Hopkins librarian hunts for bounty books Out-of-print items on 'The List' sought

December 16, 1991|By Michael Ollove

It is called The List, and all 43 pages of it sit in a terminally cluttered corner deep within the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, where it consumes much of Allan H. Holtzman's professional life.

His job is to eliminate The List, but like Sisyphus with his boulder, Mr. Holtzman will never complete his task. Just as he crosses one item off The List, another is added.

The List is more than 600 out-of-print books that the Johns Hopkins University library would like very much to add to its collection of 2.1 million books. The titles range from the obscure to the exotic, from Dennis Altman's "The Homosexualization of America" to Paul D. Zimmerman's "The Marx Brothers at the Movies." Mr. Holtzman's assignment is to scour the land to find these treasures and then to put them on his library's shelves.

"You never get down to zero," Mr. Holtzman, a bespectacled, thoroughly rumpled librarian, said on a recent cold afternoon.

The hunt is equal parts detective work and schmoozing with more than a touch of good luck thrown in. "What you can't do is try to order these books or go down to the local bookstore and say, 'I want these books,' " Mr. Holtzman said.

Initially, Mr. Holtzman gives the impression that he is the least organized person in Baltimore. Books are piled so high they hide large pieces of furniture. Papers seem to have been blown randomly around the office by a powerful fan.

Yet, in making this point or that one, Mr. Holtzman can lay his hands on just the right document underneath a mound of books as if that was exactly the right place for it all along.

He submits the entire list to an Indiana bookseller who himself has a network of contacts among book collectors and owners of secondhand bookstores. Mr. Holtzman acquires between 100 and 200 books a year through that man.

Many times the books on the list still defy discovery, and then Mr. Holtzman turns to a coterie of book hounds around the country who specialize in particular areas.

In Philadelphia, he has found a man who deals in books on the ancient Near East. In Connecticut, there is a gentleman with a line on African-Americanmaterials and in southern Pennsylvania, a collector of books written in or about the 1960s.

In Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Holtzman knows a fellow who collects books on the Revolutionary and Colonial periods and, of course, on Thomas Jefferson. In New Hampshire is a gentleman who deals only in books written about Winston Churchill or by him.

These sources have been useful. When Hopkins recently began a new Department of Women's Studies, Mr. Holtzman discovered an important contact in Wisconsin who specialized in that subject area. For Hopkins, it was a nearly essential find because for the new department to gain academic accreditation, the university must demonstrate that its collection of books in that subject area is of sufficient size and substance.

Because women's studies is a relatively recent academic pursuit, out-of-print books in that subject are especially hard to find. Yet, through Mr. Holtzman's Wisconsin connection, he has managed to locate about 100 out-of-print books.

In a normal year, Mr. Holtzman said, he crosses off between 300 and 500 books from the list, although it generally grows by that much as new requests continually come in from professors and students. Although the books are out-of-print, they rarely cost more than $40. Their value usually lies in scholarship rather than as investments.

Sometimes the books cost nothing at all. Once Mr. Holtzman stumbled upon a half-century-old Edgar Allan Poe biography that was on his list when he was rummaging through an obscure storage closet on the Hopkins campus.

Another time, he was looking through the sale bin at Goucher College's library when he found a novel that was on his list.

"I bought it for a quarter," he boasted. "If I had gone through a bookseller, it would have cost $50."

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