The Researcher and the Mysterious Note on the Library Card

Christine Morrow's library lending card from the Shakespeare and Company archive. The note about the safe return of her books can be seen in the bottom right corner on the back of the card. Sylvia Beach Papers, Princeton University Library

Who knew that something as innocuous as a library lending record could be connected to the life of a refugee escaping during a time of war? The detective work of one researcher on the Shakespeare and Company Project, a digital humanities initiative that uses documents from the Sylvia Beach Papers at Princeton’s Firestone Library, has uncovered a fascinating example of ingenuity inside Beach’s lending library. 

Founded by Joshua Kotin (Associate Professor of English at Princeton), Jesse McCarthy (Assistant Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard) and Clifford Wulfman (Periodicals Digitization Coordinator at Princeton), the Shakespeare and Company Project follows the legacy of the lending library, which was opened in Paris in 1919 by an American named Sylvia Beach. The library, according to the project’s website, “became a home away from home for the community of expatriate writers and artists now known as the Lost Generation.” This community of writers includes the likes of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. In addition, “Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses under the Shakespeare and Company imprint” in 1922, which made her bookshop and lending library famous around the world. In 1941, Beach “preemptively closed Shakespeare and Company after refusing to sell her last copy of Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer.”

English PhD candidates Ian Davis and Cate Mahoney joined the project team to categorize and analyze the library’s archive, which includes log books that feature every library membership and renewal, and lending library cards that feature the addresses and borrowing histories of individual library members. The project, which officially launches in 2020, was carried out in three phases. According to the CDH website: “In phase I (2015–2016), the project team focused on transcribing and encoding the two sets of records from the Beach Papers... In phase II (2016–2017), the project team focused on refining the encoding and developing a personography of lending library members. In phase III (2018–2019), the project team began developing a new interactive website that will allow the public to explore the lending library membership and track the circulation of books.” The team used technologies such as Python, Django, Asana, and Slack to analyze the documents and to create and collaborate on the project’s website.

As a researcher on the team since 2014, Davis made some impressive discoveries about the lending cards of the library. Specifically, he discovered that an Australian PhD candidate named Christine Morrow who had escaped Nazi occupation was part of the library’s community. By closely reading Morrow’s lending card history, Davis was able to discover her new address on the northern coast of France and a note stating that “all books of Miss Morrow’s are safe,” which he infers is also an indication of Morrow’s safe well-being during the Nazi occupation. After interacting with Morrow’s documents, Davis said, “[This] leaves you to wonder if Beach was recording this for anyone else, who might know Miss Morrow and care if she was alive. I think what’s remarkable about the note, in other words, is how unremarkable it is, its mundanity, its simple concern with the condition of some books, in the strange social conditions and constant precarity of life in occupied Paris.” Such ability to close read and the implementation of technological tools are what have given birth to the many vibrant and thought-provoking discoveries of this project.

The Shakespeare and Company Project will provide interesting ways to explore these documents and has been a powerful learning experience for the workers involved. Both Davis and Mahoney came in with little experience in the digital humanities. However, with the guidance of Professor Kotin and CDH developers, Davis and Mahoney learned new ways to view their own work as data-driven and to understand better how to deal with larger amounts of data outside of their doctoral studies. Mahoney, the project manager, learned how to work with a team that visualized data differently from how she did as an English scholar and to accept human error as a natural component of the project’s creative process. She stresses the collaborative nature of digital humanities, noting that it is difficult to achieve much success in the field as a “siloed researcher.” Mahoney says, “I’m looking forward to people being able to experience the excitement of 1920s Paris through this archive that allows them to step back in time by reading about what artists were doing at that time.” 

In the future, the Shakespeare and Company Project hopes to be a resource for scholars of modernism everywhere, namely in the way that it “illuminates the influence of Shakespeare and Company on French intellectual life,” according to the CDH website. Mahoney says that the project will especially benefit from the attention of new scholars and their ideas. The project might even be used to help construct lesson plans for high schools, allowing its impact to reach beyond university boundaries. Early 20th century Paris and the impressive legacy left by Beach and her community, including more recognizable names and the intriguing stories of lesser-known figures like Christine Morrow, will be more accessible thanks to the hard work of all those involved in this project.

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