Bibliometrics of the Lost Generation


Sylvia Beach’s archives are letting us do something with Shakespeare and Company a modern library would never condone: examine the borrowing records of its members.

Making Beach’s records machine readable enables us to perform bibliometrics on the Lost Generation: the kind of analysis modern booksellers perform—and that Beach the businesswoman would almost certainly have valued. Some questions are obvious. What books were borrowed most often? What books did specific members read?

But others are not so obvious: What books were renewed most often? What books were returned most quickly? What can borrowing patterns tell us about the reading habits of the members of the Shakespeare and Company lending library? What can those habits tell us about the Lost Generation?

Our preliminary encoding captures nearly 9,000 distinct titles and 22,000 borrowing events recorded on the cards of 558 library members (these are the cards in the archives), but there remains much to do to make the data truly useful.

Beach and her staff used a variety of abbreviations and ditto marks when making entries on the cards; these must be reconciled. Some titles, like Poems, must be disambiguated—if possible. Using the popular tool Open Refine, we can clean up many of the titles to give us a tantalizing peek into the borrowing preferences of library members.

Here are the top twenty-five most borrowed titles after they have been extracted and cleaned in a preliminary fashion with Open Refine:

Open refine

It’s an interesting list. The first thing to note—after the unsurprising popularity of James Joyce—is that a quarter of the top twenty titles are magazines: The New Statesman, Time and Tide, The New Yorker, Transition, Criterion.

But looking more closely, we see Time and Tide was borrowed almost exclusively by a single library member, Mrs. T.B. Kittredge. Eleanor Kittredge (née Hayden) was the wife of Tracy Barrett Kittredge, the Assistant Director of Social Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation in Paris from 1931 to 1942. She was an active library member and evidently an avid magazine reader: the 557 borrowing events recorded on her cards show she usually borrowed The New Statesman when she checked out Time and Tide, and she also borrowed other periodicals like The Nation, New Masses, The Yale Review, and The New Republic.

The majority of the remaining top twenty-five titles conform with our preconceptions of what the expatriate community was reading from 1919 to 1940: Joyce, Woolf, Richardson, Mansfield; Balzac, Buck; Forster, Lawrence, Isherwood. But what about Sparkenbroke? Novelist and theater critic Charles Morgan was popular in America and France, where he was made a member of the Institut de France. His earlier novels, Portrait in a Mirror (1929; borrowed seven times) and The Fountain (1932; borrowed 23 times) were best-sellers.

When MEP’s textbase and toolset are complete, researchers will be able to trace the popularity of authors and titles within the expatriate community. Did Joyce’s popularity remain constant after the Great Depression? What about other now-canonical authors? And what about authors, like Morgan, who are now relatively obscure? How did general borrowing habits change over time?

We continue to refine our data. In order to analyze borrowing patterns, the MEP team is encoding the entries on the cards as events, linking the borrowed titles with the dates on which they were checked out and returned. These are data points that a more prescriptive approach would almost certainly have captured explicitly in a table; but our approach, while more elaborate, allows us to easily link the abstracted data to the evidence (the cards themselves), and to other contextual information. For example, we will be able to link a member’s borrowing activities to the membership patterns in the logbooks: do up-ticks in rates correspond with the publication of particular books?

Finally, the Sylvia Beach Papers contain some tantalizing sources of data we have yet to tap: a notebook with the original inventory of the bookshop, and another chronicling “Books received Nov. 1926–Dec. 1933.” We expect these records to help us identify the specific editions that circulated and provide a wealth of new information about the workings of Shakespeare and Company and the reading habits of its members.

Clifford Wulfman