A family activity rare in this day and age — singing around the piano — inspired the collection of this year’s winner of the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting. Harvard student Robin Worth Reinert ’10 has been awarded first prize for her entry “Songs That Never Die: Community Songbooks in America.”
“I’ve loved community singing since I was a toddler. My family used to sit around the piano and sing old American songs,” writes Reinert in her competition essay. “My mom played the piano, my dad sang bass, and I sang soprano. We would really ham it up — my dad wearing a bowler hat and playing a kazoo for the song ‘Hello Ma Baby’ and me singing descant on ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”
Community sings, explains Reinert, used to take place all over the country, with groups gathered in their homes, public spaces, or the town square to sing together, sometimes with the town band. As Reinert grew up, she realized that other families didn’t gather around the piano as hers did, but that didn’t lessen her enthusiasm for the songs.
“I forget what age I was when I went beyond enjoying songbooks and started collecting them,” she says. She began by taking American community songbooks out of the library and photocopying songs she liked. Seeing how serious she was, her parents gave her the family collection. “Now that I know about Abebooks.com and eBay, I’m slowly buying the books from which I previously copied.”
Reinert’s songbook collection spans the mid-1800s to the present, and also includes ephemera and scholarly and historical books. “I collect community songbooks to rediscover and preserve their living, neglected music, and also because the books give me a sense — with their introductions, the songs they choose to include, even their covers — of the ways people sang together.”
Her future plans for her collection? “I want to rescue abandoned songs of the past few centuries. I want to publish my own community songbook, a book of all the songs I love, including all the obscure, beautiful songs that I find in my explorations,” says Reinert. “I want my book to be worthy to sit next to all the beautiful, living songbooks that I have seen.”
Students competing for the book collection prize were asked to submit an annotated bibliography and an essay that spoke to issues such as early collecting efforts, influence of mentors, the experience of searching for items, organization and care of items, and future direction of the collection. Sixteen students declared their intention to enter the competition and seven submitted their work for consideration. The jury consisted of Heather Cole, librarian of Lamont Library, Laura Farwell Blake, research librarian in Widener Library, and Martin Schreiner, head, Morse Music & Media, Lamont Library.
The Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting was established in the spring of 1977 to recognize and encourage book collecting by undergraduates at Harvard. It is sponsored by the members of the Board of Overseers’ Committee to Visit the Harvard University Library. Cole, who has coordinated the competition since its inception, annually selects a jury with noted bibliographic expertise from among Harvard College Library staff.
An exhibition featuring items from Reinert’s collection will be on display in Lamont Library on Level 4 beginning in early June and running through May 2008.