For 80 years, the Book-A-Year program has enabled book lovers to expand the library’s collection—and honor loved ones.
(Photo by Scott Cook)
Next time you’re browsing the stacks at Olin Library, take a moment to inspect the inside front cover of the book you’re holding. There you’ll find a 3-by-4-inch label—called a bookplate—that identifies the book as belonging to Rollins College.
Bookplates vary, depending on their age and the institution, program, or person they represent. Many feature shields, crests, birds, angels, helmets, and, of course, books.
Many of the bookplates at the Olin Library recognize donors of the Book-A-Year program, a school tradition dating back eight decades. For each contribution, the Olin purchases a new book every year in the name of that donor—or in the name of someone that donor wants to honor.
The current Book-A-Year bookplate features a crest at the center that contains simple depictions of a book and a pineapple, while above the crest swims a drawing of a dolphin. The pineapple, which also appears on the library’s stairway newel posts, is a symbol of welcome. The meaning of the dolphin, however, is a bit murkier.
“Two dolphins facing each other are on the outside of the [library] building,” says Jonathan Miller, director of the Olin Library. The dolphin, he adds, is the symbol, or press mark, of Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer in the late-15th and early-16th centuries who is famous for the first printed editions of many of the Greek and Latin classics. (He concedes, however, that this connection may be more serendipitous than intentional.)
These bookplates—and the donors behind them—have been powerful enough to help build the Olin’s collection.
Back in 1933, when Book-A-Year began, the cost to the donor was a tenth of what it is today. At that time, the program was called the Book-A-Year Club, and it did sort of function as a club. Founded by the school’s Professor of Books Edwin Osgood Grover and continued by Library Director William Yust, it held annual luncheons and special-occasion teas.
The 50th member of that book club was movie-star Mary Pickford, who was preparing for “the role of a librarian for a motion picture and visited the library on the Rollins College campus in 1952,” wrote Donna Cohen, the library’s former head of acquisitions, in a 1999 article. A few years later, Eleanor Roosevelt became a member to honor her late husband, President Franklin Roosevelt.
While early donors could designate the type of books they wanted to sponsor, nowadays, thanks to the principle of academic freedom, the title of the book is separated from the gift. Instead, faculty request books each year for the library to purchase.
The digital revolution poses a trickier issue: As physical books are gradually superseded by e-books, what will happen to the Olin’s grand tradition of the bookplate?
Miller isn’t sure.
“There is no online equivalent to the bookplate,” he concedes, “but we’re definitely thinking about this issue.” He adds that for the past few years, the library’s online catalog has been including the names of donors in its listings. But that, he acknowledges, isn’t really a solution. However, the library continues to buy thousands of print book title per year and expects to for many years to come, so the question does not require an urgent answer.
“We’re trying to think of a way to replicate the power of the program but in a digital environment,” he says. “It’s very difficult to do that.”
Miller certainly has a point. There’s something so moving, so real, about a bookplate that comes with a book you can cradle in your hands. And if the book is “in honor or memory of someone,” that only adds to the intensity of the experience, offers Olin archivist Darla Moore.
“It’s kind of humbling when you wander through the library and you’re just picking up a book and looking at this,” says Miller, glancing down at a bookplate. “You realize that unless that person had made that gift, that book probably wouldn’t be on the shelf.”