Is a home library a quaint relic of the past, more often encountered in a novel than in real life?
Not according to a number of architects in recent interviews. Although their clients read e-books on Kindles and Nooks, they still own substantial numbers of books. When they can afford it, a special place in the house or a bona fide library is not an unusual request. If the budget does not stretch that far, homeowners still want bookcases incorporated into their living spaces.
The desirability of a library, however, is an age-based phenomenon. Most of the architects’ clients were in their 40s or older, a group that still attaches great value to books. Their younger clients, especially those younger than 30, are readers but not bibliophiles.
In the digital age, how is it that anyone, young or old, still owns so many books? The architects said that some people collect first editions or acquire books related to a particular interest. Some have books related to their extensive art collections and others have inherited libraries maintained by their families for generations. Some homeowners are simply voracious readers.
Like all book lovers, however, these clients don’t simply own a lot of books; most express a strong emotional connection to them. Houston architect David Bucek said many of his clients have likened their books to “having an old friend around the house.” Madison, Conn., architect Duo Dickinson said that for many people, books serve as a “repository of memories,” each one reminding them of where and when they got this or that volume, the person who gave it as a present, a course they took in college or a favorite teacher.
Though many people, including home builders and the merchandisers who furnish their model homes, tend to use the terms “library” and “home office” interchangeably, the architects said their clients regard the two as quite distinct. A home office is a place for serious work; it may have extensive shelving for books, but these will be related to the task at hand. A library, on the other hand, is couched in more romantic terms — it’s seen as a refuge from the everyday and “a place of leisure,” as Washington designer Simon Jacobsen put it. For this reason, most home libraries tend to be located away from the main living areas and are sometimes housed in a separate building altogether.
When it comes to looks, Bethesda architect Greg Wiedemann said that his libraries tend toward the “traditional and nostalgic” with paneled walls, coffered ceilings and places to display collections related to a homeowner’s other interests that might include model trains, signed baseballs, old metal coin banks or mementoes from foreign travels. Other embellishments have included hidden, secret access doors that make a book-loving owner feel that once he’s alone with his books, “he’s transported back in space and time and sealed off from the rest of the world.” Wiedemann has also added secret storage compartments within bookcases for hiding “little tiny things,” a detail, Wiedemann said, that is reminiscent of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries that many of his clients read as kids.
Jacobsen said that for residential projects his firm favors a spare, modernist-styled house, and his libraries always feature the minimalist “egg crate”-styled bookcases that have been a signature of his firm for more than 40 years. The bookcases were originally designed by his father, Hugh Newell Jacobsen.
The egg crate is a matrix of floor-to-ceiling cubicles, each one 12 inches wide and 9 to 15 inches high, small enough so that the structure of the bookshelf is barely visible when it’s filled with books. The result delivers a bonus rarely associated with a home library: a wall of color. This style bookcase is most often installed against a flat wall, but it can also be used in spaces that are round, Jacobsen added.
Owners with unusually large home libraries tend to focus on the practical. Los Angeles architect John Kaliski and his wife have between them about 8,000 books, and they use metal, industrial-type shelving because “it’s incredibly sturdy, easy to assemble and disassemble and they can hold a massive amount of weight,” he said.
Even with much smaller home libraries, the weight of the books can be an issue. Bucek’s partner Bill Stern said that their firm has occasionally consulted a structural engineer when designing bookcases.
When clients do not opt for a home library, they incorporate built-in bookcases into other rooms. A favored spot for many is the dining room, a space that Wiedemann said is frequently regarded as a “multi-purpose room,” mostly used for other activities and occasionally for special holiday meals. Other homeowners have incorporated books into their dining room because they like to entertain around books, Bucek said.
One reason for this, he speculated, is that when books are added to any room, they make the space feel more intimate. In a dining room, this can induce guests to let their guard down and relax, the perfect way to begin a dinner party. Jacobsen said he’s found that bookcases in dining rooms have acoustic benefits as well. In a large dining room with a high ceiling, a bank of bookcases “will kill ambient echoing,” he said.
The one room in the house where digital reading has affected clients of every age is the kitchen. Most clients want shelving for cookbooks, but increasingly these are being kept for sentimental reasons, not for regular use. They may have belonged to a mother or a grandmother or were regularly consulted in earlier eras in the owner’s own life. But today’s “serious foodies,” Dickinson said, now access recipes online and want a monitor that’s convenient to the food prep area and easy to read while stirring sauces or mixing ingredients.
The one universal among homeowners of all ages, book owner or not, the architects said, is a comfortable spot or two to read, one that Jacobsen characterized as “a place that’s quiet with good light, good air and where no one will bother them.”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com .