in due course the take up of prizes in the UK will justify this. Meanwhile, as prizes are often awarded as much for the promise of the book collector as other factors, younger collectors with enthusiasm and originality are often the winners.

Regardless of their location, the competitions are aligned in aim and purpose: to promote collecting for enjoyment and to encourage students develop their private collections, thus protecting this valued cultural pastime.

Students are judged on bibliographies and cover essays and challenged to demonstrate thought and ingenuity in assembling a thematically coherent collection. Many judging panels also hear presentations from a shortlist of applicants. Collections developed solely for academic courses are not generally sufficient to win a prize. Student submissions are regularly praised for their sophistication, however beginners should not be discouraged as consideration is given for the youth of the collectors and it is accepted that some collections may be in their infancy. Accordingly, the value of the collection is expressly not a factor and there are few limitations on theme or age.

The result is a fascinating plethora of submissions from both sides of the Atlantic, with collection titles such as “A Collection of Eugene Walter; King of the Monkeys” (Luke Kelly, Harvard, 2017 Winner), “Exploring Remotest Asia” (Anthony Wilder Wohns, Cambridge, 2017 Winner), “Visual Legacy of Late 20th Century Science Fiction” (Henry Weikel, Berkeley, 2017 Winner), “Animals in Print c.1700-1900” (Sky Duthie, York, 2017 Winner), “The Soviet Experience, Printed Artifacts of the Former USSR” (Alexander Jacobson, Yale, 2017 Winner), and “The Lost Works of Dr. John H. Watson” (Helen Yang, Harvard, 2016 Winner).

The prizes for these young winners are significant, especially to a student’s budget. British universities offer up to £750 to the winner, some American Colleges offer up to $3,000 for first place.

Last year's winner of the UK’s National Prize was Astrid Khoo who won the Anthony Davis Prize at London University for her collection of classical texts. One of her rewards, in addition to the cash, was an exhibition of her books at the Senate House Library which entailed organising the exhibits and writing the labels. “So, the students potentially get quite a lot of good experience out of the prize beyond the obvious,” said Davis.

Its not just the students who benefit from these awards. Many of the UK prizes now have a feature which the North American ones lack. The idea came from Bill Zachs, who introduced it in the prizes he sponsors in Scotland and which Davis copied in England. Zachs explains: “The idea is to encourage book collecting in its widest sense and to promote the idea of giving something back. To this latter end, a part of the annual funding is given to the special collections department to buy a book collaboratively with the student in whose name the book is given to the institution.”

Anthony Davis agrees the key to a successful prize is the enthusiasm of the librarians and organisers. “Putting in the time to publicise the prize properly and to time the judging process well in advance leads to lots of entrants and a rewarding time for the judges.”

Unfortunately, this combination of enthusiasm, support and resources is not easy to maintain. More than twenty competitions from institutions, including Cornell University and UC San Diego, have been cancelled in the past decade due to declining numbers of applicants and a wandering focus from organisers.

For this reason, Bill Zachs’ innovative idea to “give something back” becomes all the more perceptive. Libraries need resources, along with dedication and passion, to support their students and guide them on the fulfilling journey of book collecting.

Anthony Davis shares his hopes for the future; “Let's hope that more universities join the cavalcade. Come on Manchester, Durham ... and what about Dublin?” Here at The Book Collector we are thrilled at the prospect of a fresh, motivated generation of new collectors. It is our sincere hope that these competitions continue to succeed and multiply. Any budding collectors or former prize winners who wish to get in touch and share details of their experience will be more than welcome. Contact Sarah Bennett at

You can view a full list of current US and USA prizes on our Prizes page.

The Book Collector Podcasts

Articles from our Archive brought to life in audio - listen now via

Subscribe    -    Current Issue    -    Podcasts

Flower Icon