September 2, 2015 / Luxury Lifestyle

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: GettyThe 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; the library in designer Karl Lagerfeld’s Central Park photo studio houses some 60,000 tomes.

The Legendary Beverly House in Los Angeles, which was sold via Hilton & Hyland Real Estate, an exclusive affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate, has an opulent wood-paneled library.  “It played host to Hollywood royalty for 20 years,” says Jeff Hyland, president of Hilton & Hyland. “The two-story room holds more than 10,000 volumes, including rare first editions.” Hip coffee shop D’Espresso on New York’s Madison Avenue, meanwhile, has a library theme with trompe l’oeil bookshelves wrapped around its ceiling and walls.

Many interior designers today create libraries for private clients. One prominent firm, New York- and London-based Symm, assisted in designing and installing a library and billiards room in a private home in Virginia, modeled on the library at the University of Oxford’s Christ Church college.

A domestic oak library by renowned building firm Symm. Photograph: S R GambrelUK-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 PryceAnd what kinds of books are most desirable? “Great books of science, literature, and exploration,” advises Thomas Lecky, Head of Books and Manuscripts at Christie’s, New York. “Christie’s has handled some of the world’s greatest collections, including the Estelle Doheny collection [in 1988], the most valuable American collection ever sold at auction. And we’ve handled exceptional, single items such as Jack Kerouac’s first draft of his 1957 novel On the Road, which sold for $2,426,000 [in 2001].”

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.”

“Condition is crucial,” says Lecky. “Even though books are multiples, condition can vary greatly from copy to copy. But above all, be guided by personal taste: collect what you love – a field that truly inspires you.” Build your library with your heart, then, and it will bring you a lifetime of pleasure.

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

View more Lovely Libraries


  • Bespoke Living
  • Interiors & Design
  • Architecture

Dominic Lutyens
writes about design and architecture for the Financial Times, The Telegraph, and The Guardian