Using a digital surrogate of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Hospital Sketches’ as a micro survey of its readership and history


When I was younger, I used to take out stacks upon stacks of books from my public library. I loved the feel of a book in my hands, and I would leave my own little physical mark on it by dog-earring the pages to mark the spot I left off at (sorry, librarians!). I often wondered who had checked the book out before me, who would take it out after I returned it, who currently had their hands on another copy of the book. When I went to flea markets with my parents, I loved finding old books, seeing how worn the pages were, looking at handwritten inscriptions and notes just inside the cover or in the margins of the pages, and knowing the book has passed through other hands. To me, the questions of “Who else has read this? How many people has this book had an impact on?” have always been some of the most fascinating aspects of a book to think about, contributing to the story of the book almost as much the content itself. 

So when I came across a digital surrogate (essentially an online scan of a book’s hardcopy, rather than just a webpage with the book’s text) of Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, I was quite excited to look at it and learn more about the book itself, rather than just reading the story contained in its pages. Hospital Sketches was originally published in 1863 and follows the story of a Civil War nurse, Tribulations Periwinkle, as she first enters work in a hospital. The chapter “A Day” was one of my favorite readings from this semester, but I had read it in a non-surrogate e-book form. It gave me no sense of the book’s history: how old the version was, had the book been popular enough to be reprinted, who else had read it—because it was just text on a webpage, not a physical, historied object. For one of Alcott’s other works, Little Women, it seems fairly ubiquitous knowledge that it’s been reproduced and adapted into film many times over, that it’s been immensely popular and widely read ever since it was first published, and so its history seems almost obvious. Hospital Sketches, though, never seems to have reached that level of popularity, and so less is widely known about it. Some of that information about how popular it was and how many times it was reproduced could ostensibly be Googled, but just looking at the digital surrogate gives a lot of that information more compactly, especially as it pertains to the book’s circulation in one specific community, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

The first few pages of the book, before the story itself begins, gives a pretty rich history of the book and its readership. The title page shows that this particular copy was published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1922, almost six decades after it was originally published. This indicates that there was enough general interest in the book for there to be at least two editions (possibly more, which could have come before or after this particular reprint), and that its popularity was fairly deep and long-term, since it was reprinted so much later, long after the initial hype around its publishing would have died down—or perhaps the early ‘20s served as a time of renewed interest in Hospital Sketches or in Alcott generally, but something about it was still strong enough to pass the test of time and spur another edition.  

The inside cover of the book has a logo and stamp with the book’s information from the University of Illinois. It says, “Cop. 2,” which presumably is short for “copy #2.” The library staff, then, must have thought the book would be popular enough with college students or maybe assigned in literature classes often enough that they should have multiple copies of it, at least two of them. And that it belongs to a university at all allows us to infer who the target audience of the book may have been: young people and college students, who would perhaps read it for enjoyment or because a professor thought it was pertinent to their studies. From looking at the check-out date stamps a couple pages later, it seems like this copy was acquired by the University’s library around 1944, since that’s the earliest date that it seems to have been checked out. Perhaps that was another point of renewed interest in the book or the author, if they acquired it a couple decades after the reprint. From there it seems to have been taken out somewhat sporadically, but still a decent amount of times (especially since the other copy or copies probably would’ve been checked out too). This copy’s popularity seems to have peaked in 1983, which four stamps that year. And the latest date stamped on it is from what looks like 2006—showing fairly recent interest in it. Also on that point, the Google Books page for this copy says it was digitized only a few years ago in 2015. I would guess that the University of Illinois did not just indiscriminately digitize their entire collection, so the choice to digitize this book (and to make it free, which is great for accessibility!) was most likely made because they thought it would be popular and important in this current age.  

That’s a lot of history for just one copy of a book out of what must have been thousands published throughout the past century and a half. By looking at just this one digitized version of a hardcopy book that belonged to one community, we get a little glimpse into the life of the book, and we can also infer what its impact would have been more widely, outside of the University of Illinois. By looking at this copy, we see fairly steady and often renewed interest in the book, and we can infer that it has had a deep and long impact on readers and literary culture in general, which helps to reinforce Louisa May Alcott’s status as a literary powerhouse even beyond the iconic Little Women

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories. Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1922. Accessed 14 May 2020.

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