Celebrating Creativity in Classification

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, October 30, 2014 | Go to article overview

Celebrating Creativity in Classification


As book-collecting prizes bloom, Matthew Reisz hears why such bibliophilia must be encouraged

Student book-collecting prizes, run by universities or their libraries, took a long time to reach the UK.

They seem to have started in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1920s and are now fairly common in American universities. Yet it was not until 2006 that an endowment from Emily Rose and James Marrow, an American academic couple, enabled Cambridge University Library to create its own Rose Book-Collecting Prize - believed to be the first in Europe - in honour of Dr Rose's parents. Open to all undergraduate and graduate students at Cambridge, it is designed to recognise not the most valuable set of books but the one which best demonstrates "the intelligence and originality" and "coherence" of the collection and "the thought, creativity and persistence" of the collector.

The eight winners to date have specialised in everything from "Landmarks of Classical scholarship" to "Japanese popular publications" and "Canvassing books".

The latest winner, Christopher White of Darwin College, for his collection "Eugenics in the 20th century", described in the essay that formed part of his submission how "it is easy enough to nod and forget that the eugenics movement was no Nazi peculiarity and was instead a worldwide phenomenon agreed on by leading scientists and the public alike. Indeed, Germany was not the first country to write eugenics into law and their policies were strongly influenced by the United States, a country that sterilised more people than Germany ever did."

Fascinated by "this combination of distaste and wilful forgetfulness", Mr White embarked on his prizewinning collection of books on eugenics, which "range from well-known portrayals of eugenics in fiction and non-fiction to lesser known items by plant breeders, cult science fiction authors and evolutionary biologists". He hopes that it "will encourage a more informed discussion of eugenics, not just as a mistake to be forgotten, but as a lens through which we can view our future. After all, in an age where at least one country has started to screen and voluntarily abort embryos with specific genetic defects, it is best not to forget our own countries' dark pasts."

A shadow over the stacks

This may represent only a modest start, but there are signs that such prizes are beginning to gather momentum.

Anthony Davis, a retired lawyer, has been a book collector since his schooldays, with a particular interest in English fine bindings before 1820 - and "books with a story attached". When a friend told him he was sponsoring a student book-collecting prize in the US, he started reflecting on why the idea had hardly caught on in Britain - and decided to sponsor two of his own in the institutions where he had studied. Hence the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford presented the first Colin Franklin Book Collecting Prize earlier this year, while the University of London's first Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize was announced this month. …

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