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What Drives Us to Collect?

The psychology of collecting is both fascinating and enlightening.  What we collect can often provide others with meaningful insight into our personality and our life experiences.  For many, the term “collecting” tends to conjure up ideas of acquiring things of value to be sold at a later date.  For the collector, however, it’s rarely ever about the money.  In fact, most of the value derived from a collection is almost always emotional.

Collecting frequently has its source in childhood.  Children of my generation usually collected stamps, coins, marbles, maybe even yo-yos or the odd comic book or three.  I had a preference for stamps, due largely to a fascination with printed design but probably also the result of growing up in the country.  Minimal exposure to television and associated advertising undoubtedly influenced my collecting behaviour.  A “city” friend of mine, on the contrary, collected Star Wars cards and figurines.  Collectible items can differ vastly in value and form and fads will continue to come and go over generations, however, one constant remains - the connection between childhood hobbies and adult collecting.  I now collect printed books and my friend collects model trains and associated figurines.

Have you ever considered whether you are a collector?  Many of us are and we don’t even realise it.  Indeed, most experts agree that two of a similar themed item constitutes a pair; three is considered to be a collection.  It’s a simple definition, though, and what it fails to acknowledge is that there must be a genuine interest in the object collected and what it actually represents.  Without this, we would all be considered collectors of socks, cutlery, pegs and pens.  In fact, “need” has very little to do with what we collect; it’s desire that sparks the collecting bug.

There are many different types of collectors.  There are those who buy, sell and trade their items; an investor of sorts who has very little emotional attachment to his or her collection.  There are those who inherit a collection from a friend or relative and those who simply enjoy the “thrill of the hunt”, where the journey to the market or second-hand shop is, in itself, enough to satisfy the desire.  More often than not, though, the joy for this type of collector is also in “getting a bargain”.  There are those who prefer to acquire just a few of the finest pieces, where condition is paramount; those who consider themselves preservationists, where meaning is derived from “saving” an object and caring for it properly for as long as possible; and finally, those who can only be described as obsessive or “maximalist” collectors.

For most people collecting is a choice.  For the obsessive collector, there’s often a fine line between collecting and hoarding, the latter tending to be not only compulsive but also reflective of a fear of scarcity.  For most people, maintaining a collection is enjoyable, even relaxing; for the maximalist, it can lead to severe social problems, including complete withdrawal from all human contact.  For these people, a collection begun, never actually ends.

For the majority of collectors, however, acquiring treasured objects is a positive experience and one which can provide life-long enjoyment.  It provides us with valuable, transferable skills such as searching, acquiring, organising, cataloguing, displaying, storing, maintaining and even selling precious items.  It often brings people with similar interests together; it expands our knowledge and capacity for learning; it can reduce stress and encourage relaxation and, for many who collect items of age, it satisfies a wistful affection for items from a period in the past.

Cabinet 9

Royal Characters from the Works of Sir Walter Scott: Historical and Romantic. Selected and Arranged by T. Dobson. London: Bickers & Son, 1881 Publisher’s red cloth over bevelled boards. Black and gold-stamped cover border surrounding similarly blocked title. Central gilt pictorial illustration of James V. of Scotland being attacked by a stag whilst hunting. Spine with ornate title block and gilt illustration of Mary Queen of Scots. All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

Royal Characters from the Works of Sir Walter Scott: historical and romantic.  Selected and arranged by T. Dobson. 1881

Coridon’s Song and Other Verses. Illustrations by Hugh Dobson and an Introduction by Austin Dobson. London: Macmillan Co. 1894 Publisher’s dark green cloth with exquisite gold-stamped illustration of an angler by a creek, which appears again at page 21.  Gold-stamped title and further pictorial illustration to the spine.  All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

Coridon’s Song and Other Verses.  Illustrations by Hugh Dobson and an introduction by Austin Dobson. 1894

The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. George Gordon Byron. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Undated but circa 1886 Publisher’s orange cloth over bevelled boards.  Embellished title block to spine with additional black and gold-stamped floral decoration.  Cover with similar embellishment, including author’s name (in relief) within a gold-blocked panel.  This cover design, with the first letter of the author’s name ornately blocked and surrounded by stylised flowers, was used regularly by publishers, Thomas Y. Crowell.  It can be seen again on Hemans' book below.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of Lord Byron.  George Gordon Byron. Undated but circa 1886

The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans: With Memoir, Explanatory Notes, etc. Felicia Dorothea Hemans. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Undated but circa 1890 Publisher’s blue cloth with embellished title block to spine and further black and gold-stamped floral decoration.  Cover with similar embellishment, including author’s name (in relief) within a gold-blocked panel.  Note the Art Nouveau influence in the stylised leaves to the cover and spine.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of Mrs. Hemans: with memoir, explanatory notes, etc.  Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Undated but circa 1890

The Golden Censer, or, the Duties of To-day and the Hopes of the Future. John McGovern. Chicago: Union Publishing House. 1890 Publisher’s rich brown cloth, elegantly blind stamped with a border of tree branches and a background townscape. Title stamped in gold with additional pictorial illustration reflective of the book’s contents. All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Golden Censer, or, the Duties of To-day and the Hopes of the Future.  John McGovern. 1890

Fifty Celebrated Men: Their Lives and Trials, and the Deeds that Made Them Famous. London: Ward, Lock, and Co. Undated but circa 1884 Publisher’s green cloth with elaborate, black background stamping, highlighting birds and plants in relief.  Central embellished title block surrounded by further gilt leaves and flowers.  Large title block to spine, with lettering in relief and further decorative gilt illustrative panel.  All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

Fifty Celebrated Men: their lives and trials, and the deeds that made them famous. Undated but circa 1884

The Poetical Works of John Milton. From the Texts of Thomas Newton. London: George Routledge and Sons. Undated but circa 1853 Publisher’s brown cloth over bevelled boards with stamped black flowers and leaves to cover and spine.  Embellished title block to both spine and cover, along with ornate centrepiece blocked in green, red and gold and surround by further black stamped border.  All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of John Milton.  From the text of Thomas Newton. Undated but circa 1853

The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope: With Memoir, Explanatory Notes, etc. By the Author, Warburton, and Others. Boston: D. Lothrop & Co. 1883 Publisher’s royal blue cloth over bevelled boards. Black-stamped floral border to cover, encapsulating a further black-stamped border of fine leaves and flowers, with a central blocked embellishment. Title block to spine and a similarly gilt-decorated author panel to cover showcasing Pope’s name in relief. All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope: with memoir, explanatory notes, etc.  By the author, Warburton, and others. 1883

The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson: Poet Laureate. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. Undated but circa 1880 Publisher’s red cloth over bevelled boards.  Black-stamped decorative borders to cover and spine; that latter also with gilt title block.  Central gilt and black floral panels surrounding cover title which appears in relief.  All edges gilt.
Curator's Collection

The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson; poet laureate.  Alfred Tennyson. Undated but circa 1880
Rare Books & Special Collections
Address

The University of Adelaide
Rare Books & Special Collections
Level 1, Barr Smith Library
South Australia 5005
Australia

Contact

Phone: +61 8 8313 5224
library_special@adelaide.edu.au