by Ian Rogers
*Cover illustration and photo on left is the book – The Royal Game of Chesse Play by Greco.*
The Anderson Chess Collection at the Victorian State Library has been an invaluable resource for Australian players for more than half a century and its value was reinforced when news broke that England was losing its National Chess Library.
In 2008 the University of Brighton in Hastings became the permanent home for a National Chess Library based on donations from the estates of major collectors such as Harry Golombek.
Originally the chess collection was available to any visitor but in 2012 the NCL was moved to a basement and books were only accessible on request. Now, thanks to an administrative decision to redefine the word permanent, the university has packed the books up in boxes and asked the English Chess Federation to find the collection a new home, so far unknown.
The contrast with Australia’s Anderson Collection is stark.
Built up after a donation from MV Anderson (above) in 1956, the Anderson Collection has its own place within the Victorian State where reading and study is possible, with chessboards provided for assistance. More than a thousand, generally recent, publications are on display but older books, journals, chess columns and tournament bulletins are easily accessible on request, although some rare books are only viewable with supervision. (The Anderson Collection also includes some ancient texts; the first chess book in English – and the second book printed by William Caxton, The Game and Playe of the Chesse – though the Anderson Collection only has a page of this book from 1483.)
Magnus Anderson (left) and a page from the William Caxton printed book, The game and Playe of the Chess.
The Melbourne collection is also well funded, meaning that recent books and magazines are added frequently; the library buys most chess books published in English and major works in other languages.
The Anderson Collection ranks as the third largest public collection in the world, behind the John G. White collection in Cleveland and the collection at the Royal Library in The Hague, yet is far more popular.
Melbourne’s advantage lies in its open access policy. To view any items in the John G. White and Hague collections you must request them; it is not possible to browse.
So while Cleveland and The Hague count their visitors in the hundreds annually, the Anderson Collection attracts many thousands.
Of course open access is not enough; even in its early incarnation the Hastings National Chess Library was remote from the majority of English chessplayers and struggled for visitors.
In London, chess fans have an alternative option in the British Library – which is supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK. However accessing material is far from easy – the BL has 150 million items! – with the additional downside that a significant portion of the British Library’s historical chess material was reportedly destroyed during World War II.
The Anderson Collection is often mentioned as one of the key factors in the conveyor belt of strong players produced by Victoria since the 1970s. Even in the age of computer databases, the value of chess books as guides to good play has only marginally diminished. It is notable that even Sydney’s Australian Champion Max Illingworth makes regular visits to the Anderson Collection when in Melbourne (and has even conducted private lessons there).
The situation in England is far less promising, with a desperate search underway just to find a place to store their National Chess Library. Without a benefactor such as MV Anderson (who not only donated books but provided a bequest and curated the collection for the first ten years of its existence), any hopes for an accessible and attractive NCL will remain just a dream.