Home > Oak Knoll Press > Q & A with Reid Byers, author of The Private Library

Q & A with Reid Byers, author of The Private Library

Learn more about the story and the research behind The Private Library directly from the author!

What inspired you to research and write about the private library?

In Princeton we lived directly across Nassau Street from Toni Morrison. Dr. Morrison once said that if there was a book you really wanted to read and it didn’t exist, then you had to write it. When we decided to add a library to our house, I looked for a book of private library architecture. Not finding anything like it, I started reading around the subject, and I eventually built up a substantial collection (and a passion for libraries). There is a problem in collecting, of course, because when books are allowed to get together there is always a danger that they will generate another book. Twenty years (and four libraries) later, here’s that book.

 You describe the private library as eliciting a feeling of being book-wrapt­. What about a library most contributes to this feeling for you?

I searched for a long time for the right word to describe the feeling that makes a library different from any other room. I tried feeling imbooked, beshelved, inlibriated, circumvolumed, and peribibliated before settling on book-wrapt, because it carries so many meanings. It implies the traditional library wrapped in shelves of books, and the condition of rapt attention to a particular volume, and the rapture of being transported into the wood beyond the world. At one level this feeling is of course produced by the books, but underneath it’s produced by the framework, the structure that holds the books just so. This book is about the history of that structure and that feeling.

I noticed your passage on round libraries, and I understand that your library when you lived in Princeton was in a round room. Could you tell us about your own libraries, past or present, such as this one?

Our Nassau Street library was a first floor addition, a clean rectangle, with precise, permanently fixed mahogany shelving, seven-high, under an eight foot ceiling. It had a modest Palladian window with a window seat and a couple of display niches. The second was in an A. Page Brown shingle-style on Bayard Lane: it was octagonal, a tower room on the second floor. The shelves were tall, nine-high, and although it had a lovely Putnam ladder, it was hard to get at the highest shelves, and octagonal rooms are difficult spaces in which to arrange furniture. It did however have a fireplace and a ib door to a secret room, which I rather liked.

The third library was in the big house in Maine, a fine L-shaped space with a nice fireplace, rooms full of convenient six-high shelves, and another jib door, this one hiding a study. And we’ve now come to rest in a down-sized condo in the city, where the small footprint of the library requires Brobdingnagian shelving and an industrial ladder, but at least everything fits. The stacks are off-the-shelf, as it were, twelve shelves high, over the top.

What aspect of private libraries and their history surprised you the most in your research?

I’m constantly amazed by the variety of people who see their library as important enough to give it a dedicated room. Some of rooms are of course spectacular, some modest, all very different. Harold Otness said, “The residential library . . . is once again becoming the preserve of only the most wealthy and the most cultured among us.” To an extent that’s true, but I think he could have cast a wider net. Personal bookrooms are important to a lot of people, even in these digital days.

What are your favorites among the libraries you visited and why?

The best libraries are those that combine a lot of big space with some cozy alcoves. People like to be able to see lots of their books at once, but feeling book-wrapt in a cozy space is equally important. Bishop Ken’s library at Longleat House is perhaps my all-time favorite, because although it is very large (a whole wing of the top floor), it has lots of separate bays and nooks, and wonderful box windows. It would make a world-class hide-and-seek venue.

What are your expectations for the private libraries of the future?

Collectors’ libraries will of course continue to look much as they do today. Many readers’ libraries will become digital, but in several different ways – we’re seeing remixed libraries already that are different combinations of digital and paper books. But even in the distant future, after the singularity, even if everything becomes digital and people become completely virtual, libraries will still be with us and will still use the book/shelf metaphor, because the book-wrapt feeling is such an important part of the reading experience.

What do you hope readers gain from your book? How do you think your book will change the way readers view the private library?

I hope that readers get ideas. The history of libraries is interesting not just because it tells us about the development of an architecture, or about stylistic influences, or about the social and economic forces that shape our spaces. Some of us, all of the time, and all of us, some of the time, like to look at great rooms to imagine how it would feel to live in such surroundings, and to get ideas for our own. Any book of historic architecture will also perforce serve as a pattern-book. I hope this one does.

The Private Library:

The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom

Now available for Pre-Order!

Expected to ship late May.

Categories: Oak Knoll Press
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