A family firm

Share this on social media:

Topic tags: 

Knut Dorn has announced his retirement later this year as senior managing partner and director of sales for the bookseller and subscription agent Harrassowitz. He told Sian Harris about the company's remarkable history

On the wall of Knut Dorn’s office hangs a collection of letters. The letters are from customers and mark significant points in the history of the company he works for, Otto Harrassowitz.

One of these letters asked for details of the company and its services. These were reasonable questions to expect a potential customer to ask. What was more unusual was that the letter was sent in 1948, soon after the end of World War II, by John Fall, chief of the acquisitions division of the New York Public Library, USA – and that, until its offices were destroyed in the war, Harrassowitz’s headquarters had been in what was to become East Germany.

‘The astonishing fact was that when the letter was sent out, Harrassowitz did not yet have an official address and the paperwork that was necessary to register a company at the time with the occupational forces was not yet completed,’ said Dorn, who is the company’s senior managing partner and director of sales.

The strong relationship between US libraries and the book seller and subscription agent Harrassowitz began long before World War II. ‘The USA has always been the main market for us and accounts for around 80 per cent of our business. We started working with Harvard in 1882 and our US contacts survived two world wars,’ said Dorn.

Indeed, by the time World War I broke out, the relationships between the company and its US customers were strong enough that, in 1916, the University of Chicago Library entrusted a blanket order to Harrassowitz to collect war materials, pamphlets, propaganda, ephemeral and fugitive materials for the library.

Building the foundations

Harrassowitz was founded in Leipzig in 1872 by Otto Harrassowitz and Oscar Richter under the name Richter & Harrassowitz, Antiquariats und Verlagsbuchhandlung. When the founding partners separated three years later, the business became known as Otto Harrassowitz. Harrassowitz senior was succeeded in the business by his son, Hans Harrassowitz, in 1915.

Leipzig was a good place to be based as it was one of the major centres of the book world at the time, according to Knut Dorn. ‘Practically any title published anywhere in the world was available in Leipzig due to an incredible system of storehouses that served the trade,’ he explained. ‘I remember my father telling me about the book scouts that were sent out in the morning after the orders came in by mail to pick up the books in the pertinent warehouses so that they would be available in the afternoon for billing and dispatch by the end of the day.’

However, the choice of location proved a challenge as world events developed. With the outbreak of World War II the company continued to ship materials to its international customers for as long as possible, using routes via Switzerland, Portugal and Bermuda but, once the embargo tightened, standing order and subscription materials were collected and stored in countryside locations until the end of the war. In 1941 war caused further problems for the company as Hans Harrassowitz received an official reprimand for having distributed catalogues that advertised the works of Jewish authors.

When overnight bombing in 1943 destroyed Harrassowitz’s offices in Leipzig, along with close to a million volumes of stock, the company continued to operate out of Hans Harrassowitz’s apartment. After the war, the company decided to move its headquarters to West Germany in 1948.

‘By that time it was apparent that an international book company could not be run anymore out of Leipzig in the communist occupation zone that later became East Germany. There were simply too many restrictions on communicating freely with the world,’ explained Dorn. ‘The decision to have Harrassowitz move to the West and to the city of Wiesbaden was greeted enthusiastically by the American librarians, the major customer base of Harrassowitz, and it was their loyalty to the company that helped greatly in getting the Wiesbaden office going.’

A family business

When Hans Harrassowitz died in 1964 his wife Gertrud Harrassowitz inherited his share of the company and formed a partnership with the three men who had helped rebuild the business after the war and helped open the new offices in West Germany in 1948.

One of these men was Richard Dorn, Knut Dorn’s father, who joined the business as head of the department serving libraries in China in 1936. Knut Dorn followed in his father’s footsteps in 1964 and was accepted into the partnership and assumed responsibility for library services in 1972. ‘It has always been a family business and is still run by the families of the three partners,’ he said.

This has both advantages and disadvantages, he continued: ‘We are a close-knit group and decisions can be made quickly. There is also a strong sense of commitment, which extends to the staff too,’ he said. ‘However, we are only a medium-sized company so we have to be very careful with capital. We can’t afford to make too many investments at once,’ he added.

The move to West Germany brought with it growth. ‘At Leipzig there were never more than 50 staff. Now the company has more than 200,’ said Dorn.

There have been many other changes over the time of the company’s existence too. ‘Over the years we’ve changed perspectives as markets have changed. Within libraries we serve all their requirements – books, music scores, subscriptions – but we don’t serve private individuals anymore,’ observed Dorn.

The emphasis of what the company supplies has shifted too: ‘When I started 47 years ago, the business was about two thirds books and one third subscriptions. Now it is around one third books and two thirds subscriptions.’

Everything changes

Such a shift reflects the changes in the libraries that the company serves: ‘We have gone way beyond being a supplier of information. We find out where the pain is for customers,’ he commented.


Monika Krieg, the company’s head of publisher relations and head of sales, Europe, agreed: ‘We all have to deal with new difficulties and have to know much more about technology. Customers today want organisation and management, as well as linking data. We are providing additional information such as usage statistics.’

One of the ways to help is by providing approval plans for libraries whose specialist staff does not have the time to select books that align with with their collections. Over the years Harrassowitz has established many book approval plans for German and English language titles on the basis of individualised library profiles.

E-books emerge

One of the big changes in the book industry in recent years has been the growth of e-books. The company also uses its approval plan infrastructure and deduping programme for the supply and processing of individual e-books. As Krieg said, ‘We are organising large amounts of data and customers can see online whether they have already bought a print copy of that book or have received a copy on their standing order for the series. We are trying to work with as many aggregators as possible in order to give the library the choice to do the processing with their preferred aggregation.’

Harrassowitz began handling e-books for customers in 2010 through its OttoEditions database, which underpins e-book work processes such as bibliographical searching, identification of aggregators as well as firm order and approval plan acquisition options. ‘There was discussion in our company about where e-books belong,’ commented Dorn. ‘We decided they should be in our books business [rather than subscriptions], especially when you get away from collections.’

The electronic journals business has also seen changes, especially with the prominent role that big deals have in the market. ‘We have certainly seen an effect with customers organising deals themselves, but this has not always turned out to be as easy as they expected because many have come back to us and asked if we could still help,’ said Dorn.

Krieg added, ‘Every library is different so has to be provided with an individual electronic interface to get their invoice in the right format. This is something that publishers can’t do so well. There is also the role of checking data and making sure everything is in its right place.’

Agents can play another role in consortia deals too, with services to the consortia such as organising the collection of money from the different library members and helping with licensing agreements.

There will undoubtedly be more changes in the future. ‘We have to carefully observe what’s going on in the industry, with things like the semantic web and how to link data. Subscription agents might be the answer to how to organise and control chaos,’ noted Krieg.

‘There’ll be more changes,’ agreed Dorn. ‘We need to maintain flexibility so that we can adapt to new requirements as soon as we can and as professionally as we can, and listen to the needs of our customers.’

And there will be more personal changes too. At the end of the year Knut Dorn will retire from Harrassowitz. In keeping with the family tradition, his position on the management board will be filled by his daughter Nadja Dorn-Lange, who will become director of library services books, joining Friedemann Weigel and Ruth Becker-Scheicher, who are descended from the other two original partners. Dorn, meanwhile, will be able to spend more time on his hobbies of collecting books and wines.