Architecture Bespoke Living Interiors & Design

Shelf Life: The Private Library Comes Home

Rumors of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated. Even in the digital age, book sales are rising steadily. So take a quiet moment to retreat to the library – in your own home

According to James WP Campbell, author of The Library: A World History, the evolution of books is inseparable from that of libraries. Historically, libraries themselves have broadly fallen into two categories: a practical solution to store and conserve books or, for wealthy owners of impressive private libraries, a way of flaunting their cultural refinement or erudition. Free public lending libraries only appeared from around 1850.

The digital age may have turned us all into tablet readers, but Campbell contests the widely held idea that e-books will kill off printed books: “Sales of physical books are increasing; 229 million books were sold in the UK alone in 2010, a huge increase on the 162 million sold in 2001.” Today’s self-publishing phenomenon, he adds, “which allows books to be printed on demand,” is fueling this boom. In the UK, small municipal libraries are closing, yet we’re seeing the rise of mammoth public libraries such as Birmingham’s new £189 million ($305,000,640) building, which houses one million books. An impressive figure, it’s dwarfed by the 34.5 million volumes housed in the public US Library of Congress. And homeowners – nostalgic, perhaps, for pleasurably tactile printed books – increasingly covet private libraries today.

Top image: iStockphoto. Founded by John Adams, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution  in the US, and dates back to 1800. Photograph: Getty
Top image: iStockphoto. Founded by John Adams, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal cultural institution in the US, and dates back to 1800. Photograph: Getty

The first libraries, home to the earliest form of book – writing on clay tablets – sprung up in Mesopotamia as early as 2,600 BC. “The ancient Greeks collected books, too,” says Campbell, a fellow in architecture and history of art at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge. “Aristotle [384-322 BC] owned a library.” The first Greek scrolls, made from papyrus from Egypt, appeared around 500 BC. From the first century AD, codexes – the prototype for books as we know them today, comprising parchment sheets joined together at one end – replaced the scrolls.

“In the West, in the medieval period, books were copied by hand and were luxury items,” continues Campbell. “In China, the rich built libraries in their homes to improve their children’s chances of getting positions in the civil service.”

It takes five to six months to make the library, and about two to three weeks to fit it
Tim Gosling

Two major innovations accelerated the proliferation of books and libraries: paper, which was invented in China in the second century BC, and Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press of around 1440, which lowered the cost of books, helped democratize reading, and saw libraries grow in size. That said, libraries were generally elitist, designed to be shown off. Until the late 16th century, books were stored in cupboards; thereafter they adorned open shelves. “Their ostentatious display began in the Renaissance with families such as the Medicis in Florence,” says Campbell.

In the US, Thomas Jefferson had a library at his 18th-century house, Monticello, in Virginia. “It was small compared with those of English country houses,” notes Campbell, “but large rooms didn’t necessarily mean important collections. In the 19th century, many homeowners bought books by the yard, more for their bindings than their contents.”

In this century, private libraries continue to be highly sought after. Actor Diane Keaton’s Beverly Hills home boasts one with floor-to-ceiling shelves. Many interior designers today create libraries for private clients.

A domestic oak library by renowned building firm Symm. Photograph: S R Gambrel
A domestic oak library by renowned building firm Symm. Photograph: S R Gambrel

UK-based interior designer Tim Gosling also creates custom libraries. “I first sit down with the client and sketch,” he says. “My design team then produces a 3D model and a computer rendering that allows you to see it from all angles. Once the design is approved, we cost the library – normally from £100,000 to £500,000 ($161,376-$806,880), depending on the woods used. The temperature change from summer to winter on the East Coast is so abrupt it can have huge implications on woods,” which, he says, can expand or contract. “I try to avoid  woods with a high oil content as they can crack.”

Gosling says his team then spends “four to five weeks doing technical working drawings, site surveys, and creating life-size, timber sections  of the library, which show all its details. It takes five to six months to make the library and about two to three weeks to fit it. Lighting is critical.  I make sure natural light is filtered so it doesn’t hit books directly and bleach them.”

Do certain styles of library suit certain styles of interior? “I usually propose one that doesn’t contrast too strongly with the rest of the house,” says designer Neil Stevenson, whose British furniture and joinery company is cabinetmaker to Queen Elizabeth.

The George Peabody Library, 1878. Photograph: Will Pryce
The George Peabody Library, 1878. Photograph: Will Pryce

And, notes Margaret Ford, International Head of Group (Books and Science) at Christie’s, “Americana – artefacts pertaining to the US – is big in the US. Some of the highest prices ever achieved have been for books and manuscripts of American interest.”

The Library: A World History by James WP Campbell  is published by Thames & Hudson.