A Rare Read: Designing a Rare Book Library

A Rare Read: Designing a Rare Book Library

  |   Tips, Tricks and Insights

Written for Art, Antiques and Design (By Gail Green)


I suspect that the question now is … can anyone live in a world without computers? Has the ascent of the keyboard created the demise of the physical book? Is extinction in the cards? Well, yes and no. Perhaps, for the average paperback with little provenance, this may be the case. But, not so for the rare book. In fact, I predict quite the opposite. As the book art form grows increasingly rarer, the value of rare books will.

The gentleman’s private library has always been a haven where one gleans a sense of intellectual spirituality at home. Surrounded by a wealth of knowledge, the collector sees his library as a sanctuary from the labors and toils of the day, a place where he finds serenity from the outside world – a halcyon visit to another time and place. As the collector Jack Holmes expresses, “What I find the most satisfying about being a book collector is the responsibility I am taking on by being the temporary custodian of a particular literary treasure. There are only so many copies of Johnson’s Dictionary out there, or Moby Dick, or Oliver Twist in the parts, and to own one of them is to not only to hold history in your hand (which is exciting in and of itself) but it is also to preserve that history for the future. To play a role in making sure that rare books and first editions survive is something I take seriously.

Rare books are not only investments, they are treasures, indeed. Their provenance tells a great story, lending both intrigue and intellectual value to the tome. Who owned it, when it was printed, who printed it, where was it printed, whose binding adorns it, and whose notes annotate it – all these and more are some of the seminal questions to be asked about a rare book.

There are several important characteristics to be considered in designing a rare book library. As a designer, the most prominent categories are the room’s lighting, air quality, cabinetry (shelving), finishes, and overall architectural plan. As the book becomes a more arcane form, these specific conditions will define and determine the longevity of the collection. If there is one characteristic to which rare books respond, it is to the stability, consistency, and beauty of its environment.

Lighting: The sun is a friend to sunbathers, but an enemy to books. Natural light can lead to a book’s disintegration. Many libraries, both public and personal, have now become spaces with few windows, limiting permeation by the sun. For best results, light precautions need to begin with a UV film over each window, protected by additional layers of draperies. These decorative panels, as noted drapery fabricator Robin Feuer suggests, “need to be lined and interlined for the best protection. For added protection, a solar shade with maximum opacity should be added.” In addition, strips are oftentimes placed on the sides of the windows, insuring the least light invasion. Insofar as interior lighting is concerned, Richard Renfro of Renfro Design suggests placing LED light strips on the underside of the ledge above each shelf. Compared to other types of lighting, LED’s are not as hot and emit a nice, consistent stream of light upon the books below. Free of UV rays and infrared frequencies, they can be left on for considerable periods of time. Phantom Lighting who makes such concealed linear strip lighting notes ” that the lighting strip creates a safe, low-voltage light appropriate for lighting books continuously.” Sandra Liotus, Liotus Lighting Design, engineers and builds glass fiber optic lighting which removes all infra-red and ultra violet lighting frequencies, allowing rare books to be lit without worry of fading, wet or dry rot, or reduced relative humidity.”

Environmental: Stabile, constant, and consistent are the key words here. Maintaining an even temperature with a consistent humidity level contributes to the most effective environmental conditions for the private library. Ivan Pollak, IP Consulting engineers, notes, “It is imperative that books be exposed to both a stable temperature of between 65 to 70 degrees and a relative humidity level of 45 to 55%. The important thing to remember in relation to both the humidity and temperature is that both remain constant, and that if any kind of change be required, it be done gradually. This means that the temperature and humidity be set and left without any kind of radical change.” In addition, the air quality needs to be as pure as possible. This is because books are made from celluloids that are highly vulnerable to air impurities. These impurities can be particularly aggressive, creating an acidic or chemical reaction to the books. A too high ph factor is toxic to paper. Thus, the ph level should be neutralized and climate control maintenance should be instituted whenever possible.

Extremes in all aspects need to be avoided. Insofar as moisture is concerned, Ivan Pollak notes that “It is best not to place the library too close to a bathroom, where the humidity levels can run high because of the close proximity to water.” Paper can be hygroscopic, readily absorbing moisture. “If one has an HVAC system, Ivan notes, then it is possible to capture the bad air while precluding and filtering outside impurities.” Proper air conditions will also prevent mold from proliferating. Humidifiers are beneficial when there isn’t a system that can moderate the humidity and temperature levels. Air conditioning in the summer and overall heating in the winter are essential in maintaining the proper temperature. Excessive heat can destroy and accelerate the decay of books. Thus, it is best to maintain a cool, dry environment for your collection with as little temperature fluctuation, as possible. In addition, books should not be stored in basements or attics, or near any heat sources. Doors and windows should be sealed and weatherstripped in order to prevent the intrusion of outside air, light, and pollutants.

When possible, arranging books by size is quite effective, with each size tome protecting the other. At least 1″ clearance between book height and shelf above to allow for easy, uncramped placing and removal of books from their shelf-space. Never remove a book by pulling on upper edge at spine – it risks tearing the cloth or leather at spine head.” Rare and collectible books should be stored properly as to prevent any kind of structural or physical damage. Glass front bookcases are quite effective in preventing additional hazardous factors from getting through. Better still, use a Tru Vue acrylic glass with non-reflective glare. For fragile books, separate book enclosures are de rigeur. Due to the vast amount of air pollutants derived from outside sources and interior furniture, it is best to encase fragile books within acid-free casings that are well-sealed.

Design: Because rare books thrive best under specific conditions, it is best to segregate the private library from the rest of the home. This is done by creating an ante area, a controlled prelude space designated for the adjustment and gradual acclimatization of temperature and closure to air impurities. In addition to being a effective means of keeping out bad elements, ante rooms are beautiful areas unto themselves, as graceful and oftentimes interesting entries into main rooms. For the built in cabinetry, the bookshelves should be adjustable with flexibility for different sized volumes. Ideally, the shelving should line the room at one continuous height, so that it wraps the space in an aura of envelopment. The furniture then gets placed towards the middle of the room on a carpet, creating a floating effect that enhances the overall ethereal feel.

Floors: The harder the floor the better. This means non-porous stone floors with protective sealants are best. While placing a rug on top of its surface is not ideal, it is better than wall to wall carpeting which tends to capture more impurities. Radiant floors, in providing slow moving consistent heat streams, are most effective. Hard wood floors are also good.

Walls: When possible, stone walls with protective sealant coats are best. Gypsum walls tend to be too porous. However, if stone walls are not an option, a good protective wall finish over sheetrock such as Venetian plaster with its many smooth layers is advisable.

Ceilings: Avoid hung ceilings with ductwork. Instead, use through the walls ventilation systems. Ideally, the ceiling should be a solid surface with no penetration of outside light.

Lighting: Other than the book friendly lighting systems noted above, the ambient light provided by a table or floor lamp is quite acceptable. These fixtures are on for short amounts of time and thus generally not so

Fabrics: Leathers coverings are superior to those made of fabrics, whose woven fibers are more vulnerable to toxic elements and dirt. Keep in mind that synthetics of any kind are not good. And, seams and decorative trims on furnishings should be kept to a minimum. The less places for germs to hide the better. Of course, what would a private library be without beautifully upholstered walls, antique carpets, window seats with beautiful draperies, lush fabrics, mohair throws, leather sofas, ornamental plasterwork with classical motifs, felt covered tables on which to place a book, a beautiful wood desk and chair, and a painting or two of your favorite author!

Surely the sanctuary, the private library is the collector’s ultimate utopia at home, where history mixes with the imagination and the past becomes alive. With diligent care and attention, rare books will thrive and perpetuate, ever increasing in value. As Jefferson correctly perceives, “A room without books is like a life without meaning.”


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