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"I fear we shall remain for a long time in our present confusion and indigence through our own fault. I even fear that after exhausting curiosity without obtaining from our investigations any considerable gain for our happiness, people may be disgusted with the sciences, and that a fatal despair may cause them to fall back into barbarism. To which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much. For in the end the disorder will become nearly insurmountable ; the indefinite multitude of authors will shortly expose them all to the danger of general oblivion ; the hope of glory animating many people at work in studies will suddenly cease ; it will be perhaps as disgraceful to be an author as it was formerly honorable."

Precepts for advancing the sciences and arts / Gottfried W. Leibniz.

These words demonstrate that Leibniz genuinely feared that the ‘book flood’, as it has since been described by Markus Krajewski (2011, p.9), which swelled after the establishment of printing with moveable type in Europe after 1500, led to such a glut of learned writings that the project of human advancement might not just be thwarted but abandoned. Leibniz the librarian did a great deal to address the problem he described, but later floods such as that due to the industrialisation of printing in the 19th century, and the considerable growth of academic research and publishing after the Second World War, led to similar concerns that benefits would be lost and effort duplicated if people’s writings were not discoverable.1

Leibniz is famously a character in one of the best-known intellectual disputes – that between him and Sir Isaac Newton regarding the discovery of the differential and integral calculuses. Leibniz wrote about the benefits of having a complete reference to the established propositions of geometry in his New Essays on Human Understanding (1704)2. Leibniz’s optimistic and rational approach to the sciences led him to hope that similarly formulaic solutions to all of the fields of human enquiry might be sought and found. Needless to say such discoveries are not (at least not yet) to be counted amongst his successes, but he is rightly given credit for many advances – including some in librarianship, such as supervising the construction of the first free-standing purpose-built library “in the modern era” (Leibniz; Remnant & Bennett, eds., 1996, p.lxxiv).

Leibniz lived at the end of the early modern period. Its beginnings are contemporary with that great technological advance mentioned above, Gutenberg’s printing press. This is not a coincidence.3 In the 15th century libraries were still repositories for manuscripts and typically integral to monastic enclosures, though the early universities were building their own collections, chiefly by donation. In monastic libraries acquisitions were likely to be copies made in-house, often of other copies (Harris, 1995, p.112-3). The printing press was initially used to imitate the conventions of the manuscript – Gutenberg’s groundbreaking Bible was deliberately given the appearance of a superior product of the scriptorium (Lerner, 2009, p.83). But an era of mass production had arrived and a new industry, with an infrastructure to support it, began to form. To become part of this infrastructure libraries had to adapt (Harris, p.127). The architectural historian James W. P. Campbell agrees, yet goes further in stating “the history of libraries has been a story of constant change and adaptation” (2013, p.15). However, in the early modern period change did not come quickly.

The 16th century

In the 1500s even the best libraries were monuments to the handwritten word. Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library (Laurenziana)4 of 1571 in Florence is an outstanding extant example. A long narrow room furnished with lecterns (banchi) that would have originally housed bound and chained manuscripts, which could be brought out from their flat storage position on the shelf below for reading while seated at the desk; all illuminated by the daylight coming in from the side windows.5 A permanent shelf list at the end of each lectern listed its contents, and each lectern was arranged in a mode typical of medieval libraries, perpendicular to the walls. The Laurenziana was designed to hold a specific collection that was considered complete and not to be expanded – a stationary library. As much as being a place to access the manuscripts it was also a way to demonstrate the dominant Medici family’s wealth, power and culture (O’Gorman, 1972; Campbell, 2013, pp.104-6). This stasis therefore also had some political symbolism, but this showcase library represented a format that was reaching its limits.

In the 16th century, if volumes were not stored in lecterns they would have been in cabinets or presses6, behind doors. The following century would see amalgamations of the two methods of storage but libraries were rather slow to respond to the cheaper, smaller, printed book. An engraving of Leiden University’s library from 1607 shows a perpendicular arrangement of lecterns, though in this case the lecterns are taller and designed for standing rather than sitting readers (Campbell, p.108). Also like the Laurenziana, which was built on top of older monastic buildings, the library at Leiden was on a mezzanine in a church nave and so benefited from large clerestory windows. In this respect Leiden was somewhat similar to Duke Humfrey’s7 Library, which was built over the Divinity School at Oxford. This had been completed in 1480, stripped of its books by the King’s commissioners in 1550, and restored to use by Bodley in 1598, though it would not be ready to reopen until 1602 (Clapinson, 2015, p.9). One hundred years later Sir Christopher Wren would be called upon to reinforce the Divinity School’s bulging walls with buttresses.

Petroski (1999, p.64) conjectures whether “the standing lectern might have evolved from the sitting one as a space-conserving measure,” which would allow more lecterns, and therefore more books, in a given area. If so, this is a good analogue of how high-density storage facilities such as warehouses are laid out today, with high shelving in narrow aisles in order to exploit the floor area and building volume as effectively as possible. The 1607 engraving of Leiden certainly shows lecterns that are densely packed. Back-to-back lecterns may have a similar origin – that of saving space. This would have been inappropriate in church, where the pews must face the altar; but in a library such a focus is not necessary.8 Using lecterns for storage rather than locking books in armaria is also a space-saving measure in itself. Not only are the closed presses bulky but space must be allowed for their doors to be opened. Petroski also explains the perpendicular arrangement of the lecterns with respect to the walls. As the books were chained, they could not be moved to the light, so the light had to reach them. The best way to achieve this was illumination from the side, which suited the reader (pp.59-67). It also suggested the perpendicular arrangement of lecterns, which was also space efficient.

The 17th century

Bodley’s refit of Duke Humfrey’s Library, while maintaining a similar floor plan, replaced the absent original lecterns with furniture altogether more capacious. The Duke Humfrey became what Clark defined a “stall-system” library (1901, p.172). The layout seems medieval (a mistake repeated in the “few” books on the history of library architecture)9 but the first was built “at the beginning of the early modern era” at the end of the 16th century. Essentially, lecterns were replaced by shelving, forming distinct “bays or stalls” (Campbell, p.113)10 – an early example being Henry Savile’s work at Merton College, Oxford. At Duke Humfrey’s Library some two thousand volumes (many sourced from the college libraries) lined the shelves on the “impressive three-decker book presses” with reading desks (Clapinson, p.9).11 Jackson suggests the source for the design of these was the “then quite-up-to-date” style at Hereford Cathedral (1974, p.152). “The books were divided by size; the folios being chained to the desks, and accessible to all readers; the quartos and octavos being shelved apart and kept under lock and key” (Norris, 1939, p.144). Shelf lists were framed on the end of each bookcase – something that came to haunt James and his successors as the collection grew and the concept of permanent locations for particular volumes was stretched to breaking point (Clapinson, p.53). Jackson (p.260) observes that in the 18th century it became a “nightmare” that one could not expand a collection and have permanent shelf locations. Krajewski concurs (p.29).12

It is worth noting, as Petroski does, that it has by now become conventional practice to shelve books vertically; on medieval lecterns and in armaria they were stored flat. This is simply an ingenious – and to our enlightened minds, obvious – way of maximising the available space (Petroski, p.77). He also, from Streeter (1931), explains that the shelf lists at Hereford referred not to shelves, as such, but partitiones; ie, the compartment between vertical dividers, which were most likely there not to hold books upright as much as to prevent the shelf above from sagging. This might seem a fine distinction but it does suggest that, though 17th-century bookcases look very much as those of today, their users at the time were still thinking of them in terms of the armarium or cabinet, with its separate compartments. This also helps to explain how the word press came to be used for both closed book cabinet and open bookcase. In practice, books were filed from left to right across the entire bookcase before continuing on to the next shelf level down. This is the contrary of modern practice in which an upright tells the reader to continue on the shelf below, forming what are now called tiers, sections, or bays. The shelf marking system at Hereford confirms this (Petroski, pp.92-3).

To continue describing Duke Humfrey’s Library, the windows being relatively low, the higher bookcases made the interior rather dark13; unlike at Leiden, with its high church windows. Merton had dormer windows fitted to improve illumination but this was impossible at the Duke Humfrey. In another example, at Queen’s College, Cambridge, a transition can be traced between the original lecterns and their gradual conversion into tall presses.14 Once chains were deemed unnecessary thanks to “mass-produced printed-editions” and books could be removed, desks and seats could also be removed, leaving more space for books (Ibid., pp.87-8). This stall system was a “peculiarly English form” rather like medieval monastery carrels, such as those found at Gloucester Cathedral. On the Continent, an alternative was imminent (Campbell, pp.110-18). The Escorial in Madrid, which was completed c.1585, is the earliest surviving example of a large library laid out according to the “wall system” (Ibid., p.121).15 Its books are in cabinet-type presses, but not of the opaque type that were still characteristic, for example, of the Vatican Library. These cabinets were now for display, yet with the books shelved spine-in, but visible through grillework in the doors. As such, the books became part of the decoration that was to become increasingly dominant in libraries of this format.

With printed books on paper becoming the norm, methods of shelving designed for large parchment folios became obsolete. Their size and binding required that they be stored flat on a lectern and were so costly that they also needed to be chained. With paper books the same content could be stored in one or two metres of wall shelving that would have occupied an entire lectern library of the typical size of 300 manuscript folios (Ibid., p.125). Nevertheless, the high factor of efficiency in storing information enjoyed by the new printed book was not enough to counteract the sheer increase in the number of titles available. Similarly, as well as becoming larger, libraries themselves also needed to become more space efficient. The Biblioteca Ambrosiana (Milan, 1609) is posited by Campbell (p.127) as the next significant milestone in wall-system libraries, with “all the walls around the room” covered in bookshelves, requiring ladders and a gallery for access. The same features are to be found in the near contemporaneous Bodleian Arts End, which is also a wall-system design. Its galleries are, according to convention, protected from unauthorised access and used for the smaller volumes that would be easier to steal. Folios at the floor level remained chained.

Though England was slow to adopt the wall system wholeheartedly, preferring stalls of increasing capacities, by the late 1600s Sir Christopher Wren was applying his skills to good effect. According to Campbell, “Wren was probably involved in more library projects in the late 17th century than any other architect in Europe and he made decisive advances in library design” (p.137). As a Fellow of All Souls and Oxford’s Professor of Astronomy, he would have seen the wall system at the Bodleian and its later implementations at University College, Jesus College and St Edmund Hall (refitted 1668-1682), and had its merits reinforced by a visit to France in 1665. Lincoln Cathedral’s is a single-tier wall-system library (1674) – one full-height wall of fixed shelves opposite a wall of windows, with no desks or benches. To an early 21st-century visitor this array of books on open shelving looks entirely conventional, but in its day it was original.

Wren went on to design a fine galleried wall-system library – the Dean’s Library at St Paul’s Cathedral – which was built in the early 1700s as the cathedral was being completed. However, his greatest design – that for Trinity College, Cambridge – was never realised in its original form, though the concept came to be very influential. Nevertheless, what Wren built in its place defines the alcove library, which looks back to the arrangement of monastic lecterns while managing to accommodate a greater number of books than the wall system; all while keeping them readily accessible. The alcove library does this by utilising the wall space between the perpendicular bookcases to house yet more books. The alcoves also help to keep a large library hall to a more human scale. Generously lit by large clerestory windows, Wren’s rectangular built design for Trinity is reminiscent of Leiden and even the Laurenziana. A long gallery was constructed on an island in the river Cam (with the intervening branch being filled in the process) over a cloister, thus elevating it over any flood waters. Wren cleverly disguised the true height of the floor from the outside so visitors are impressed to find the ceiling so high. The practical effect is that the windows can be larger, admitting enough light to illuminate the alcoves.

The cases of books at right angles to the walls greatly increase the capacity and divide the room into useful study areas, while the disadvantages of lack of light are overcome by raising the windows above the stalls, freeing up wall space to be used for yet more books. The result is a triumph of classical library design, the first ‘alcove’ library in the world.” (Campbell, p.142)

Wren’s 1675 original, and rejected, design for Trinity was very different but interesting and influential – a large round domed ‘pavilion’ in which the books lined the walls, spines facing out. They were to be accessed – by members of the library staff only – from the other side of the shelves via galleries in the walls. To these staff members the books would have presented their fore-edges. Up to this point it was conventional to shelve books spine-in. Although this is counter-intuitive to us today, spines did not have bibliographical information printed on them; perhaps name and title, otherwise at least a shelfmark, were handwritten instead on the fore-edge.16 In the days of chained books the chain had to be attached to the fore-edge, allowing it to hang when the book was shelved. In the Escorial there are no chains but the books are nevertheless shelved spine-in. In Wren’s time this convention was changing and it was becoming possible to have an array of uniformly bound books. The original Trinity design allowed for this – a grand display for the readers and practical, secure access for the staff (Geraghty, 2007, pp.27-9; Campbell, 2013, pp.143-4).

The design is strikingly reminiscent of much later library designs; for example, for its circular shape and dome, the British Museum Library reading room, but also Yale University’s Beinecke Library (1963) and the British Library’s St Pancras installation of the King’s Library, the King’s Library Tower. In these two examples a cuboid glass box both displays and protects the books.

The 18th century

More immediately, the pavilion design influenced Wren-apprentice and draughtsman Nicholas Hawksmoor’s early designs for what would become the Radcliffe Camera,17 though it was built to a revised design by James Gibbs after Hawksmoor’s death in 1736. The time between 1749, when the Radcliffe Camera was completed and Wren’s first drawing of a round library for Trinity in 1675 was enough for the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel to take the prize as the first round, domed and free-standing library built. This was Leibniz’s library (Leibniz; Remnant & Bennett, eds., p.lxxiv). Constructed in the period 1705-10 to designs by Hermann Korb, it was radical but poorly built (its structure was of wood, preventing any heating, due to fire risk) and demolished in 1886. The reading room was elliptical rather than circular, with books arranged around the walls on two levels (the ground floor and one gallery above) in space beyond the compass of the dome. Indeed, its “use of space was widely admired.” The exterior buildings were hidden from view once inside by clerestory windows. The interior was highly decorated but the building was replaced by a more conservative design in stone (Campbell, p.147; Jackson, p.247).

Hawksmoor was responsible for All Soul’s College library, built 1716-1720, although the interior furnishing was not completed until 1751 (again, by Gibbs) after Hawksmoor’s death. Designed to house a bequest of 12,000 books by Christopher Codrington, the library had to have a Gothic exterior (much like the Arts End of the Bodleian had to match the Gothic Divinity School) but could exhibit the “very latest taste in classical design” inside (Campbell, p.147). The end windows are a fine example of Hawksmoor’s skill in this – classical from the inside, Gothic from the outside. In format, bookcases fill all four sides of the long room and are galleried above, except on the main window wall. Campbell states the internal layout as being “entirely original. … [It] is a masterpiece of library design, at once austere and classically correct, yet whimsical in its accommodation of a Gothic exterior” (Ibid., p.150). In this, Hawksmoor’s Codrington could be said to be said to be truly of the modern period in that neoclassical styles would dominate library design in England and the US until modernism itself arrived in the 1900s. Towards the end of that century whimsical elements would come to form an essential part of postmodern library design.

It has been suggested that library books themselves influenced the neoclassical direction of Georgian architecture. Jackson notes that several colleges had copies of Inigo Jones’s English editions of Palladio (p.219). Hawksmoor himself never saw Italy but avidly studied drawings of the buildings of the ancient world, as his own library attests (Hart, pp.34-6).

European library design in the 18th century, certainly in the Catholic south, was defined by what art historians now call Baroque and Rococo. Highly decorative styles, with political overtones of the battle between a resurgent Counter-Reformation church and its new inquisitor, modern science. For the purposes of this study, novel ways of accommodating increasingly large collections of books into a room are of most interest. The grand hall of books finds its apogee with the Hofbibliothek at Vienna and, in most cases, library designs of these styles accommodate a collection in one room. A notable exception is the Biblioteca Joanina (1728) at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, which was designed with three rooms, perhaps for dramatic effect; but the design also increased the wall area available for shelving. Jackson refers to the “predominant” Italian style – “a long room in a multipurpose building, with books shelved along the walls, high enough to invite the addition of galleries. Alternatives are the round or oval form, and the “‘magazine’ device,” by which Jackson refers to the stall or alcove format that followed the medieval pattern of books stored perpendicularly to the walls. This, “decidedly, favored filling library space with books more densely” (Ibid., p.257).

Austrian architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach designed the Imperial Hofbibliothek – the largest Rococo library – which was commissioned by Emperor Charles VI and completed in 1730.18 Rather like the Joanina, but on a much greater scale – the Hofbibliothek reveals itself in stages. Its bookcases are five metres high, both at ground level and on the gallery. This could be described as more intimidating than imposing, especially for the men who had to scale ladders on the galleries to reach the highest shelves over the void. Adding to the theatricality, secret doors around the dome access storage rooms lit by external windows.

Hawksmoor had originally intended a second tier of galleries at the Codrington, though Gibbs revised his design to just one level. The Biblioteca Angelica in Rome (1765) is a “rare example of a three-tier wall-system library … [which] successfully creates the illusion of a symmetrical space in which the reader is entirely enveloped in books” (Ibid., p.173). Again secret doors are intrinsic to the design, in this case hiding the spiral staircases that lead up to the galleries. While such elements of the design were hidden, the books themselves were now resolutely to be on display. Though libraries were becoming successively larger it was still possible to design into them a certain static quality in their decoration. Bookcases were commonly denominated by letter. In the library of the Abbey of St Florian (1750) in Austria – a nation home to several remarkable extant Baroque examples – lettered cartouches above the bookcases related to the catalogue for the purposes of finding. For example, case ‘A’ typically contained the Bibles and was the furthest from the entrance. But according to Campbell, “By the 18th century book collections were growing at such a pace that it was not sensible to allocate shelves to particular subjects. Books were being continuously moved around” (p.196). The library of the Abbey of St Gall, Switzerland (1763), offers an effective solution. Shelf lists hinge out from panels between the shelves and false columns. But these were not the perpetual documents of the Laurenziana. Slots allowed cards bearing book titles to be slid into place, marked when a book was borrowed, and rearranged when necessary.

The 19th century

“In the 19th century advances in mechanization produced books at ever-increasing rates, forcing libraries to respond…. The use of stacks, the importance of technology and the place of cataloguing in the design of libraries are generally not well understood.” (Campbell, p.209)

Another unbuilt scheme, the drawing of which nevertheless proved to be a useful study was that of Etienne-Louis Boullée’s for France’s Bibliothèque Nationale in 1785. Its dimensions would have put it on a par with a 20th-century aircraft hangar. Indeed, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, with its immense aperture to let in light (and rain) would have seemed almost as high as the building was long. The plan would have been to roof over the courtyard of the former Bibliothèque du Roi, but the concept was more fantasy than reality. What it did contribute, other than the need for vastness, was the idea of stepping back each gallery behind the lower one as it rose. With the materials of the time, this was the closest architects could get to the multi-level iron bookstacks that would soon become part of the very structural fabric of new, larger library buildings.

The first-half of the 1800s saw large libraries mixing the alcove format at ground level with stepped-back galleries using the wall system; for example, the library of the Assemblée Nationale (1830-47, Paris) and Cambridge University Library (1842). In 1850, Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, also in Paris, featured an iron roof supported on iron columns, much like the railway sheds of the time such as the near-contemporary King’s Cross in London. It was thought that iron was superior in resisting heat – the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève also featured gas lighting, increasing the risk of fire. Both iron and gas had been seen in earlier libraries but this one is remarkable for the way its architect was happy for these functional elements to remain unhidden. Furthermore, in a nod to Boullée, the shelving in the reading room is tiered, with each tier relatively low in height, and fenced off from the readers by an iron railing. Further shelving is hidden behind the first tier, underneath the upper gallery. However, most of the books were stored below the floor of the reading room, which housed “row upon row of tall shelving units” (Ibid., p.227-8). Indeed, the success of the building led to Labrouste being appointed architect for the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1854. One of his first tasks was designing new iron stacks (the Salle de Magasin), completed in 1867 and inspired by Anthony Panizzi’s recent project at the British Museum, though in Labrouste’s case – true to form – the stacks were visible from a window in the reading room.

Panizzi, although forced to justify in detail over many years his plans for a catalogue to trustees and politicians who could not appreciate what the difficulty was (more of which in the next chapter), was otherwise remarkably fortunate for a librarian in that, like Leibniz, he was able to redesign and rebuild his library.19 Steam power was increasing book production. Panizzi enforced the British Museum’s right to legal deposit and “soon books began to pour in, creating ever-increasing storage problems” (Ibid., p.231).20 His solution was the round reading room in the middle of the British Museum’s unoccupied central courtyard, to be surrounded by bookstacks. The sketches and ideas were made real by architect Sydney Smirke. The reading room opened in 1857, after three years of construction. The stacks were not completed until 1887, finally housing 1.5 million volumes. They were not accessible or even visible to the readers. As at the Bibliothèque Nationale, the load-bearing iron stacks had open grillework flooring to allow light from the glass roof to penetrate down. Gas lighting was rejected throughout as too great a fire risk. The reading room itself was iron-framed and had reading desks laid out radially, observed by staff at the centre in the manner of Bentham’s Panopticon, and the grandly throned librarian at the centre of Wren’s original design for Trinity. The round form was not new, but the British Museum design inspired a spate of others, culminating in that of the Library of Congress.21

Around the mid-19th century, especially in the US, the cuboid iron-stack reading room became typical for large libraries; for example, The George Peabody Library in Baltimore (1878), with six storeys of books and a precipitous central atrium. Steam driven book elevators transferred stock between stack and reading floor. The Cincinnati Public Library (1874, now demolished) had five-storey iron stacks in the stall format around a central open reading area. This arrangement significantly increased the quantity of stock that could be shelved in the room compared to the wall system employed at the George Peabody. In general, iron-stack reading rooms declined in popularity due to the build-up of heat and humidity at the top (in part a consequence of gas lighting), at the same time as low temperatures at the bottom in the reading areas. There was also little scope for expansion (Ibid., p.236/8). Such buildings were driven more by architects wanting to test the limits of new materials and methods more than librarians demanding ever higher stacks. Nevertheless, the books had to be shelved somehow.

The boom in public libraries in the later 19th century led to a movement towards allowing readers to browse the books directly, which had consequences for library design. When stacks were open, a catalogue and a shelfmarking system was essential to ensure that any book in stock could be found. Though printed catalogues were typical in this era, in practice they were cut up and used as slip catalogues in the library itself; the first instance of this was at Harvard by William Croswell in the early 1800s. Guard-books – blank volumes into which the slips were pasted, allowing space for expansion – were arrayed around the central desk at the British Museum reading room. The 1930s Cambridge University library building had a room dedicated to the slip catalogue. Card catalogues were the next advance. Their universal adoption was thanks to Melvil Dewey and his Library Bureau selling the cards and the furniture to house them. Of course, his other great innovation, the decimal classification system, helped greatly in the movement towards making books discoverable – and collections browsable – once it had been widely adopted (Ibid., p.242-3). The development of the catalogue will be addressed in much more detail in the following chapter but it is introduced here to acknowledge that, in this period, housing the catalogue had become something that library designers had to plan for.

As a final example for the 1900s, Campbell cites the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania (1891) as a case of how librarian and architect can work together. Here, the library stack room is exstensible over a largely vacant plot. Unfortunately, it was never enlarged because the building’s architectural style went out of fashion.22

The 20th century

The century of electricity, steel, concrete and glass was even more the century of the book, spawning libraries to accommodate, organise, and perpetuate them on an industrial scale. Take the New York Public Library of 1911, designed by Dr John Shaw Billings, the military surgeon who had earlier created Index Medicus. Though conservatively Beaux Arts in style, it was designed internally like a machine for processing books, with seven levels of steel bookstacks below the main reading room. Acquisitions were processed at the lowest level (below the bookstacks), under electric lighting, and raised on electric lifts for storage and reading. Not all of these storage levels were underground, making a steep climb for readers to get to the reading room, but Billings, in line with long-standing convention, had wanted to raise it from the noise and other dangers of the city streets.

About a hundred years after it first opened a proposed renovation and re-purposing of the library – particularly the volume taken up by the original bookstacks – caused controversy. The Central Library Plan (CLP), by Foster & Partners, is a proposal to replace the original bookstacks with space for the stock of the nearby Mid-Manhattan circulating library and another specialist branch. The bookstacks are an integral – indeed structural – part of the original design but are not capable of keeping the books in ideal environmental conditions. Additional storage has been built underground at Bryant Park behind the building but this has not been fully finished due to cost. The CLP would involve moving a large part of the research collection to Princeton’s storage facility in New Jersey.23 Objections centred on replacing the (‘highbrow’) research collection with a (‘lowbrow’) circulating collection while at the same time gutting a key feature of the original building, and moving many books far enough away for them not to be available on the day on which they are requested. The first book delivered from the stacks in 1911 took seven minutes to arrive from submission of the call slip.24

Another remarkable advance in library architecture was the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale (1963), mentioned briefly earlier with reference to Wren’s original proposal for Trinity College Library, Cambridge. Architect Gordon Bunshaft brilliantly designed sealed, air-conditioned stacks for the precious stock that also displayed them to great effect, with high glass walls overlooking a general exhibition area. The effect is enhanced by the translucent marble walls, which look opaque from the outside but provide a suitable quality and quantity of light for the interior (Campbell, p.268).

By 1978, the year Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Staatsbibliothek opened, the modernism displayed at the Beinecke had peaked and its less formal, more playful successor, postmodernism, was coming into vogue. Campbell is effusive in his praise: “Highly-complex and free form. … Scharoun’s reading-room arrangement is strikingly similar to a theatre foyer – an analogy that extends to his bookstacks, which project from the roof like a fly-tower. The ‘library as foyer’ arrangement was entirely new” (pp.273-4). The fly-tower is the projecting volume at the roof level over the backstage area of a theatre that houses the rigging. That the Staatsbibliothek’s reading spaces are the foyer can only mean that the bookstacks themselves are the main act; impenetrable yet central to the building and its purpose.

France, as did Britain, renewed its national library building in the 1990s. The British Library at St Pancras, designed by Sir Colin St John Wilson and built with the same red Ibstock bricks used by George Gilbert Scott for the Midland Grand Hotel next door25, opened in 1997. It received Grade I listing in August 2015, but the building had been criticised from various opposing quarters, implying to this author that the architect probably got it about right.26 One characteristic of its design that was not controversial is the decision to put the bookstacks underground. Of course, going underground is an everyday experience for Londoners and it is fascinating to imagine how the basements (there are two levels, extending under the piazza) of the British Library building relate to the nearby Kings Cross/St Pancras Underground station and the tunnels connecting it. Being underground protects the books from heat and light, and unlike library buildings of previous centuries, late 20th-century building methods and air conditioning can be relied on to maintain the correct level of atmospheric humidity.

However, that would have been more expensive to achieve had the British Library had been sited on the banks of the Thames. The Bibliothèque Nationale, completed in 1996, is on the Seine. Here, the architectural firm Dominique Perrault put the stacks in four book-like towers at the corners of the building. In the end this certainly did not save the French government any money but it does make for a striking building.27 The well-publicised cost overruns in Paris would ensure that no similar solution would be tried elsewhere. In the Netherlands, the TU Delft Library (1997) was built partially underground and has the appearance of an artificial hill; “the whole basement (at true ground level) is occupied by bookstacks” (Campbell, p.284). These are rolling stacks – a staple library solution for maximising storage in the available space (Petroski, 1999), especially when access rates are relatively low.28

It is too early in this 21st century to write about landmark library designs, excepting the examples that will be discussed in the chapter Perpetuate. Not that there are none to discuss, but none fully realised that were not designed and planned in the late 20th century. Concrete may (regrettably) have fallen from favour somewhat, but electricity, steel, and glass have not. For shelving, steel is relatively light, can span long stretches, and steel fittings make shelves easy to reposition. As early as 1934 Giles Gilbert Scott’s steel-framed building for Cambridge University Library contained six storeys of “self-supporting” steel stacks behind the facade, with a 48 metre (17-storey) storage tower above that.29

Steel’s high-tensile strength also allows designs such as that of the José Vasconcelos Library (2006) in Mexico City, in which the shelving is hung from the roof rather than being planted on the floor (Campbell, pp.304/7).30 Remarkably, this allows the stacks to be tiered in reverse, with the densest storage being at the top. The rails supporting this are of steel, but they are themselves supported by concrete pillars. To increase the vertigo-inducing effect, the use of glass is not reserved for the roof and walls, but also for the walkway floors, albeit frosted. This is no doubt also to help propagate light down though the building, much like the lattice floors of the steel bookstacks found in the 19th-century British Museum Library and Bibliothèque Nationale.


This concludes the opening chapter concerning the evolution of library buildings since the 16th century. Next, the subject changes to the evolution of the library catalogue in the same period.



1. For example, the Science Museum's S. C. Bradford, cited in Newman, 1966. Also see Norman, 2012. back

2. The Newton-Leibniz calculus controversy could be blamed on the parties' reluctance to publish. A clearer example of how Leibniz suffered due to lack of contemporary mathematical knowledge, and further references, are provided in the author's essay to be found in Appendix B of the original submission (omitted here). back

3. See McLuhan, 1962 and Bacon, 1620; Hobbes, on the other hand, thought printing "ingenious" but "no great matter" (Leviathan, p.100). back

4. Also known as the Medicean Library. See Clark, 1901, p.234. back

5. A 19th-century extension unfortunately saw most of the windows on one side blocked up. back

6. In Latin, armaria. See Clark, p.20. back

7. Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester; brother to Henry V, Agincourt veteran, and manuscript collector. back

8. Interestingly, Petroski also gives examples of library lecterns being converted for use as pews elsewhere after libraries are refurbished with higher-capacity shelving in the development away from chaining manuscript volumes. back

9. Campbell claims to have written The Library, a World History because he could not find such a book, either as a student or today (p.15). However, he is much in debt to Clark, as this author is to him. back

10. Campbell seems to assume that a stall is the area between two presses but Clark (p.172) and Norris (p.187) rather identify the term with the press itself. For Norris, it is a bookcase that might be designated a unit for purposes of classification and identified by a letter (p.220). back

11. They are still there and can be accessed by anyone possessing a Bodleian Library Card. During a restoration in 1999 they were sympathetically fitted with lighting and mains sockets. The original books are still in place but notices on each shelf request readers not to remove them. back

12. Permanent shelf locations have come back into use in 21st-century library warehouses, though with neither classified nor alphabetical arrangement. See Perpetuate. back

13. Having written some of this dissertation at one of the desks, the author can attest to this. The ceiling bears the University's motto: Dominus illuminatio mea, or The Lord is my light. back

14. In this later usage press signifies a unit of back-to-back bookcases without doors. Petroski (ch. 5) traces its evolution from armarium and lectern. back

15. In German the term Saal-system (hall system) is used, giving a clue as to the overall expansion of library spaces in this format. back

16. This explains why shelf lists and permanent locations were so important. Library staff would have to count along the shelf to find the book in question based on that information. A book's title and author might only be confirmed once the book was opened to its title page. back

17. Originally proposed to be attached to the Selden End of the Bodleian and visualised in Hart, pp.194, 202. back

18. Incidentally, he had been sponsored by Leibniz for entry to the Imperial Academy of Learning. back

19. To quote Panizzi's friend Mérimée, '"For the first time, let's hope not the last, a librarian has been asked to build a library"' (Jackson, p.374). He can be forgiven for not knowing about Leibniz but the sentiment is telling. back

20. Krajewski (p.36) notes that legal deposit tests libraries' ability to ingest books when it is enforced, citing the Hofbibliothek. back

21. Though in the Library of Congress reading room the desks run in concentric circles (arcs). back

22. The reader will be introduced to another example of the principle of the extensible library store in the chapter Perpeuate. back

23. Known as RECAP, this was studied by the designers of the Bodleian's Book Storage Facility. See Perpetuate. back

24. New York Public Library, 2015; Cole, 2015. A later news story published as this dissertation was being finalised (Mashberg, 2015) states that the Bryant Park underground store will now be finished to accommodate the research stock from the original stacks. Interestingly, the shelving is to be by size, with books and locations identified by barcode rather than by conventional library classification; this in order to maximise storage density in the available volume. back

25. Now known as the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. back

26. See, for example, MacCarthy, 2008. back

27. See Fitchett, 1995. back

28. Rolling stacks are an interesting example of one way to balance the ratio of room volume taken up by storage and that left free to allow access, issues that will be discussed further in Perpetuate. Petroski provides a fascinating analogy from Dewey (p.199) likening mobile stacks in a room to catalogue cards in their drawer. The seeker makes a gap where he or she expects to find the information required; for the rest of the time the cards, or stacks, are collapsed together, with no space wasted. back

29. The building looks remarkably like the architect's Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern. back

30. Bookcases hanging from the ceiling were implemented in both the British Museum Library's stacks and in the Bodleian's Underground Bookstore in the early 20th century, though these were on a much smaller scale and were also mobile, for increased storage density. back