In Search of Lost Names (and Numbers)

The task of transcribing order books from the Hogarth Press sounded straightforward enough to me. I typed out the first few rows of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent from left to right: date, cumulative total copies sold, markings (such as check marks), purchaser name, code / notes (such as LL), number of copies ordered, date order received, date order filled, and price (in pounds, shillings, and pence). I took time with these first few entries, making sure I captured every detail. As I continued, I became more curious about the materials I was working with. Who was Deighton Bell and why did he buy so many copies, just to return one of them? Why were Menzies and Hockliffe charged different amounts for the same number of copies? In my head, these mysterious buyers started to come to life. Transcription became less of a manual chore; it became a quest to uncover the framework of the Hogarth Press.

It didn’t take me long to realize that typing one row at a time was not efficient. Transcription was just one part of a much larger endeavor, and further research was contingent on having this data digitized. Therefore, I wanted to finish the transcription phase as soon as possible. Gradually, I discovered several tricks that sped up the process. For each page, instead of going row by row, I started transcribing column by column. It was much easier to type out all the dates at once, followed by all the names and then all the prices. That way, I didn’t need to keep switching gears between names and numbers. I used the formula function in Google sheets to automatically fill in the cumulative totals. This saved a lot of time, but it was imperfect--or, shall I say, too perfect. A computer doesn’t miscalculate numbers, but the Woolf’s bookkeepers made their fair share of arithmetic errors. Since these mistakes were automatically fixed by the computer’s calculations, I had to go in and manually put the mistakes back so that we had a faithful record of the books. This brought up an interesting question I asked myself while transcribing not only cumulative totals, but also names and dates: when a mistake is evident, do I capture exactly what the bookkeeper wrote, or do I try to fix their mistake and put down what the bookkeeper meant to write? I decided to do the former and retain the original version, but it sometimes felt bizarre putting down “wrong” information.

Later on in the process, Peter and I started transcribing simultaneously. We decided to split the labor by column. For any given page, I was in charge of all the date and price columns, and Peter did the purchaser and other columns. While this shift in strategy accelerated the transcription process, it alienated me from the content. When I was transcribing slowly one row at a time, I viewed each transaction as a single unit with its own story behind it. I could see that on June 26, 1931, Book Society purchased six copies of All Passion Spent for 1 pound, 10 shillings, and that at this point 8,586 copies had been sold in total. Not only could I absorb all the information surrounding that transaction, I could also get a sense of how that transaction fit in the bigger picture. After dividing the transcription by column, however, I saw the order book as separate lists of numbers and letters. The dates, purchasers, and prices were isolated from each other, so I didn’t get a clear sense of how they were all related. I found myself conflicted between my desire to finish typing out data as soon as possible and my desire to develop a deeper understanding of the content. Should I interrupt the flow of transcription by spending time researching every single purchaser or the Hogarth Press’s variable pricing policy? Or should I restrain myself from analysis until after all the data has been amassed? Now that one entire order book has been converted into a digital spreadsheet, I wonder about how my current perspective would have differed if I had shifted my approach and my priorities.

To me, transcription felt both personal and defamiliarizing. I did develop an intimate connection with the content I was working with, but I know that there’s so much more to the order books that I just couldn’t capture in a spreadsheet. Regardless of my method, the goal of MAPP remains the same: to familiarize people with book history and twentieth-century publishing. The hours I spent transcribing revealed to me the importance of projects like MAPP. By treating each book as a dynamic object with a meaningful story behind its making, MAPP brings forgotten bits of history back to life.