HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
The Passion and Perils of Book Collecting
By Alvin Powell
Harvard's libraries have so many books that they're crammed into spare rooms, dresser drawers, closets, and nooks and crannies all over the University -- and that's just the students' libraries.
Harvard is well-known for having the world's largest academic library. But what's less well-known is that Harvard students acquire and maintain quite impressive -- and sometimes quirky -- collections themselves.
Whether it's the science fiction, fantasy, or comic books kept in a former closet at Pforzheimer House by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the 20 or so editions of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in graduate student William Pannapacker's 19th-century Americana collection, or the bureau drawers full of children's literature kept in senior Jessica Hook's Quincy House room, Harvard students' collections are growing.
Though not widely known, the fact that some Harvard students actively collect books is no secret. In fact, several prizes exist at Harvard that recognize those with superior collections: the Philip Hofer Prize, awarded every other year for book or art collecting; the Harvard University Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting, awarded each spring; the William Plummer French Prize, for collections focusing on Africa or African-American culture and history; and a related prize, the William Harris Arnold and Gertrude Weld Arnold Prize, for the best essay reflecting the nature of book collecting.
Despite the prizes, it's still difficult to gauge how many collections are tucked away in student rooms -- on campus and off.
"It's very hard to say how many are ardently collecting on campus at any one time," said Anne Anninger, the Philip Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts in the Harvard College Library.
Together with Marjorie Cohn, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints in the University Art Museums, Anninger oversees the Hofer Prize. Established by Melvin Seiden '52, LLB '55, the prize was awarded last spring to Law School student Krassimira Zourkova, a Bulgarian whose collection was as remarkable for being gathered under great hardship -- her grandfather sometimes exchanged meat for books -- as it was for its volumes of classic literature.
Anninger said the conversation between applicants at the award dinner shows they have something in common.
"You realize all of them have been collecting since childhood. You hear them comparing notes on collecting bottle caps when they were a child," Anninger said.
The ways collections begin are as varied as the students who start them. Even so, most collections seem to have evolved, rather than sprung into existence after a decision to collect books on a particular subject.
The books are always tied to a passion of the collector, and often - - for precisely that reason -- to an academic or research interest.
William Pannapacker, a doctoral student in the history of American civilization, has about 3,000 books in his collection of 19th- century American authors. The centerpiece of his collection consists of about 140 books by and about Walt Whitman. The collection includes many different editions of Leaves of Grass, including the rare, unbound "deathbed edition" of 1892.
Pannapacker said he probably always collected books of some kind, starting with the volumes people gave him when he was a child. But he began actively collecting when he came to graduate school at Harvard to study authors like Walt Whitman.
"The collection really emerged along with my scholarly interests," Pannapacker said. "And once you get so far into it, it's hard to get out. After buying 100 volumes, it's hard not to buy those next few volumes."
Book collecting can also lead to collecting other kinds of items. Sophomore Trevor Cox, who collects books about the U.S. presidency, said his initial interest in Nixon and Watergate branched out to include books about other presidents and U.S. political history. Recently he's become interested in Thomas Jefferson and said he'd like to begin collecting presidential autographs.
"They're a lot easier to maintain and take up a whole lot less space," he said.
Several collectors cited the many stores that sell used books in the Cambridge and Boston area as a wonderful resource -- and a place to feed their habit.
Jessica Hook, who keeps her 700-book collection -- most of which are children's books - in a spare dresser and bookcase in the common room of her Quincy House suite, laughed when asked how she decides to add a book to her collection. "First of all, the term 'a book ' is not really applicable," Hook began, going on to describe her multi-book forays to Wordsworth and the Harvard Bookstore in search of volumes for older children and teens.
Though the collections start small, they eventually grow large enough to take on a life of their own. Though they started because of a particular interest, Hook's and Pannapacker's collections now include volumes they haven't read, that they have no intention of reading, or that are just plain bad. But the collection, in order to be complete, demands them.
"Some [children's book] writers are excellent. Others are by poorer writers who think children are stupid," said Hook.
Not all students go it alone in compiling their collections. Individual members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association have joined forces to build and maintain their library.
The Association's collection numbers 3,000 to 4,000 volumes, kept in a former closet reached -- appropriately enough -- through a reading room in Pforzheimer House. The collection, arranged alphabetically by author from Shale Aaron to Roger Zelazny, contains works of science fiction and fantasy, two genres whose boundaries have blurred so much it would be difficult to separate them, according to Internal Secretary Bryn Neuenschwander, a freshman who oversees the club's collection.
Neuenschwander said all club members have access to the library, which is kept secure with a combination lock. Books are checked out by writing the title and the borrower's name in a spiral-bound notebook hanging near the door. Neuenschwander said her big ideas for the collection have been diminished a bit by campus reality.
"I'd like to get this moved into a larger space, but given the space crunch on campus, I'm not very optimistic," Neuenschwander said, standing in the library's two cramped but neat bookshelf-lined aisles.
Though she takes care of it, Neuenschwander said she hasn't read many of the books in the Association's collection and spoke for many Harvard collectors who have been too busy with classes.
"I'm looking forward to reading period and exams so I can come up here and read more," she said.
Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College