The library is a project Seymour had been thinking about as his collection, at the time stored in his own home, grew. When he decided to sell his house and knew he wouldn’t have room for the library afterward, he decided to house the collection in a standalone building. It’s open to scholars and others by appointment, but not the public.
“I very much would like to have the collection kept together after my death,” said Seymour. “This collection that I have is very important to me. And I'd like to give it more permanency than just my lifetime.”
The collection is primarily focused on Everyman’s Library, a series of classic books selected to be “affordably priced and appeal to ‘every kind of reader,’” as stated on the website of its current publisher, Knopf. While the set continues to expand today, the original 1,000 volumes and their many variations have been a focus for book collectors like Seymour.
“The series reprinted frequently, and sometimes they would do a new translation or a new introduction, so I have all of those. But the major variation is the different binding styles that were used,” said Seymour. “That’s what greatly multiplies the number of volumes.”
According to Seymour, besides Everyman’s Library volumes, the library’s catalog also includes pencil sketches used in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Breakfast-Table” series, old photos related to Everyman’s Library sales, and publisher memorabilia like promotional materials.
Seymour began collecting in 1991, when he first decided what books to focus on.
“It had to be something that was feasible, affordable, and significant, and I hit upon Everyman’s Library,” said Seymour. He also realized the set, first published in 1906, would be having its centennial in 2006.
“I said, ‘That's 15 years from now. I'll bet there’ll be a big celebration or observation in 15 years.’ So I think, ‘In 15 years, if I really work at this, I can have the best collection in the world,’” recounted Seymour. “I set that out as a specific goal and I never wavered from it.”
Starting out with only two books that he owned as a student, he searched for the rest of the Everyman’s Library volumes by book-hunting from shop to shop for the first several years.
“The internet really started kicking in around 1998, I would say, when I was having trouble finding things. And all of a sudden, all these books started falling out of the sky,” said Seymour.
Since then, Seymour has authored two books related to Everyman’s Library, “A Guide to Collecting Everyman’s Library” and “A Printing History of Everyman's Library 1906-1982,” and held an exhibit of his collection at the University of North Carolina in 2008.
“I had what might be called a complete collection — it certainly was, as far as I could tell, the best collection in the world — by 2006, as I had set out to do,” said Seymour. “But I’ve continued to collect since then, and it's been bigger and better than ever.”