Furniture Matters: The Bookcase

The bookcase is possibly my favorite piece of furniture. It was heartbreaking to get rid of most of my books when I moved away from Edmonton to come back to BC, almost two years ago. Back then, I required two bookcases; my collection was minimal compared to my roommate’s. But still, even today everything fits in one bookcase, what with using the library and eBooks a lot more. But it doesn’t change the fact that I have a long love story with my bookcases. They have always been a reflection of my life and state of mind.

The bookcase: a history

The bookcase is fairly simple in shape and function, and it hasn’t changed much over the centuries. However, its history does have some interesting turns, which follow those of the history of the book.

The first bookcases appeared with the use of written language. People needed a place to keep all those scrolls together. They were often stacked on top of each other on shelves, but they were not always protected against vermin. Those repositories were mostly public, kept by scribes who were required to write and collect official government documents.

The first private libraries appeared in the late Roman republic. They were often used as status symbols by mostly illiterate (but wealthy) merchants and landowners. The bookcases were more important than the scrolls themselves: they were made of precious woods and inlaid with ivory. Bookcases became a requirement for the wealthy domus, as much as hot water and bathrooms.

As long as books were written by hand and remained rare, there were few places that would actually accumulate them. Members of the clergy kept them in chests so they could carry them away. But monasteries and wealthy households would need a space to keep their accumulated manuscripts. They did so with shelves or cupboards with doors (until the doors were discarded, the next step towards the modern bookcase). Back then, the habit was to stack books up horizontally. If they were kept vertical, the spine actually faced the wall.

With the invention of the printing press, books quickly became cheap, and anyone could own them. Bookcases, however, remained an object directly related to its owner’s status: made of of fine woods and often decorated, they told of the quality of the book’s owner.

Bookcases today vary in appearance and value. From the purely utilitarian steel bookcases of public and university libraries to the beautiful oak bookcases of private collectors, there is a world of variations. However, the coming of the ebook raises a lot of questions about the future need for shelved library space.

The Bookcase: A Cultural View

Culturally, bookcases are important objects. They carry the knowledge of the world. Libraries are spaces that combine both mystery and knowledge: who knows who or what is hiding behind the next row? No loss of documents has been decried as much as the burning of the famous Alexandria library. It supposedly held all the knowledge of Greek and Roman times, and still today scholars wonder at how much information we have lost.

Famous libraries like Oxford’s Bodleian are visited like tourist spots for the bookish. Architects push the design of the library further and further: some famous modern libraries include Seattle’s public library downtown branch and the UCSD Giesel library.

The Bookcase: A Personal View

As I already said, the bookcase is my favorite piece of furniture. I could not imagine by bedroom or my office without one. My bookcase is where I keep my most precious, most loved books.

Some of us dream of a room exclusively dedicated to reading. Bookshelves to the ceiling, a window overseeing a beautiful garden, and some dark leather reading chairs: this is how I see it. A private library is a personal space where you can sit down quietly and enjoy the written word, in whatever form you prefer. Classification fanatics may invent their own system for keeping track of their collection.

The bookcase, and by extension the library, is where we begin to expand our minds and use our imagination. The library contains thousands of worlds waiting to be explored and investigated. Children find it an exciting place full of stories; teenagers find it a refuge from the stormy mental and hormonal seas of adolescence; adults find it a calm meditative space for taking time just for themselves.

What’s your relationship to books, bookshelves and libraries? Do you require ever-expanding bookshelf space, or do you curb your book cravings through library lending? Share your stories with us in the comments!

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