The 2nd National Book Collecting Contest: An Interview with Justin Hanisch

Last week the winners of the 2nd Canadian National Book Collecting Contest were announced, and I was fortunate enough to be able to gather a Q&A from each young collector!

Justin Hanisch is a 27-year-old collector from Edmonton, Alberta currently pursuing a PhD in Ecology at the University of Alberta. His collection on The History of Fish placed 1st in this year’s contest, and though I have had the privilege of reading his entry, it has not yet been published by the Bibliographical Society of Canada so you will have to wait a little longer to see exactly how impressive this collection is! Take my word for it – it’s very impressive.

Justin & Deacon Foundation president John Meier.

When and how did you realize you were more than just a book-buyer or reader, that you were a book collector?  Can you elaborate on your discovery of book collecting as a discipline?

I was a reader from a young age, but I can remember the first book I bought for both its text and its appeal as an object.  I was probably 12 or 13 and found a beat-up, soft cover copy of Jed Davis’s Spinner Fishing for Salmon, Steelhead, and Troutat a library book sale.  I no longer collect fishing books, but this book still has a special place in my heart.  I bought it because I like fishing, but I also bought the book because the objectappeared to have lead an interesting life.  At that moment, I think I became a book collector— someone who buys books for both the text and the object.  I like to think I’ve refined my collecting since then, but I’m still very interested in the provenance and individual histories of the books in my collection.

For the past 5 or so years, I’ve started to read books about books fairly heavily.  I really like bookseller memoirs and book collector biographies, like A.S.W. Rosenbach’s Books and Biddersand Donald C. Dickinson’s Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries.  Reading books like these has really helped me to learn about and appreciate the history of the book trade and book collecting as a discipline.

Do you have a preferred method of acquiring books for your collection? 

In theory, book fairs and book stores are my preferred method of acquiring books, but in practice, I have to rely on the internet.  Most general shops and regional book fairs don’t have a large stock of old fish books, so I have a variety of regular eBay searches.  I also have a few dealers whose websites I frequent and whose catalogues I receive.

How do you think internet resources (like eBay, and online auction houses) have affected book collecting?

I think the internet has benefited collectors tremendously.  It has revealed that a lot of books thought to be scarce are really quite common, which benefits me as a collector through lower prices.  The internet has also resulted in a huge flood of books, which previously would have been offered through expert book dealers, being offered by novice dealers.  This results in a lot of bad material being poorly described but also results in a lot of good material being poorly described.  With thorough research and careful questions, some excellent books can be purchased for very little money.

The internet also makes research materials easily available.  The University of Alberta has online access to American Book Prices Current, which I reference frequently.  I also make use of digitized books, often through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, to compare books I’m interested in purchasing with other examples.  Interlibrary loan is also a great way to request bibliographies and other materials through the internet.  I do hate wading through legions of print-on-demand books that flood searches, though.

Did your decision to study ecology (and fish) follow your collection, or pre-date it?

About the time I decided to study fish at university, I decided to refocus my collection from books on fish and fishing to books exclusively on fish.  I’ve since sold a lot of my fishing books and put the money toward books specifically about fish.  However, I have retained in my collection some specially chosen fishing books that reveal something interesting about fish.  For example, I have a fishing book in my collection from 1884 that lists many places in Michigan (my home state) to catch Michigan grayling.  The Michigan grayling is now extinct through anthropogenic actions, so the book remains testament to a beautiful species that was wantonly destroyed.

Do you have any other subjects that you “collect”?

Although almost all my collecting budget goes into my fish books, I do have small collections of books about books and first editions of Canadian literature.  If money were no barrier, I would rapidly expand both those collections, and I’d love to assemble a library of every book Darwin referenced in his On the Origin of Species.

If you could add any single book to your collection, regardless of cost or availability, what would it be?

There are several books that come to mind.  There are some incredible colour plate books like the folio edition of Bloch’s Allgemeine Naturgeschichte der Fische, and Cuvier’s Histoire Naturelle des Poissons.  I also covet some early works from the 16thand 17thcenturies. But, I think the one book I’d choose is Rafinesque’s Ichthyologia Ohiensispublished in Kentucky in 1820.  The book is rare; no copies are currently on line, American Book Prices Current lists only 4 auction records (three of which appear to be the same copy), and there are very few copies in institutional libraries.  So, the book is quite uncommon and also very early for a book printed in North America on North American fishes.  But, there is an even more interesting story behind the book.  Rafinesque was an acquaintance of John James Audubon and reportedly destroyed one of Audobon’s favorite violins while using it in an attempt to capture a bat.  In revenge, Audubon made up descriptions of fictional fish and gave them to Rafinesque to publish in his Ichthyologia Ohiensisas a practical joke.  I love this story, and combined with the book’s rarity, I think it’s my “holy grail.”

 How did you hear about the National Book Collecting Contest, and how did you initially feel about your odds of placing?

I’m a member of the Alcuin Society, and at the time of the first National Book Collecting Contest, members of the Alcuin Society were ineligible to apply.  I saw the second contest advertised in Amphora, and the statement disqualifying Alcuin members was absent.  So, I decided to apply.  In fact, I was quite excited by the contest and had finished and submitted my entry a couple months before the deadline!

I was cautiously hopeful that I would place in the contest.  Books and fish are my primary passions, and as such, I have spent a lot of my time reading about books in general and fish books in particular.  I felt I was knowledgeable about books and had assembled a decent collection, so if I could craft a good essay, I hoped that I would place.  Needless to say, I was delighted to win!

Any opinions on how to encourage other young people to take up collecting?

I’m not sure it’s fruitful to encourage someone to collect who isn’t already predisposed to it.  Of all the people who’ve I’ve talked to about my collection, not a single one has said, “Boy, that sounds like fun, I think I’ll collect books!”  That being said, I do see an encouraging number of young people at book fairs and book stores.  These young people are the ones likely most amenable to learning more about book collecting as a discipline.  I think a “Young Collector’s Booth” could be set up at book fairs to hand out free electronic copies of books on books that are in the public domain (like A. Edward Newton’s Amenities of Book Collecting).  The same booth could have a contest to win current books on collecting, like ABC for Book Collectorsor books by Nicholas Basbanes.  There is also a large infrastructure of University-level book collecting contests in the States.  I think Canadian universities could sponsor similar contests.

It should also be stressed to potential collectors that you don’t need a lot of money to collect books.  There are countless under-collected or non-collected fields in which a new young collector could quickly become an authority.  Such collections may also serve as important sources for future historians.  But, I will echo the advice I often hear: collect something you are passionate about.  A successful collection requires a good deal of research, which can be exciting and rewarding in a topic of interest, but tedious without a driving passion.  If your passion falls into an under (or non) collected area, then you’ve potentially hit the jackpot!


Read my interview with 2nd place winner Gregory Robert Freeman here,  and 3rd place winner Kieran Fox here!

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