Surrounded by Books: Your Personal Library

This is an essay by Steff Metal.

“The library didn’t only contain magical books, the ones which are chained to the shelves and are very dangerous. It also contained perfectly ordinary books, printed on commonplace paper in mundane ink. It would be a mistake to think that they weren’t also dangerous just because reading them didn’t make fireworks go off in the sky. Reading them sometimes did the more dangerous trick of making fireworks go off in the privacy of the reader’s brain.” –Terry Pratchett. Soul Music.

A personal library is always a paradox – it is both a window into the depths of the collector’s psyche, and an impersonal statement of knowledge, a storage vault of tomes that have, at one time or another, been available for anyone.

The earliest libraries in existence could be visited as far back as 1200BC. They were both of a private and a municipal nature – a palace library, temple library and private libraries have been found in Ugarit in Syria, and a curator at a library in the Han Dynasty was believed to have invented the first library classification system. Libraries were not only collections of knowledge, but were political statements on a country’s (or individuals) wealth and intellect.

Private libraries rose in popularity in Ancient Greece, where the richer sought to outdo each other in the accumulation of knowledge, and the value of a book was determined by the “trustworthiness” of it’s copier. Aristotle had a large private collection, and the geographer commented that Aristotle “was the first to have put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library.”

But it was during the Renaissance, where aristocrats were looking to the Greek and Roman artistic and literary traditions for inspiration that the personal library flourished. Every noble across the continent was busy snapping up books to hoard in their private collections.

Nowadays, personal libraries exist for many reasons. Some people are simply voracious readers, and amass such a horde of books over the years that they require a room and a system to store them. Others still view a library as a mark of prestige and intellect. Still others see themselves as curators, and collect books not necessarily for the words within them but for their value as important historical or literary texts.

“The Librarian was, of course, very much in favor of reading in general, but readers in particular got on his nerves. There was something, well, sacrilegious about the way they kept taking books off the shelves and wearing out the words by reading them. He liked people who loved and respected books, and the best way to do that, in the Librarian’s opinion, was to leave them on the shelves where Nature intended them to be.” –Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

I fall into the category of “voracious reader”, as does my husband, so when we began to plan our ambitious home design – a building inspired by medieval castle architecture –  we knew we would have to include a personal library.

Organizing Your Personal Library

“Libraries are as the shrines where all the relics of the ancient saints, full of true virtue, and that without delusion or imposture, are preserved and reposed.” –Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

For the past few months, I’ve been researching methods to design and manage a personal library. Having read about many different personal libraries, and talking to a few bibliophiles, we feel we’ve come up with an excellent plan of attack.

When researching our library, we come across this same advice, again and again:

Plan to expand. We all know ebooks and digital devices are here to stay, but the printed book is never going to go out of style, even if it does become the domain for eccentric old collectors, much like vinyl is for audiophiles today. But since most of us ARE bibliophilic eccentrics, we’re never going to stop buying books, no matter how much we love our ereaders.

This is important to keep in mind when planning your personal library. Don’t plan a space based on storing the books you own – plan a space that you expand into over the years. I look at our buying habits now and project forward – this gives you an (somewhat shocking) idea of how many books you may acquire over your lifetime, and they all need their own piece of library real estate.

“Libraries are not made; they grow.” –Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) “Book Buying” Obiter Dicta

Create a Catalogue. If you’ve more books in your home than errant socks, you may need a cataloguing system to keep them all in order. With six bulging ceiling-height bookcases, we do not have a catalogue, and it’s a great annoyance, because we cannot track who we’ve leant books to, what books we have on certain subjects, and whether we own the complete set of a certain author.

It pays to devote some time to researching different cataloguing systems before you jump in, as each system has benefits and drawbacks, depending on how you use your library. As my horrified husband discovered when we merged our music collections and he learned that I catalogue according to the second letter of the artist’s name (so Metallica is under E, Iron Maiden under R, etc), everyone has a different sense of order.

Ideal Book-breeding conditions. Libraries seem to be greenhouses for books – you walk in one day and everything has sprouted and grown! Like a greenhouse, it’s important to look after your books, so they give you the best fruit every season.

Looking after your books is simple. Don’t eat or drink in your library, try to keep animals away, don’t fold down the pages or bend the spine when you read, and make sure your books are shelved properly. Your books should be stacked vertically, spines out – don’t stack books or pile one set on top of the last – this can damage the spines when you pull books out.

Your library should be free of moisture, heat, and direct sunlight, as all these things can damage your books. Too much heat causes pages to dry and crumble (especially with older books), while damp causes mould and mildew to form. Direct sunlight can fade ink and reduce beautiful covers and typography to an unreadable grey.

I like to use dust-covers when my books are on the shelves, and take them off when I read – that way, the dust cover stays pristine and I don’t have to wrangle it while reading.

Perfect Surroundings. I believe that a library should not only be a place to store books, but also a room within which to enjoy them. With that in mind, a library has two other essential elements – comfortable chairs for reading, and adequate lighting to suit the tastes of the reader.

Being that I have a rare genetic condition that means I’m extremely light sensitive, my library needs to be dark and devoid of windows. But we’ll be investing in some fantastical standing lamps with adjustable light levels for those in my family who can’t read in the dark.

The Joy of a Personal Library

“The library is not a shrine for the worship of books. It is not a temple where literary incense must be burned or where one’s devotion to the bound book is expressed in ritual. A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas – a place where history comes to life.” –Norman Cousins (1915- ) Cited in ALA Bulletin, Oct. 1954, p.475

Why would anyone want to go to the effort of creating a room to house their books, cataloging them, shelving them, and keeping them safe? Surely it would be cheaper, simpler and less hassle to go to the public library?

For a bibliophile, the joy of a personal library isn’t just in the reading; it’s in the very presence of books. Some people feel as if the physical books themselves carry a kind of magic, an essence of the knowledge and adventure lurking within. They find a great comfort in their collection – perhaps because looking at shelves of books you’ve read or plan to read gives a sense of tangible accomplishment, or perhaps, as I think, the presence of books and the ideas they contain are sunlight for the soul.

Do you, or have you thought of owning a personal library? How do you organize it? What role do you think personal libraries play in spreading the joy of reading?


Steff Metal is a copywriter, blogger and illustrator living in New Zealand. She and her husband are currently building a replica medieval castle in the New Zealand countryside, complete with towers, a secret passage, and a library. Learn more about Steff’s copywriting services on Grymm & Epic, and follow her adventures on her blog.

Photo: Some rights reserved by cuellar.

1 comment

  1. Chris Ciolli (@ChrisCiolli)

    Very interesting piece. A medieval castle in New Zealand….that sounds absolutely amazing.

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