By Anke Timmermann, Type & Forme

Excerpt from a letter from Anke's family archive, 10 October 1899, sent from Siromboe to Germany, Copyright Anke Timmermann
I am typing this blog at my desk, a strong cup of coffee at my right elbow and a sizeable stack of applications at my left, soon to be annotated in my trademark illegible hand and sorted into three piles: ‘to be interviewed’, ‘interesting’, and ‘unfortunately not’. It is the peak of book collecting prize season.
Over the years, the ‘young’ collections I have assessed as a book collecting prize judge have shown, time and again, how exciting book collecting can be – not only for the collector! But what is it that makes a rare book collection exciting and unique?
This is the first in a short series of blog posts that will look into this and many other questions from my personal perspective, that is, through the eyes of a rare bookseller and book collecting prize judge, and of someone who once caught the book collecting bug at a young age.

Anke at Cambridge University Library, where she is a judge on the Rose Book Collecting Prize. Copyright Anke Timmermann.jpeg 17.15 KB


I don’t think any collector ever forgets the book that started an obsession. It may have been a gift, or perhaps something that simply had to be taken home from a market stall or bookshop, a book that was immediately unputdownable, or one that only revealed its history and secrets with time. In my case, it is a clutch of letters written by my great-grandfather from a small island in Indonesia to his future mother-in-law, thanking her trusting him with her daughter’s happiness in their future life together. They had briefly met, he thinks, and hopes that his bride will recognise him when she arrives by boat, soon... but that is a story for another day. Suffice to say that travel books are now one of my specialties as an antiquarian bookseller.

E M Forster's Alexandria A History and a Guide, published in Alexandria in 1922. Copyright Type and Forme.jpeg 15.63 KB

What to Expect When You’re Collecting

So you have a special interest. What next? It seems that, in theory, there are two schools of collecting: ‘Following A List’ and ‘Following One’s Nose’. They are exactly what they sound like: the first looks to complete a collection of, say, first editions by a particular author, and perhaps – if they are not so rare as to escape the collector’s skill or budget – especially signed, inscribed, or association copies in very good condition. The second approach looks more generally for books, manuscripts, or ephemera that catch the collector’s eye, and this will build a less pre-defined, more complex collection. In practice, most collectors follow a combination of the two.

What seems to get most collectors’ pulses racing is finding books they did not know they were looking for. This may seem to be a paradox, but the combination of a collector’s developing interests, their increasing skill in finding treasures, and their persistence will turn an unstructured search into an intention, and pure chance into a good prospect. Let the hunt begin!

A Word of Warning

There will always be books that are out of reach or snatched up by someone else first. Just like the first significant book in their collection, no collector will forget the books that got away, either. But by and large, the surprises and successes will outweigh the disappointments.


So, what gets my pulse racing when reading book collecting prize applications? A collection that is built with genuine interest and curiosity, and one that only that particular collector could have developed in that particular way.

And on that note, I will return to my pile of applications. Actually, I do not need that coffee. My pulse is starting to race already.

Top image:
Excerpt from a letter from Anke's family archive, 10 October 1899, sent from Siromboe to Germany. Copyright Anke Timmermann.

Please note, the views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the individual contributor(s) and not necessarily those of the PBFA.
Date Published 14th February 2023
Uploaded By PBFA
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