Bright Young Collectors: Laura Hartmann

Our Bright Young Collectors series continues today with Laura Hartmann, who recently won second prize at the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. Laura collects books about the Spanish Civil War.

hartmann in parc guell.jpeg

Where are you from / where do you live?


I live in Washington, D.C., and where I'm from is a bit of tricky question to answer. My father was a U.S. foreign service officer - a diplomat - who was stationed in Latin America for most of his career. I was born in the Dominican Republic, and moved around the States a lot when our family finally came home. I've lived longest in various towns in Virginia, and so I proudly call myself an (adopted) Virginian.

What do you study at University?


For my undergraduate degree, I studied Latin American and Spanish literature at St. Louis University's Madrid campus in Spain, where I became interested in the Spanish Civil War. I continued that interest through two M.A. programs - one in English literature and the second in Spanish and Latin American theatre - and into my English Ph.D. program at Northeastern University, in Boston. I'm currently writing my dissertation on foreign women writers and photographers and the Spanish Civil War.

Please introduce us to your book collection.  What areas do you collect in?


I collect books about the Spanish Civil War. As I accumulated my books, I sought to provide contextualizing academic scholarship as well as comparative, primary accounts of the Spanish Civil War across several genres. I have a special interest in Spanish Civil War books by and about women. The focus on foreign women in all their roles (as poets, as journalists, as photographers, as administrators, as nurses) is unique as most approaches would keep these testimonies separate. The main drive behind the collection is to preserve materials that would otherwise be destroyed or forgotten, and to create and curate a collection of Spanish Civil War materials from unexpected, non-traditional lines of inquiry such as visual studies or women's studies.


In my collection, many of the materials from women are the original editions, because these books went through only one printing. If I wanted a copy of the novel or memoir, there was only one copy to acquire. Over the years, I adjusted the purpose of my collection to reflect various neglected strands of Spanish Civil War studies that suited my academic interests: writing by women, visual studies (such as posters, photographs, and propaganda), and eyewitness life writing more generally.


Recently, I've become interested in Spanish Civil War ephemera - like pamphlets published in the 1930s - contemporary interpretations of the war, like an historical/military board game entitled España 1936 that my father bought me for a Christmas present one year.

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How many books are in your collection?


166 items, including the pamphlets - and it's growing all the time!


What was the first book you bought for your collection?


I can't quite remember the first book. It was probably Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell or A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston, for the summer class I was taking on the history and literature of the Spanish Civil War, purchased used at the campus bookstore. I know I still have those copies.


I do remember being an undergraduate in Madrid and seeking out Aránzazu Usandizaga's critical work Escritoras al frente: Intelectuales extranjeras en la Guerra Civil (Writers to the Front: Foreign Intellectuals in the Civil War). I knew that it would be difficult to find materials about foreign women writers in the Spanish Civil War at all, because these writers were barely featured in most academic articles or books that I could find.


From that experience, I knew I should make a special effort while actually in Spain to track down books by and about these women. So, on my travels through Spain, I got in the habit of going into any bookshops I saw and asking the bookseller for their section on the Spanish Civil War.

How about the most recent book?


Earlier this year, University of Ottawa Press put out two recently recovered works about the Spanish Civil War by two Canadian writers - This Time a Better Earth by Ted Allan (ed. Bart Vautour) and Hugh Garner's Best Stories by Hugh Garner (ed. Emily Robins Sharpe). I purchased these two books in addition to The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War by Peter Carroll.


And your favorite book in your collection?


Oh, I have many favorites! One that stands out is Women's Voices from the Spanish Civil War, an anthology of autobiographical accounts and excerpts edited by Sally Alexander and Jim Fyrth. When I bought it used, it was the most money I had spent on a book - about $65, I think. It's recently been republished in paperback at a more affordable graduate student price. For me, purchasing this book meant that I was serious about studying the Spanish Civil War and women's writing...serious enough to need this book on hand instead of repeatedly checking out the library copy, serious enough to not go to the movies for a couple of months to afford it. And I love the movies.


Another favorite, because of its rarity, is my original 1937 copy of Death in the Making, without a dust jacket. This is Robert Capa's tribute to Gerda Taro, a photographer killed during the Spanish Civil War. Capa is one of the twentieth century's great war photographers; this volume of Capa and Taro photographs had one printing. This photo-book is the most valuable item in my collection. It's such a heartfelt tribute to Taro and to the cause of the Spanish Republic.

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Best bargain you've found?


While it's not quite a bargain since I did spend a good chunk of change, I acquired 70+ items from a rare bookseller on Amazon by reaching out to her directly and wanting to purchase all of her Spanish Civil War materials if she'd negotiate on the price. Part of that acquisition were 43 original pamphlets from 1936-1940, all dealing with Spanish Civil War. Primarily targeted at American audiences, these pamphlets are in English and cover a wide range of topics related to the war - from the Italian involvement in Spain to American nurses' accounts of their volunteer work in the war.


These pamphlets (and the rest of the volumes) were collected by the late Sanford Soren, who donated his Spanish Civil War collection of pamphlets and books to his local library of Willingboro, New Jersey. I do not know much more about Soren or why he collected these materials. A brief search of open Internet sources revealed that Soren was an attorney and died at the age of 40 in 1972. The bookseller had bought Soren's collection at an auction, after the Willingboro Public Library discarded it en masse. Although the bookseller had sold some individual items, I managed to buy the collection more or less intact.


After a week of negotiating and arranging delivery, the collection arrived! The bookseller told me that she felt sorry for Soren, having so carefully acquired and maintained this collection to have it unceremoniously shrugged off, and that she knew I'd honor him by taking good care of it and appreciating it...which was how she convinced herself to reduce the price for me. It felt like a coup to discover so many original items from the early-to-mid twentieth century in such great condition, and I'm glad I was bold enough to reach out to negotiate.

How about The One that Got Away?


I must have pushed such a painful occurrence out of my memory, as nothing comes directly to mind!


Because I'm not really concerned with acquiring specific objects or editions (and because the Spanish Civil War tends to be less in demand than other topics), books tend to stay put for me.


That being said, in Madrid there was a vendor who would sell reprints of old posters and photographs from the 1930s-50s of Spain, especially of the civil war. He never sold in the same place, and I only came across him twice. The first time, he had a black and white reprint of a militiawoman that I loved on sight - her hair was askew and she had her rifle on her shoulder with a devil-may-care confidence - but I didn't have the cash on hand to buy it from him. The next time I saw the vendor, some months later, he told me he had sold out of that reprint and it would be awhile before he made more. And I didn't see him, or that particular photograph, again.


What would be the Holy Grail for your collection?


I have a quick answer for this one! In the early 1990s, the Spanish Cultural Ministry put on an exhibition of Hungarian-born Kati Horna's Spanish Civil War photography at the University of Salamanca. The exhibition book, Kati Horna: fotografías de la guerra civil española (1937-1938), is one of my most-sought after pieces. Very few copies of the exhibition book were made, and it is out of print. If you have it, I will snatch it from your hands and run away.

Who is your favorite bookseller / bookstore?


Well, I love browsing the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America website and typing in "Spanish Civil War" to see what's out there or what has been found. Whenever I travel to a new place, I try to search out the used bookstores, as I find that used and rare bookstores are such lovely idiosyncratic places for discovering treasures.


During my high school years in Williamsburg, VA, Mermaid Books on Prince George St. definitely encouraged my love for rare and unusual books. I also like to browse the site for Bolerium Books in San Francisco - "Fighting Commodity Fetishism with Commodity Fetishism" is one of their postcards they sent me with a book I bought.

What would you collect if you didn't collect books?


I honestly don't know. Books are fundamental to my being and how I interact with the world and with history.


I guess I would choose a similar historical genre of a daily object that people found fundamentally necessary for expressing their creativity and their engagement with the world - like antiquarian maps or Quaker spindles. 

(Nominations for Bright Young Collectors (including self-nominations) are welcome at