Sylvia Beach used 12 cm x 17 cm index cards to record the borrowing activity and addresses of lending library members. Hemingway’s card is representative. Beach recorded his last name in block letters at the top of the card with the year to the left and his address below. As he moved, she crossed out his old addresses and added new ones. When he borrowed a book or magazine, she (or an assistant) recorded the date and title. When he returned an item, she recorded the return date. Occasionally, she simply noted, “BB”—“brought back.”
Most lending library cards include terms of membership and a deposit amount. In 1919, members could join for one month and borrow one volume at a time for 8 francs, plus a 7 francs deposit. (Beach would record “1 m 1 v” on the card and note the membership cost and the deposit.) Hemingway’s card does not include such terms: Beach would often give writers and friends free memberships without any borrowing limits. (“Friends can have anything that they want,” she told one of her assistants. “If they do not want to pay for what they take, they do not have to pay.”)1 On December 10, 1925, Hemingway borrowed four books in five volumes—Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901, translation 1924); Knut Hamsun’s Children of the Age (1913, translation 1924); and Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk (1859, translation 1894), and Fathers and Children (1862, translation 1895)—which he returned over the winter and spring of 1926.
The lending library cards often include notes. Hemingway’s card shown here—his earliest extant card—refers to A Farewell to Arms, which wasn’t published until 1929. Robert McAlmon’s card from 1928 mentions a parcel from Maurice Darantiere, the printer of Ulysses. Mary Maryse Charbonnel’s card from 1937 includes the note, “hopeless”—a reference to Beach’s attempts to secure the return of Sarah Gertrude Millin’s Rhodes (1933). Christine Morrow’s card from 1940 includes the foreboding, “all books of Miss Morrow's are safe”—a reference to her precarious position as a Australian doctoral student in Nazi-occupied France.
Beach discusses the cards in her memoirs, Shakespeare and Company (1959). The cards, she writes, were her only system for tracking the circulation of books:
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.2
If a member wanted to read Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915), for example, and the book was not where it should be, Beach (or an assistant) would have to scan the cards to determine if it was checked out or lost. A laborious task!
The Beach Papers include cards for over 600 individual members. Some members only have one card. Jacques Lacan, for example, has one card with one event: in 1941, he borrowed P. W. Joyce’s A Concise History of Ireland (1903) for almost two months. Other members have multiple cards. Hemingway has seven—two double sided. Alice Killen has twenty-seven—twenty-five double sided. (She borrowed almost 1,500 books over eighteen years!) The earliest extant card is from November 17, 1919, the day Shakespeare and Company opened: Claude Cahun, under the name Lucie Schwob, borrowed the first volume of Henry James’s Roderick Hudson (1875). The latest card is from June 28, 1962: Beach gives Jean-Dominique Rey her copy of Bryher’s The Heart to Artemis (1962). (Beach continued to loan—and give away—books after Shakespeare and Company closed in 1941.) Not all members have extant cards. The majority of cards are lost—or were never saved. A few are held by other libraries. (Some of James Joyce’s cards, for example, are in the James Joyce Collection at the University at Buffalo.) But with the logbooks, the cards provide an incredible portrait of intellectual life in interwar Paris.
1. Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (New York: Norton, 1983), 389.
2. Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 21.
Cite this document
“Lending Library Cards.” Shakespeare and Company Project, version 1.5.6. Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University. November 20, 2019. http://shakespeareandco.princeton.edu/sources/cards/. Accessed December 5, 2023.