Shakespeare and Company Lending Library Cards

MEP analyzes two sets of documents in the Beach Paperslogbooks that detail every library membership and renewal; and lending library cards that detail the addresses and borrowing histories of individual library members.  

My lending library was run on what Adrienne [Monnier] called, though I never knew why, “le plan américain.” It would have horrified an American librarian, with her catalogues and card indexes and mechanical appliances. It was quite suitable for a library such as mine. There was no catalogue—I preferred to let people find out for themselves how much was lacking; no card index—so unless you could remember, as Adrienne, with her wonderful memory, was able to do, to whom all your books were lent, you had to look through all the members’ cards to find out what had become of a volume.

This membership card was as good as a passport, so I was told.

(Shakespeare and Company, 21, 22)

Beach used 12 cm × 17 cm index cards to record the borrowing activities of her lending library members.  (She playfully called them “bunnies,” from the French word abonné, subscriber.) Beach typically wrote the name of the member in block letters at the top of the card, with the current year to the left and the member’s address below. As members moved, she would cross out the old address and write in the new one: Hemingway’s card is full of old addresses. Below the address, she frequently recorded the terms of the membership: 1 m 1 v, for example, to indicate a one-month membership entitling the member to borrow one volume at a time.

When a member borrowed a book, Beach or one of her assistants would record the fact on the member’s lending library card, writing the date on which the book was lent, followed by the title of the book (or the magazine; Shakespeare and Company also lent magazines).  When the book was returned, the date was noted on the card.

The typical three-column pattern made transcribing and encoding the lending transactions relatively simple. The dates and titles are preserved as written; encoders supplement the dates with machine-readable representations and annotate the titles with references to a uniform version. Ditto marks and abbreviations are preserved but supplemented with annotations.

MEP is now embarking on a second stage of encoding, in which the dates and titles will be combined into discrete borrowing events. When the encoding is complete, it will be possible to trace the circulation of books in great detail. 

The cards served a number of uses. They often include columns of figures registering renewals and purchases.  MEP transcribes these (when they are legible) but does not attempt to encode them in any way.

Beach and her staff also used the cards to leave notes to one another. David Gascoyne borrowed Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays on October 12, 1933; below that entry is a note instructing someone to ask him if he saw a new copy of the book. On Mme. Jean Genet’s card someone has written “enquired at PO Feb 10 whether parcel from Barcelona was delivered”; in another hand below is a response: “p.o. reports parcel delivered SB wrote to inform Mme g. received money order 16.50 Feb 17.”

These notes will be fully searchable through the MEP web interface, making the library cards not only the source of data for computational analysis but documents for research.

Before Joyce left that 12 July day, he requested a membership in the lending library. Sylvia took out a long lending-library card and wrote down: “James Joyce: rue de l’Assomption, Paris; subscription for one month; seven francs.”

(Fitch, 67)

Sylvia Beach’s archives at Princeton University contain the lending records for over 560 members of the Shakespeare and Company lending library, from Pauline Alderman to Isabelle Zimmer. The collection is incomplete. Hemingway and Gide are missing specific cards. James Joyce’s cards are missing. We do not yet know why Beach kept some cards and discarded others. We do know that some cards have been preserved in other archives, and we hope to have digital facsimiles  for the next version of this website. Nevertheless, the cards we have tell a fascinating story about the operations of Shakespeare and Company and the borrowing habits of its members.


Works Consulted

  • Sylvia Beach. Shakespeare and Company. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
  • Noel Riley Fitch. Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Norton, 1985.