I suppose it was inevitable that bookcases would eventually be the subject of my attention as a woodworker. I’ve always been a voracious reader and my book buying habit was only reinforced by studying history at undergraduate and graduate level, habits which were amplified by my wife’s profession (she is a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton) and appetite for reading. When Dr Moss and I moved in together, one of our first acts was to buy seven Billy bookcases to house our combined literature and history library. At that time, I was setting up my first workshop having studied lutherie at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking, and furniture building seemed like a different world to building guitars. So, a trip to IKEA and carrying seven flatpack bookcases up the torturous steps to our house it was. Six of those Billies survived two house moves and eight years of constant overloading, but their days are numbered and I now make more furniture than I do guitars. It is time to replace the Billies and to liberate the several boxes of books that have languished for years on my study floor.
Why should any of this matter? Well, because for as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed bookcases as a storage solution for the question of “where do I put all these books?” But I’ve not stopped to think about the bookcases themselves all that much. That’s how most folk think about bookcases; even the librarians in charge of historic collections tend to look at the contents of the shelves instead of the casework. Book storage is largely ignored until you don’t have enough of it.
But when you look beyond the books, and start to tease of the “why” and the “how” of book storage, things get interesting. Chris first talked to me about his idea for “The Book Book” in the autumn of 2017, and I was hooked. Not only was this a chance to replace those Billies, but also to piece together why bookcases developed into the form we now recognise. That is a path we’ve been on in earnest for a year now, and it is a fascinating opportunity to jump down many rabbit holes and to ask questions that might seem obvious, but for which no easy answers are available.
One of the few books on this subject is “The Book on the Bookcase” by Henry Petroski – a fine book, but which focuses more on the “how” than the “why.” And the “why” is where the real action is. Book technology is a recognised field of historic research, but one that is concerned more with the making and use of books rather than how book storage developed, but it can tell inadvertently tell us plenty about the factors that shaped bookcase development. Bookcases have developed to house books, so understanding why books are the sizes and shapes they are, the customs of book usage, and value and importance placed on books, all tell us something about why bookcases developed how they did.
“Oh, that’s easy” you might think. The development of the Gutenberg press encouraged standardised paper sizes which then determined shelf spacing. Well, possibly, but why those sizes and height-to-width ratios? Book storage pre-dates the printing press by hundreds of years – as soon as the first book was created, storage space was needed. And so, “The Book Book” becomes a wonderful opportunity to challenge preconceptions about book usage and production. It is a winding path from a monk fraudulently putting his name to a book in the 8th century, through court rolls, the medieval practices of producing books by scribes (both professional and amateur), the development of the printing press and early modern book production, the unchaining of libraries in the 16th century, 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, campaign furniture, Thomas Jefferson, William Morris, to Danish minimalism and beyond. And breathe. Do you want to know what the earliest documented instance of adjustable shelving in bookcases occurred? So do we.
When woodworkers ask me what sort of book “The Book Book” will be, the closest example I can think of is “Ingenious Mechanicks.” Like that book, we will present a rigorously researched history (in this case of the development of the bookcase) alongside practical woodwork. As well as combing through texts on book technology, and scouring art history for examples of bookcases (the earliest example I can find dates from the 8th century), I’ve been researching the furniture record. In particular, historic bookcases still in use at Oxford University, some of which are over 500 years old, and the Pepys Library at Cambridge University. Historic bookcases give us key information on three key questions – what book storage was needed at the time of construction, how the bookcases were constructed, and then how they have been altered while in use due to changing needs.
We will also be building notable historic bookcases, and covering techniques and practical considerations for designing and building bookcases. All you need to know to build your own book storage; the information I wished I’d had when I stood at that IKEA checkout with my mountain of Billy bookcases eight years ago.
I’ll be blogging about the research process and the breadcrumbs we have discovered, both here and on overthewireless.com – I hope you will join us on this path.
— Kieran Binnie
20 thoughts on “The Book Book: A Year On the Path”
Now, this is a book I want to read! I have been an avid reader since age 4, with the ensuing book collection, and from a very young age I’ve dreamed of one day building a set of bookcases, or rather a room full of fitted bookcases.
Until the day that that dream comes true, my main bookcases are Lundqvist “Klassika” (sold under the slogan “Böckerna skall tala – bokhyllorna tiga”, i.e. “The books shall speak – the shelves keep quiet”), which I strongly suspect are the ones off off which Ikea’s Billy is a cheaper copy/rip-off … plus, unavoidably, some Billys, too.
Another great moment in book history, courtesy of Norwegian sketch comedy TV: the help desk teaching medieval monks how to use books:
That is funny. Thank you!
Did you read the manual? Lol
I know. That’s when I lost it.
You might be interested in this book: “The Book on the Bookshelf” by Henry Petroski (ISBN-13 : 978-0375406492). Dr. Petroski is a professor of engineering at Duke and has written many books on the history of technology. As such while it covers the evolution of books and furniture to store them, as I recall it did not discuss the woodworking aspects much if at all. Cheers
As a medieval art history wonk and antique book collector/restorer and woodworker, I find your subject fascinating and will follow with interest. A bit off subject: I cannot help but be perplexed about the table in the illustration. The perspective is distorted (not surprising for the period), the legs are clearly turned, but I count five (is there a center support?) and are those thin lines stretchers, and if so, what could be the material? Not that I expect an answer since there may not be one; only an observation. I am doubtful if much, or even any, furnishings survive from that early.
See also James Campbell’s The Library, with pictures by Will Pryce.
If you visit historic sites in New England, you’ll find that one early approach to bookcases was essentially stacked boxes. That allowed the collection to be moved by just lifting them down, tilting them back, and nailing a covering board on the face for protection. As importantly, it made evacuating the library from a house fire possible.
Yeah, I’ve been promising myself proper bookcases and a formal library for the past decade plus, since I moved into this house. I have the room — the biggest problem has been settling in construction/style. “Appropriate to the house’s age” doesn’t help much; in 1890 that covers a huge range from the afore-mentioned shelf boxes to built-in to barrister’s. Leaning toward barrister’s or similar modules, just for ease of construction and transport, but I’m having trouble convincing myself to commit.
For now I’ve got an eclectic collection of rescued shelving, anchored by a minimalist design I inherited from my father: unfinished pine 2x12s screwed together into a 4’x4′ case, half sheet if plywood slapped on the back with more screws, shelf brackets on rails supporting 4 shelves plus top and bottom of the case as additional surface. It isn’t pretty, but it was a lot of storage “for cheap”, could be thrown together In an apartment, and can be loaded to the gills without complaining — the plain-board shelves don’t even bow significantly.
My girlfriend solved the book storage problem a different way: most books, after she’s read them, she donates to a local library. I can’t do that:; I need my display walls of hunting trophies. He who dies with the most books (and tools) wins, right?
Travelling/ mobile bookcases (such as you have described) are something we will be covering in the book. Travelling book storage brings with it a new set of technical considerations for the woodworker, and some fascinating solutions to those considerations.
I’ve given up on the idea of a consistent style of bookcase, and have accepted that I’ll likely have a blend of bookcases covering campaign, boarded, and historic styles. The Jefferson bookcase is very much on my bucket list.
“The Library” wasn’t on my reading list, so I will add that to the ever growing pile of research material. Because buying books about books and book storage is now what I do.
Been waiting for an update on this book since it was first teased! Glad to hear it is still in the LAP pipeline.
Workbenches, toolboxes, now bookcases, this is just great Ralph
I really enjoyed this article. Like the author, I am afflicted with a severe example of B&PPA (Book and Periodical Purchasing Addiction). I build model aircraft, USN & USMC, for the period 1919-present, and I have a problem with discarding anything that I buy. Now, if someone would only write a piece on 11th century glass shelves display & curio cases.
Fantastic! I’ll be following along!
I am eagerly looking forward to this. Things I hope you cover:
Why did Lost Art Press produce those gigantic Roubo volumes when they KNEW they wouldn’t fit in any of my bookcases. Even lying down, they hang far over the edge of the shelf.
Please show the main stacks at the NYPL, BPL, and LOC!
And those shelves in giant repositories that are crammed next to each other, and then glide apart with a spin of a handwheel to allow access.
Is it bookcase, or book case?
Another candidate book for your research reading: “The Country House Library” by Mark Purcell
To quote from the start of a summary: “Beginning with new evidence that cites the presence of books in Roman villas and concluding with present day vicissitudes of collecting, this generously illustrated book presents a complete survey of British and Irish country house libraries…” – lots of pictures of book shelves..
I have a copy of “The Country House Library” on my desk next to me right now!
We visited Trinity College Dublin home of the book of Kells. Now that a book and a fantastic library of bookcases. Must be 1/2 a forest of shelving, bracing, and woodwork …
Interesting stuff. Building and restoring display units/shelving was my first experience of furniture making, working as a shopfitter – refitting Hatchards on Piccadilly was an interesting project. I often get sidetracked in London based on peering at period shop features – Cornellisens, Maggs Bros, Sotherans etc
I can sometimes sneak a bit of the old Mayfair flair into a design for domestic alcove shelving, but not often enough! Ah well, baltic ply painted off-white pays the bills. Good luck with the book.
I’d throw Alberto Manguel’s “A History of Reading” in, alongside Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”, as suggestions for further reading.
Benjamin – “Of all the ways of getting hold of books, the most laudable is deemed to be writing them yourself”. As for books, so for bookcases, surely! Not sure about the translation, though – giving it a bit too much King James Version with “laudable” and “deemed”.
I’ve been grappling with the book storage problem for a while now, and have a couple of prototypes in hand. The most recent one to be completed was made of simple boards let into dados. I looked with interest at the final illustration in your article, but couldn’t work out exactly what was going on. So I switched to Overthewireless and found the blog entry where you describe in great detail the process you use. Of course, it’s generically similar to mine – after all, unless you bring in machinery, cutting a dado is just 1 Cut sides 2 Clear waste to depth 3 Clean up; but the way you do it – blue tape on the saw plate, and tape on either side of the cut to stop the plane marring the surface – these were light bulb moments.
Thank you: I’m glad I followed this through.
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