Elizabeth Palazzolo’s ’11 dorm room was a little crowded Tuesday afternoon. A group of adults filed inside, squeezing around the Saybrook College sophomore’s bookshelf.
But when the conversation turned to the shelf’s contents, Palazzolo said, everyone was more at ease. Her guests were there to judge her collection of books on classical civilization, history and literature — a contender for and ultimately an honorable mention recipient of Yale’s Adrian Van Sinderen Book Collecting Prize.
“I was thrilled that part of the process was actually looking at the books,” Palazzolo said.
Over the course of the school year, nearly every Yalie acquires something of a miniature library — ancient philosophical treatises atop an Ikea bookshelf, economics textbooks leaning on a wooden mantelpiece, Russian literature piled in the corner of a dorm room. But for some students, book collecting is a more deliberate enterprise: They frequent used book stores or bargain online in pursuit of particular volumes.
And it is precisely these conscientious bibliophiles that the Adrian Van Sinderen prize seeks to reward. Collections from this year’s prize winners, who were announced Wednesday, included art books, books on tea and coffee culture and poetry from modern Kurdistan.
The prize’s namesake, Adrian Van Sinderen 1910, collected books “in grand style,” said Stephen Parks ’61, the chair of the prize’s judging committee and a self-professed lifelong book collector. Hoping to encourage undergraduate book collecting, in 1957 Van Sinderen established the prize, which has since served as a model for collegiate book collecting contests nationwide, explained Parks, who was a judge for the prize as an undergraduate and returned to the post as an alumnus in the 1970s.
Each year the prize is generally awarded to one senior and one sophomore, who receive $1,000 and $700 in prize money, respectively. This year the senior winner was Jessica Svendsen ’09, and the sophomore winner was George Bogden ’11. Rebecca Dinerstein ’09 was awarded second place for the senior prize, and Wookie Kim ’09 and Palazzolo received honorable mentions for their respective classes. Dinerstein, Kim and Palazzolo also received cash prizes for their collections.
The students were rewarded, above all, for the thoughtfulness and coherence of their collections, said Bill Reese ’77, a member of the judging committee.
“The most important thing to know about the prize is that it really has nothing to do with necessarily having rare or valuable books,” he said. The judges look for collections united by a particular genre, subject matter or author, explained Reese, who won the prize as both a sophomore and a senior and is now a rare book and manuscript dealer based in New Haven.
Though they achieve this unity individually, as a group, the winning collections vary vastly in both content and form, Reese said.
Palazzolo’s roughly 80-book collection is wide in chronological and thematic scope — the result of more than a dozen years of perusing bookstores, she said.
In contrast, of the two collections Svendsen submitted, about 40 or 50 books in total, the first focused on graphic design and typography and the second on the work of contemporary artist Kara Walker. Svendsen said she sees the books as art objects, but she also uses them as inspiration for her own endeavors in graphic design.
Though some of the winners said they consider themselves longtime collectors and bibliophiles, others simply said their collections emerged from their love of reading.
“I don’t know if I’ve thrown a book away,” said Bogden, who said he has “always” collected books. His collection of Kurdish poetry was four years in the making, he said.
Kim, who is originally from Korea and has lived in Hong Kong, China and Japan, said he has long held an interest in tea because of his background, and he more recently also became interested in the coffeehouse culture of early modern England. But the goal of submitting a collection to the Adrian Van Sinderen prize, he said, motivated him to develop his interest into a roughly 20-book collection on tea and coffee culture.
“I probably wouldn’t have had the idea to start this collection if I hadn’t heard about the prize,” he said.
Dinerstein said she did not see herself as a book collector, per se, before entering the contest. But during two recent summers spent in Ireland, she began a collection of Irish poetry — volumes she picked up in local bookstores or received from Irish poets she met as part of a fellowship during one of those summers.
This year’s five winners were selected from a pool that began with nearly 30 entrants and was narrowed down to nine final contenders based on essays the entrants wrote about their collections, Parks explained. On Tuesday, the eight-member judging committee — including, among others, staff members from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Yale Center for British Art, a School of Medicine professor and, as the prize rules stipulate, one undergraduate member of the Elizabethan Club — walked around campus to review the collections and interview the candidates before making their decision Tuesday evening.
Spencer Gray ’09, the undergraduate judge, noted that if a student’s collection is not physically located on campus, a list of the books in the collection and accompanying photographs are acceptable. However, the prize rules specify that collections acquired solely for academic courses are not acceptable.
And despite the growing prevalence of digital archives in the world of libraries and bookkeeping — and the rise of electronic book forms, such as the Amazon Kindle — judges and winners alike insisted the traditional book has a unique appeal and is here to stay.
“Primary sources are really, really vital,” said Basie Gitlin ’10, an avid book collector who won the Adrian Van Sinderen prize last year. “I think there’s always going to be a place for the material object.