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Review: Shakespeare and Company Project

A review of the Shakespeare and Company Project, a database of records from Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company bookshop, led by Joshua Kotin and Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Published onJul 12, 2021
Review: Shakespeare and Company Project

Shakespeare and Company Project

Project Leads
Joshua Kotin, Princeton University
Rebecca Sutton Koeser, Princeton University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Andrew Thacker, Nottingham Trent University

Project Overview

Joshua Kotin and Rebecca Sutton Koeser

The Shakespeare and Company Project allows scholars and the general public to explore and analyze the activities of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop and lending library. In 1919, Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, and it quickly became a meeting place for expatriate writers, including Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. In 1922, Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses under the Shakespeare and Company imprint, an act that made the bookshop and lending library famous around the world. In 1941, she closed Shakespeare and Company but continued to lend books from her apartment until her death in 1962. The project reveals what members of the lending library read and where they lived as well as how expatriate life changed over decades of social upheaval and vital artistic production. 

The project focuses on two sources from Beach’s Papers: 1) lending library cards that document the borrowing activities and addresses of members and 2) logbooks that document memberships, renewals, and reimbursements. The information on the cards is deep: over 22,000 activities for 648 members. The information in the logbooks is broad: over 11,000 activities for 5,700 members. Together, the sources serve as the foundation for a new portrait of interwar Paris 

Joshua Kotin, Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, co-founded the project in 2014 with Jesse McCarthy and Clifford W. Wulfman. They encoded the lending library cards using highly customized TEI XML and developed a WordPress site, “Mapping Expatriate Paris,” which launched in 2016. Since then, Kotin has collaborated with Rebecca Sutton Koeser, lead developer at Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities (CDH), and a team of researchers and developers to build the current web application, which launched in May 2020. This second phase of the project began by migrating the XML into a relational database modeled on the complexity of the lending library cards and logbooks. The database includes a footnote feature to link borrowing events to digital editions of the lending library cards and a custom solution for partially known dates. The web application is implemented with Python, Django, and Solr, and the open-source codebase is available on GitHub. The project design emphasizes clarity, transparency, and accessibility. Search pages dynamically load revised results but remain functional with JavaScript disabled. Data exports are available to enable research. Over thirty people at Princeton have contributed to the project, including project manager Cate Mahoney, senior researcher Ian Davis, developer Nick Budak, user experience designer Gissoo Doroudian, and project coordinator Rebecca Munson. 

The project aims to connect scholars and the general public around a shared interest in the cultural history of interwar Paris and the writers of the Lost Generation. Visitors can examine the borrowing histories of their favorite writers, track the circulation of their favorite books, and create maps of Paris. Users can also discover lost classics, learn about forgotten artists and intellectuals, and address theoretical questions about proximity and taste, and modernism and mass culture. Press coverage includes The Guardian, El País, and Le Temps. Project members have presented at digital humanities and modernist studies conferences as well as at academic institutions. The project has been supported by Princeton’s CDH, University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Humanities Council, and Dean’s Innovation Fund for New Ideas in the Humanities.

Project Review

Andrew Thacker

This is a pioneering project that offers access to archival materials from the Firestone Library at Princeton University that relate to the Shakespeare and Company English-language bookshop. The bookshop was opened in Paris in 1919 by the U.S. publisher Sylvia Beach. Until its closure in 1941, Shakespeare and Company was a mecca for modernist writers, particularly (but not exclusively) for Anglophone expatriates.1 Shakespeare and Company is perhaps best known for publishing the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. As well as selling books, however, it operated a lending library, and the archival records that show who borrowed from the bookshop and what they borrowed form the basis of this digital humanities project.

The project has been developed over a number of years—building on an earlier Mapping Expatriate Paris project—and offers scholars working on modernism, particularly in the fields of print culture and book history, a brilliant window through which they can access material that would previously have required an in-person visit to the Firestone. It is thus an absolutely invaluable addition to digital scholarship on the writing of the interwar years and a veritable treasure trove for researchers who want to find out more about one of the perennial black holes in book history: who read what and when? 

For example, we can chart the borrowings of postcolonial writer Aimé Césaire, then a student in Paris, by examining each book he borrowed and for how long while he was a member of the library between 1936-7. We thus learn that he borrowed a number of key texts by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, indicating the transnational patterns of influence and exchange that existed between diasporic Black intellectuals. The data has been structured so that we can see which books he borrowed as well as visual images of his borrowing cards. Interestingly, we can also track where a borrower lived—information that is provided in visual form, using the open-source JavaScript library Leaflet.js, an excellent tool for representing the spatial history of library members in Paris.

The site was constructed using a custom Python/Django web application, with all source code on GitHub, and a full technical appendix is provided. Datasets on lending library members, the books circulating, and other library events are also available to download in CSV and JSON formats. Funding for the project has come from various sources within Princeton University, with the Center for Digital Humanities hosting the project. 

Overall the website is clear and easy to navigate with a very intuitive structuring of data and images and a very helpful set of subheads (e.g. “FAQs,” “Members,” “Books”). One of the most interesting of these sections is “Analysis,” which offers short essays by members of the project team that demonstrate how the data can be used by researchers. Thus, there is a fascinating piece on the top ten borrowed books and authors, while another— using simple data visualizations—looks at the monthly borrowing activity over the life of the bookstore. Such essays effectively indicate how other researchers might go about digging further into the data to interpret the reading practices of the borrowers. The Shakespeare and Company Project will undoubtedly become a key digital resource for many researchers on modernism and print culture in the future. 

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