Home libraries are showing there's no place like tome
Since Mesopotamians designated special rooms to keep their cuneiform tablets, home libraries have been a part of our history. Libraries reached their pinnacle in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries as grand, paneled spaces with fireplaces, ornate ceilings, bult-in shelves, soft chairs, plush carpets, game tables, and maybe a grand piano and secret doors -- a necessity for your servants to be able to tend to the fireplace unobtrusively. Oh, and books, the more the better. Think of the library at Highclere Castle in "Downton Abbey."
Libraries were common in even modest houses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- before the invention of radio, TV, video games and man caves.
But now, home libraries are enjoying a resurgence."The tactile connection to books and the need for places of refuge in the home, both for work and for personal well-being, have made libraries a renewed focus in residential design," according to Andrew Cogar, president of the archictural firm Historical Concepts. Covid has probably contributed to a renewed interest in libraries as well. People stuck at home rediscovered the joy of books and the satisfaction of organizing them in a way that makes sense.
In a new book, "The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom," author Reid Byers says that when books are displayed en masse, they work wonders. Covering the walls of a room, piled up to the ceiling and exuding the breath of generations, books nourish the senses, slay boredom, and relieve stress.
Entering a library should be like easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, or entering the house of an old friend. Byers coined the term "book-wrapt" to describe the exhilarating comfort of a well-stocked library. We know what he means.
Libraries are personal. What we read affects who we are. When we do house calls to buy book collections, the books tell us much about the people who read them. "Our shelves are ourselves," wrote Ann Fadiman in "Ex Libris." Conversely, a library created simply for decoration tells us that the residents aren't really readers; they are merely people wanting others to think so. (One article we read recently titled "Expert Tips To Create a Functional Library in Any Space of Your Home" suggested residents "tie the space together with a rug" and "infuse the area with colors." To some, books are a necessary evil in a library.)
How many books does it take to have a library? Thirty well-thumbed books in a bookcase is a better library than 1,000 someone bought in bulk to fill their shelves -- at least it is in our book.
But whether your library is a custom-made room or a few shelves in the living room, be sure to take a few simple steps to ensure that your books are protected. First, never position your shelves so that they are in direct sunlight. Sunlight will fade books quickly and dry them out. Second, never store books in areas with high humidity, like some basements. That will invite mildew. Third, don't shelve books in way that stresses the bindings, such as having them lean against each other, or storing larger and heavier books standing up rather than flat. That's about it. Go forth and get book-wrapt.