Knowledge of a work’s historical context can be of great import in scholarly work. Knowing that an artist or writer had come in contact with particular thoughts and ideas can affect how a particular work was conceived. For example, knowing that Gertrude Stein regularly had tea with Pablo Picasso can lend some insight into how Stein conceived her experiments with poetry and storytelling. It is in situations such as these that combing through historical records is not only a necessary, but vital means of understanding the ways in which artists interacted with their contemporaries.
When it comes to modernism, perhaps one of the most comprehensive records is the archive kept of Sylvia Beach at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, a popular city for expatriate artists and writers of what would eventually be known as The Lost Generation. Acting as both a bookshop and a lending library, Shakespeare and Company became a space of intellectual and artistic exploration that drew in many now-famous figures such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway among many others. Due to Beach’s detailed book-keeping, scholars of this period are easily able to determine who read what book and when, as well as where Beach’s customers lived and worked.
For most of their history, these records have only been available in paper form. But now, with the help of the Mapping Expatriate Paris: The Shakespeare and Company Lending Library Project (also known as the MEP) run by Princeton University’s Center for Digital Humanities, Beach’s catalog of her patrons is joining the digital age. Through this endeavor, the MEP seeks to not only digitize the records, but to map where Beach’s clients lived at what time and how Paris itself changed between the end of the first World War and the German occupation of France in 1940.
As a digital humanities project, the MEP acts as a detailed and illuminating means of better understanding the comings and goings of artists and writers in early 20th-century Paris. While they admit that there is still much to be done with the project, MEP has already cataloged over 9,000 different titles available to Shakespeare and Company patrons, as well as over 22,000 times those books were borrowed by over 550 library members. Similarly, the map created from the addresses listed in Beach’s records allow for a better understanding of exactly how close members of this community lived to one another. For someone interested in this important area of history, the MEP promises to be a treasure trove of potential scholarship.