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Collector's edition

Book prize honouring Scottish antiquary, David Laing inspired by alumnus’ love of collecting, history, Edinburgh and books.

Bill Zachs

Dr William Zachs came from the US to study in Edinburgh in the 1980s, graduating with an MSc in 1985 and a PhD in 1989. Now an Honorary Fellow in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures and the patron of the David Laing Student Book Collecting Prize, Bill is keen to share his love of books and inspire future generations of collectors, curators, and donors to the University’s collections.

Scotland and Scott

As a boy in Connecticut, Bill amassed and traded baseball cards. He wasn’t, at this time, a true collector as his passion for the Boston Red Sox fueled his interest in the cards.

It wasn’t until he arrived in Edinburgh that the collecting bug really took hold. A fascination with Sir Walter Scott predated his arrival in Scotland - having first read Waverley as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley - but it was Edinburgh that gave this fascination form and focus.

Enticed by the Dickensian feel of Edinburgh’s Lane Sales, Bill’s first purchases were first editions of Scott’s Waverley Novels. He has collected books and Sir Walter Scott memorabilia ever since.

In 2013 Dr Zachs' curated the exhibition and wrote the catalogue for ‘Breathes there the Man’, Sir Walter Scott 200 Years since Waverley, which drew together 25 years of collecting to present a story of Scott’s life through art, antiques, manuscripts and books.

Fair intellectuals

A more recent exhibition illustrating and exploring an early 18th-century Edinburgh women's reading group, the Fair Intellectual Club, also drew together items from Bill’s collection including a rare pamphlet describing the Club's origin and the format of its meetings. The pamphlet was published in 1720 after the clandestine group were exposed by their male counterpart Club, The Athenian Society.

Lucy Porter’s play about the Club, which premiered at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, used this original pamphlet at a special performance of the play in Bill's library in 2015.

Prize giving

David Laing manuscript collection
The shelves housing the Laing Collection in the Treasures Room, on the 5th floor of the Centre for Research Collections © The University of Edinburgh.

Last year, Bill decided to share this love of collecting and curating by funding a book collecting prize at the University of Edinburgh. All current students are invited to enter their personal collections of books or other materials for the chance to win £500, and a £250 allowance to acquire a book for the University's Special Collections.

The prize is offered in honour of David Laing (1793 -1878), the distinguished antiquarian, collector and librarian who bequeathed his important collection of manuscripts and other materials to the University of Edinburgh in 1878.

Despite this illustrious heritage, Bill is keen to stress that the age or value of the student collection is not paramount. What is important is the originality, thoughtfulness and creativity of the collection, allied to the vision and persistence of the collector.

Neverending quest

As well as preparing a study of the publications of the Rev. Hugh Blair, the first professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh, and providing seminars for the MSc in Book History and Material Culture, Bill Zachs is still searching for wonderful books, manuscripts and artefacts and still driven by the collecting bug that began with baseball cards and Scott’s Waverley Novels.