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by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Libraries are about books. Designated home libraries are about the ambience of books.

Before the family room came into existence, large homes in the 19th century had a room called the library that may or may not have held a few books but was used as an informal living area apart from the parlor, which was kept in pristine condition. In the 1920?s and ?30?s, the library became better known as the den and later as the study. Today, the home library reemerges as a repository for books and other information retrieval sources, in addition, to being a multipurpose room tailored to the needs of the homeowners.

?Many times people will have a library that?s also an office or study,? said interior designer, Sherry Hayslip, A.S.I.D. Or, the formal library is typically used for entertaining and is connected more to the entertainment area. Or, the library may be a bridge between the private and public life of the family.

?Although I have to say, I?ve done a library that was called a library on the plan, and the homeowners called it the library. But there were no books,? said Hayslip.

So, what constitutes library design?

?I?ve determined that there are three types of libraries in the average home,? Hayslip said. One is the library that?s really not formalized as a library, and it isn?t completely outfitted. But it has lots of shelves that fill up with the life and books of the family, and it serves the function of the library. Many of these rooms have computers, perhaps behind secret panels or a hidden door. Or maybe a laptop sits on a pretty desk. Yet, it is space for information exchanging?not necessarily books?perhaps a small television, hopefully, hidden behind doors or bindings.

The second type of library is a working library.

?This is where a book-lover owns the home and really has a fabulous collection of books,? Hayslip said. The books may not be rare books. They may be books that the family reads. For example, an author will usually have a huge collection of books on subjects that interest him as well as possibly his own books, or an architect will have a huge architectural library and other items of interest. A working library may include beautiful and rare books, but also books that are studied, and paperback books.

?To me, a working library must always be organized in a way that is not Dewey decimal code, specifically, ? Hayslip said. ?But it should be organized in a way that is easy to get to the books, or the books are in groups by subject.?

?Additionally, great respect is usually shown to the books; so the large books, which are very heavy, are put on their side. As well, important old antique books should be on their side; so they will be in a stack. But smaller books are stood upright with proper support so they?re not falling over. Very often, books on their side can hold up the books that are standing. You don?t have to have a lot of book-ends, which take up space.?

A working library can still display beautiful objects without becoming what Hayslip calls the third kind of library?the decorator library.

?There is a huge role for the decorator library, which all of us as interior designers on occasion do,? Hayslip said. ?It is a very formal area of the house. And we want to decorate it to look beautiful.? In these cases, typically, homeowners use antique books?leather bound books?not books that people take down and read. ?They are more like complete collections of Dickens novels, Waverly novels, things that you can buy in sets to fill up a lot of space, even old encyclopedias and books in foreign languages, which I think, unless you read the language, is ridiculous. There are thousands and thousands of books in Danish in Dallas. They are cheap, and they have nice binding; I think they?re ridiculous, unless you are the rare person who speaks that language, because they don?t really have any value from the point of view of the book. They are strictly decorative. It is a library to be looked at, and it is a beautiful thing.?

?The designer serves a role in educating people that there can be beautiful books of subjects that really peak their interests?not just acquiring random binding?but acquiring a book that would have meaning to them and also be beautiful,? Haylslip said.

?The very best libraries that I have worked on are two story libraries that are very tall with some method for access in the higher books?like a wonderful ladder or a gallery or balcony,? Hayslip said. They are well lit. And it doesn?t matter if they are light or dark, they have a beautiful sense of architecture about them because there is so much woodwork in a library. It?s a perfect opportunity to have more architecture than you have in most rooms?a fireplace, for instance, a masonry fireplace flush with the floor.

?Every library, to be a good library, should have some seating, so people can converse, not just look at the books,? said Hayslip. In her own home, Hayslip and her husband, architect Cole Smith, who used to be in bookbinding, are building in a library for their 3,000-book collection.

?Libraries for some people become the repository part of their brains, an extension of their brains,? Smith said. ?One can remember what?s in the book as long as it?s accessible. One might not need to get the book down to remember, but it can be brought down for refreshing the mind or for research. To me as an architect that?s my love of the books.?

Long bookshelves (4 to 6 feet) with adjustable shelving that is 9 to 12 inches deep for most books, 10 inches for many, and 14 inches for folios and large coffee table books make a great appearance, according to Smith.

?Another thing, the working library takes maintenance for the input and occasional de-accession, keeping up the bindings, feeding the weather?all that kind of thing,? said Smith. ?Ventilation at the back, even if only a quarter of an inch, is important.?

?It?s all part of the idea of air circulating around so you don?t trap any mold growth,? said Sally Key, conservator in Bridwell Library at SMU. ?There are a lot of what we call environmental circumstances, which are harmful to books in the long term.? Ultraviolet light accelerates book decay: humidity encourages the growth of mold spores. Ideal conditions?70 degree temperatures and less than 50% humidity?are uncomfortable for humans. So, Key recommends keeping room temperature steady and at a reasonable level using air conditioners to cut humidity and fans for air circulation. She also recommends UV filters on fluorescent lamps, avoiding the build up of heat from incandescent lamps, and keeping books away from direct sunlight.

Although libraries are often imagined as dark paneled rooms, using lightwood paneling is fine. Color is not as important as aged wood or good kiln dried wood to avoid the problem that all wood offgases (emit gases) to some extent.

?Sometimes those gases are very acidic,? said Key. ?In contrast, aged wood is very stable regarding these gases.? Still, Key recommends sealing the wood with polyurethane sealant.

Wood pulp, in fact, does not make good paper; it?s just the cheapest, according to Key. Very early paper was made from rags?linen rags originally, then linen with hemp, and later cotton rags.

Conservators think that from 1850, there was such an incredible acceleration in literacy and demand for reading materials that the old, big time papermakers ran out of rags. Bookmakers had to find an alternative?wood pulp, which was not a great fiber because of its inherent acids.

?These books do present conservators with an enormous challenge because old materials that were used to make these books were very poor quality and degrade quickly,? said Key. People began discussing the problem in the 1940?s; but in 1968, the flood of the Arno River through the city library in Florence, Italy served as the catalyst for conservators to codify their thoughts into principles. By the 1980?s, US government specifications allowed the production of alkaline papers?acid free paper for public documents.

Even the leather binding presents problems, today, stemming from the use of very thin leather during the late 19th/early 20th century. These books break down at the hinges, where the spine and board meet and flex; and the boards just come off. The problems are further aggravated by the tendency of leather to dry out and become brittle in low humidity and by the trace amounts of hydrochloric acid in the leather, leftover from the acid used in preparation techniques at the turn of the century.

All of these problems pose conservators with an enormous challenge, according to Key. Collectors of that period are realizing that they can?t use their books but must house them carefully and leave them. So, if it?s a book that you care about, you really like for whatever reason, it behooves you to take it to a conservator and have he/she tell you just what the problems are and what you can do to keep that book safe, recommends Key. Contact the American Institute of Conservationists at 202-452-9545 or e-mail

On the other hand, very old books make great collections?two early categories are (1) illuminated manuscripts?books hand written on vellum: skin of sheep, goats, or calves, and (2) incunabula?the very earliest type printed books before 1500, during a 50 year period after the first book printed with moveable type, the Latin Bible of Johann Gutenberg, printed in 1450. Bridwell Library just closed the exhibition of their collection of Gutenberg bible leaves, about half the bible.

People interested in old bibles are generally not collectors,? said Richard Hazlett, owner of The History Merchant. Collectors prefer the Book of Common Prayer as well as books about British explorers, army battles, kings and queens, the classic literature, and recent authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice. Another interesting observation about buyers of rare books relates to their gender.

?Women tend to be interested in fiction?literature,? said Hazlett. ?Most of the history buffs are almost all men. And out of the men, lawyers are the most predominate. But women do a lot of the buying.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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