Influencer, bibliophile returns to career-sparking contest at KU Libraries

Allie Alvis turns the vibrantly colored pages of a 168-year-old book and more than 103,000 people respond—the video about a Victorian-era book posted on Instagram via Alvis’ @Book_Historia platform, inspires awe and sparks comments and questions. Some ask how they can learn more, others share what the book means to them, still others ask where they can find a digital copy. 

This is the opportunity Alvis is passionate about creating. Alvis, a KU alum who graduated in 2013, returns to campus April 30 as the keynote speaker for KU Libraries’ Snyder Book Collecting Contest, which is celebrating 66 years of encouraging student book collections and is now accepting student entries through April 2

Allie AlvisAlvis was a junior studying Linguistics when they entered the Snyder Contest in 2012, and to their surprise, won first place in the undergraduate division. Along with some much-appreciated prize money, the experience offered them something even more valuable—the opportunity to think deeply about their interests and career path. Now Curator of Special Collections at Winterthur Library, Alvis works with unique and historic collections every day and brings rare books to the masses via social media, sparking learning and inspiring more than 185,000 followers on Instagram.   

A Wichita native, Alvis grew up “surrounded by Jayhawks,” though their time at KU was not the traditional undergraduate path. 

“I took a somewhat circuitous route,” Alvis said. “I dropped out of three other colleges before I figured out how to do academia.” 

Part of the challenge was determining what direction they wanted to go, but once they got to KU, a path was forming.  

“I learned so much about myself and my interests at KU,” Alvis said. “And it’s really not an exaggeration to say that the Snyder Book Collecting Competition was my very first foray into books as a field.” 

As Alvis put together their submission to the Snyder Contest, carefully selecting which books to include and preparing the annotated bibliography to accompany their entry, they began to think more about book collections and their interest in them. Their winning collection “Language and Linguistics: How Words Changed My Life,” allowed them to share books that were meaningful and interesting to them while reflecting on their learning and vocational journey. 

These introspections and the process of participating in the Snyder Contest planted seeds that ultimately bloomed into new possibilities. Alvis graduated from KU in 2013 and went on to graduate school in Scotland, first at the University of Edinburgh and then University of Glasgow to attain master’s degrees in material culture and the history of the book, and information management and digital preservation. While in Scotland, both Alvis’s career plans and book collection grew.  

“Really from the first day of the master’s degree it was like, ‘Oh, this is it.’ It was very, very exciting,” Alvis said. “They let me haunt the reading room for hours at a time. My experiences there really cemented the idea of being a special collections librarian, and while I was there, I really got into collecting rare books, in part because they’re much more common there—obviously, the publishing industry in the UK and Europe have been going for hundreds of years longer than there were working printing presses in the United States.” 

During graduate studies, Alvis worked at a used bookstore and found ways to add to their collection on a budget, expanding their knowledge of rare books and following their interests in the process.  

“I was able to go to the equivalent of a Goodwill and pick up a book from the 1800s, for example, or find a book from the early 1700s at some random rummage sale for a couple of pounds. I started collecting things that were interesting to me, not really for the text or for the importance of the subject matter.” 

Alvis found themself interested in the materials a book was made of, how it was bound, and the style reflected in the structural details and decorations. They loved finding ownership marks, notes in the margins or pressed flowers between the pages. Alvis has shared via videos and presentations about the importance of worn books and what they can reveal about their use and users over time.  

“I just really like the stories that books can tell even without reading them,” they said. “There’s just so much there.” 

After graduate school, Alvis worked at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives in Washington D.C. in special collections, then with rare bookseller Type Punch Matrix as a cataloger before beginning their position with Winterthur Library special collections last year.  

Their personal collection currently numbers about 250 books, including a miniature French-English dictionary so small it can be worn as a pendant and century old schoolbooks with children’s doodles in the margins. They love examples of decorative bindings and fore edges, gold-tooled flourishes, and structural details like metal clasps or wooden boards. They have a tiny Bible leaf from the late 1300s and a portion of a Dutch Book of Hours from the 1400s, with their oldest complete book from the 1530s.  

Allie Alvis
Allie Alvis poses with their 2012 Snyder Book Collecting Contest winning entry. 

Alvis is excited to return to KU and to the contest that sparked the start of their career to see the collections students submit. 

“If you’re considering entering this contest, you’re a collector already. I think even just thinking about it, seeing the ad and thinking about your bookshelf at home, that’s the first step to realizing you’re a collector,” they said. “You don’t have to collect old books or first editions or whatever to have a collection. You just collect the stuff you like. Once you begin to interrogate that more, why do you like it, what ties this all together, that’s a really interesting experience. I think the Snyder competition is a great opportunity to think more deeply about the stuff you do for fun. Who knows where it could lead you?” 

Entries for the 2024 Snyder Book Collecting Contest have been extended to April 2. Finalists’ collections will be displayed and winners announced at a celebratory reception April 30 on the third floor of Watson Library, with a keynote address from Alvis. Although free and open to the public, reception RSVPs are encouraged.  

Elizabeth Morrison Snyder established the Snyder Book Collecting Contest in 1957, endowing the prizes for the future to provide permanent funding for the competition. Though she claimed she was “really not much of a collector,” she built many remarkable collections including one on A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, and an H.L. Mencken collection that includes inscribed first editions and letters written by Mencken—Snyder donated both collections to KU Libraries as part of multiple generous donations made over the years. Until her death in 2004, Mrs. Snyder attended the awards ceremony to share her enthusiasm for book collecting.  

This year, winners in the undergraduate and graduate divisions will receive a cash prize of $500 and a gift card from co-sponsor Jayhawk Ink, with additional prizes for second place and honorable mention. First place winners in each division are eligible to compete in the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, which awards a top prize of $2,500.