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Reading English-Language Literature in Interwar Paris: A Conversation with Joshua Kotin and Rebecca Sutton Koeser About the Shakespeare and Company Project

Sylvia Beach (right) and Stephen Vincent Benét (center) at Shakespeare and Company, circa 1920 [Princeton University Library Special Collections]

4 August 2020

Camey VanSant, Princeton University

What was Gertrude Stein reading in the 1920s? And who was reading Gertrude Stein?

These are the kinds of questions addressed by the Shakespeare and Company Project, a web application that brings to life the world of Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop and lending library in interwar Paris. Founded in 1919 by American expatriate Sylvia Beach (1887–1962), Shakespeare and Company counted among its members Stein, James Joyce, Aimé Césaire, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, and other prominent artists and intellectuals. Shakespeare and Company is also famous as a publisher; when no one else dared, Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) under the Shakespeare and Company imprint. Although Beach’s business closed in 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, she continued to lend books to friends and acquaintances for the rest of her life.

The Shakespeare and Company Project, led by Joshua Kotin (Associate Professor of English, Princeton University) and Rebecca Sutton Koeser (Lead Developer, Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University), draws from archival material held by Princeton University Library in Princeton, New Jersey, where Beach lived as a young adult and where her father, an alumnus of the school, served as a pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Princeton University purchased the material in 1964. Version 1.0 of the Project was released in May and new features and articles are constantly being added. In July, Version 1.0 data became available to download. As the new Project Manager and a recent Ph.D., I asked Kotin and Koeser about the ways scholars might engage with the Project, as well as their experiences working with a team in which graduate students have always played a prominent role.

CV: The Shakespeare and Company Project makes material from the Sylvia Beach Papers, including the lending library cards of hundreds of Shakespeare and Company members, available online. It also provides users with tools to engage with these materials; for example, users can search by book title or author, or by member name, and sort member results by nationality, gender, and other demographic categories. What are some of the ways you imagine scholars using the Project, and how did that influence the way you built the site?

RSK: I see the web interface as a way to explore the Project and to answer big questions, like whether or not someone was a member and when (something I understand that previously scholars used to email Josh about directly), or which books circulated and when, or which books a particular member borrowed. I hope the filters on the book and member pages give people a sense of some of the information available and will be taken as an invitation to explore, whether looking at a specific group of people by some demographic category or membership date, or by moving from individual member pages to book pages and back again. 

JK: We built the site to help scholars ask and address a wide range of questions, and to connect different kinds of questions. Consider a Katherine Mansfield scholar. The scholar might visit the site to find out who read The Garden Party (1922) or what Mansfield read when she was a member of the lending library. But we hope that the site inspires the scholar to ask other questions as well. What did members read along with The Garden Party? Who else visited Shakespeare and Company the day Mansfield borrowed Stein’s Three Lives (1909)? Did Mansfield’s borrowing practices reflect broader trends? Were women more likely than men to borrow books by women? We hope, in other words, that the site inspires scholars to move from qualitative to quantitative questions, and vice versa.

Left: Gertrude Stein’s lending library card, with borrows beginning March 15, 1920; right: a screenshot from the Project site showing a partial list of members who borrowed Stein’s Three Lives (1909).

CV: Speaking of the Project’s potential to shift researchers’ approach to scholarship, one of the most interesting parts of the Project for me has been to see how Project team members bring different perspectives to the work. What have you learned about the Project by working with a team comprising scholars of literature, developers, and designers? Rebecca, maybe I’ll start with you since you are both a scholar of literature and a developer. 

RSK: On a large, long-term project like this you inevitably learn so much from your collaborators, but I’m finding it difficult to think of the bigger lessons that I’m sure I’ve learned. What’s coming to mind seem to be smaller things. For example, I learned from Josh that normally libraries destroy patron records for privacy reasons, and the fact that Beach did not is why we have this rich treasure trove of data. I learned from developer Nick Budak that we can be more thoughtful and careful about how we represent and discuss the sex and gender of historical figures (this is admittedly not a small thing!). And I am continually learning from user experience designer Gissoo Doroudian’s commitment to transparency and clarity for users, as she makes sure that we translate the terms we use internally for a project to be comprehensible to people coming fresh to the project. 

JK: I learned about the varied skills and extensive labor needed to build the Project. Now, more than seven years after I first discussed the Project with co-founder Jesse McCarthy, I see that I had radically underestimated the undertaking! But just as important: I learned to see the material in the Beach Papers as data to be analyzed, regularized, quantified, ordered, compared. As a result, I have been able to see literature and literary communities in new and surprising ways, and to understand the ramifications of seemingly simple choices about how to identify and represent people and books. The more familiar I became with different ways of approaching the Project, the more unfamiliar and intriguing Beach’s world became. I thank my collaborators for that.

CV: Josh, you mentioned that the Project emerged from discussions with Jesse McCarthy, who was a graduate student at the time. Since then, graduate students have played important roles in the Project. How do you see working on a project like this as important for a graduate student’s education?

JK: Jesse was a student in a Ph.D. seminar I taught on Ezra Pound in 2013. I took the seminar to Special Collections to show them the Beach Papers. Jesse had grown up in Paris and immediately recognized the potential of the addresses on the lending library cards and suggested a digital humanities project. We started ‘Mapping Expatriate Paris’ the following year. That project grew into the Shakespeare and Company Project. Seven other graduate students have contributed to the Project by transcribing records, researching members and books, and crafting research guidelines. Their contributions have been vital. In the process, they have taken a course in literary history and bibliography, and learned specific technical and management skills. One former project manager has gone onto a career in the technology industry. 

CV: It’s true, I can already tell that I am learning a lot of skills that are applicable in other industries–even coordinating this interview presented logistical challenges! But I also wonder, Rebecca, how you see work in digital humanities complementing the other kinds of training students receive in graduate school?

RSK: I think digital humanities project work is particularly valuable as a way of teaching graduate students about collaborative scholarly work — what it looks like, how to do it, how rewarding and valuable it can be. I’m sure it’s also valuable for grad students to see behind the scenes on larger-scale projects just how much work and time and different expertise goes into building something, which may not be apparent from the surface. And I hope that working with humanities texts and archival materials shifts their perspective about their own research, whether or not they incorporate digital humanities methods into their own work.

CV: I certainly agree. My dissertation is on the nineteenth-century novel, so the Project does not seem immediately relevant to my research, but even in my short time on the Project I have found myself asking questions about the connections between my period and the one that follows. What’s one research question that has occurred to each of you?

RSK: I want to try time series forecasting methods as a way of filling in some of the gaps left by the partial historical record, notably the missing logbooks in the early 1930s. I’m interested in what it might suggest about the lending library activity that we don’t have documented, and also in what insights it might give into the methods themselves, which are typically used for predicting future trends.

JK: One of most abstract questions that occurred to me is this: can the Project illuminate the connection between proximity and taste? Were neighbors more likely than non-neighbors to borrow the same books? Did writers with similar intellectual and aesthetic commitments routinely visit Shakespeare and Company on the same day? Modernity is often understood to minimize the importance of proximity to community. I wonder if the Project can complicate that understanding.

This interview was conducted electronically in July 2020 by Camey VanSant. Camey, who earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton earlier this year, is Postgraduate Research Associate at the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton. The interview was edited for length and clarity.


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