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Four Recognized with Undergraduate Book Collecting Prize

The winners of the 2016 Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting met recently with members of this year’s jury.

Undergraduate Book Collecting Prize winners

Luke Kelly’s first encounter with Eugene Walter was in the summer of 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. “I was working at an antiques gallery monthly estate sale when I noticed an old wooden sign that read ‘Down in Mobile they’re all crazy—Eugene Walter.’ Looking around at all of the senior citizens shopping for what-nots, used food blenders, and books, I was struck by the astuteness of Mr. Walter’s observation and asked the gallery’s owner, Charles, who was to credit for this accurate quip.” Charles gave him a brief introduction to Eugene Walter and brought him a copy of Eugene’s The Untidy Pilgrim to read the next day.

This was the start of Kelly’s “A Collection of Eugene Walter, King of the Monkeys,” which was recently awarded first place in the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting.

“I was fascinated by Eugene’s wit and unique style of prose that captured the magic of Mobile,” Kelly said. As William Faulkner was to the Delta and Oxford, Mississippi, Kelly believes Eugene Walter was to the Coastal South and Mobile, Alabama. “During his life, Eugene became Mobile’s Renaissance man and greatest ambassador to the world. Through collecting his works and sharing his story, I hope to help others find the same delight in Eugene that I have found.”

“All of the entries that we got this year were top-notch, so it was hard to pick among them,” said environmental research librarian George Clark, one of three judges who reviewed the submissions. Susan Fliss, associate university librarian for research, teaching and learning, and Katherine Leach, librarian for Western languages collections in Widener Library, also served as judges for this year’s competition. “These four entries had both high quality and a breadth of support across all the judges that enabled us to come to consensus,” Clark said.

For second-place winner Meg Panetta, it was her lifelong fascination with growing things that inspired her collection, “A Field Guide to Life: My Identity and the World of Plants.” From pamphlets through handheld field guides to a dual-volume encyclopedia, Panetta's collection is an organic representation of the way she engages with her love of flora. “As a student of physics, I seek out rules and schema to explain what I see around me, but this impulse does not originate with my concentration: a long-standing interest in plants has pervaded my childhood, my academic choices, and the identity I am shaping today.”

Upon arriving at Harvard, senior and third-place winner Alexander Farrow joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program: “Although I was nervous about starting this journey, I knew that I had wanted a military career.” His collection, “Warfare: History, Theory, and Counterterrorism,” which he started shortly before he entered Harvard, reflects the goals he’s set for himself. “Without a doubt,” he said, “the collection has truly impacted my personal and professional development. With each new acquisition, I gain a new understanding of my academic and professional ambitions. The collection exposes me to a new world, culture, and lifestyle; it only affirms—even to this day—that I truly want to serve my country as a counterterrorism pilot.”

Patrick Hogan, who shared third-place honors, started his collection even earlier than Farrow, during his sophomore year in high school. “The Royal Road to Romance: A Journey Collecting Travel and Adventure Books” began with a trip to a bookshop he describes as “three stories of chaos.” It was here that Hogan discovered early-20th-century writer and world traveler Richard Haliburton. “He was the consummate romantic, whose writings preserve the optimism of the Jazz Age and the existence of a world that still contained parts unknown.” Through equal measures of serendipity and detective work, Hogan tracked down more of Haliburton’s books, and his adventure-filled collection grew. To him, the heart of these books’ appeal is “a devil-may-care attitude to facing adversity. Travel isn’t easy, and traveling at the turn of the 20th century was much harder, but the way these books are written seldom lets the drudgery of travel interfere with the excitement of what lies ahead.”

At the event, each winner was presented a cash prize—$3,000 for first prize, $1,500 for second, and $750 for third—and a copy of Among the Gently Mad: Strategies and Perspectives for the Book Hunter in the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas A. Basbanes. In addition, prizewinners were each given a book specially selected to complement their collection.

Established in 1977, the Visiting Committee Prize for Undergraduate Book Collecting is awarded annually to recognize and encourage book collecting by undergraduates at Harvard. The prize is sponsored by the Members of the Board of Overseers' Committee to Visit the Harvard Library. Students competing for the book collecting prize submit an essay with annotated bibliography on their collecting efforts, such as the influence of mentors, along with the experience of searching for, organizing, and caring for items, and the future direction of the collection.

An exhibition featuring items from the winners' collections will be on display on the second and third floors of Lamont Library starting May 23.

Article written by Lynn Sayers, Administration and Events Coordinator, Lamont Library.

Article published on April 27, 2016.