Dimensions of Library Design

We are in the long and complex process of building a new house. The house will have space for a library, a rare book room, and a studio for my book repair work. I’ve been dreaming about having enough room for my books since I was a little girl. When we started the planning process, I thought it would be easy to explain what I wanted to the architect and interior designer. The library was so clear in my head. Of course it wasn’t that simple.

Last week the interior designer asked “what is the linear footage you need for the library?” and “what kind of humidity control needs to be in the rare book room?” To answer these questions and more, I’ve been researching the building of both traditional private library collections and archival quality rare book rooms.

I read Henry Petroski‘s The Book on the Book ShelfThe Care of Fine Books, second edition by Jane Greenfield, and At Home with Books, by Ellis, Seebohm and Sykes. None of these books contained the real specifics that the architect and contractor need in order to design these spaces into the plans. (Asking for a secret, hidden door in the bookcases to another part of the house is not integral to design schematics, nor is referencing the library scene from Beauty and the Beast.)

bookshelf-1082309_960_720What information I could find online addressed the needs of public libraries or larger academic or other institutional collections. While some of this information was useful in terms of archival preservation of the books and potential organization of the shelving, there were aspects that didn’t make sense for my setting. I might want to have a reading or viewing area in the rare book room that is comfortable, not just functional. Guests will be rare and I won’t be lending my books out. The library won’t have movable metal shelving and will need to leave space for reading and writing comfortably and for substantial growth in the number of books it will one day hold. I intend for this library to initially have many empty shelves to provide for years of growth.

For help, I reached out to the well-respected Exlibris listserv which has been around for many years for the purpose of “discussing matters related to rare book and manuscript librarianship, including special collections and related issues.” The responses I received both on and off the listserv were truly generous, and it was encouraging to discover this community of kind and supportive bibliophiles.

Below is a summary I compiled of my own research along with useful tips and research pointers for library design from fellow Exlibris members. I will be sharing these with our interior designer and architect.

  1. Consider local factors. The climate in Portola Valley will be very different from anywhere else in the States so using preservation suggestions from someone in the Northeast isn’t going to help.
  2. Evaluate the fire suppression system to reduce the risk of accidental activation of sprinkler system that could ruin the books. The Paul Getty collection has Halon gas that would suppress fire rather than water. Bern Dibner, another collector, installed metal canopies over his library shelves so that the water from the fire sprinklers would not touch the books.
  3. Security might include biometric locks and video cameras. A non-descript door for the rare book room might also be a good idea.
  4. Consider control of the library temperature and climate as well as the rare book room which will have the more sophisticated humidity control system. I had only been thinking about a system for the rare books, but not about temperature control for the rest of the collections. Fluctuating temperature is not good for books. The rare book room will be controlled 24/7 but what about the reading library room where temperatures at night can drop dramatically? Is there a way to monitor and control the temperature just in this room to factor those steep changes into creating consistency? Maybe a data logger could be used to track temperature and humidity.
  5. Recommended temperature for the library is between 60-70 degrees. Humidity should reach no higher than 60% with a goal to keep it closer to 50%.
  6. Sunlight is the one of the biggest problems, especially here in the Bay Area. Consider UV shades as well as curtains and put the shades on timers based on the sun.
  7. pexels-photo-507297
    Earthquake-prepared library design?

    The design needs to factor in the supportive weight of the shelving and potential bowing. 1 1/2 inch thick shelving should do the trick. At Home with Books recommends “Shelving 1 inch thick, 36 inches long, and 10 1/2 inches deep accommodates most books. If the shelf is to be longer, the thickness should be increased to 1 1/8 or 1 1/4 inches to prevent sagging.” Sagging seems to be the biggest failure in shelving design when the designer doesn’t factor in the weight of the books. For this reason, given the variety of heavy books in my collection, I will probably go with 1 1/2 inch thick shelving. Supports will be very 36″. The goal would be to have 1″ of empty space between the tallest book and the top of the shelf.

  8. Bugs will not be that much of a problem in this area, except for silverfish and cockroaches which shouldn’t be too much of an issue in new construction. I also have enough experience with both of these nasty creatures to know what to look for and how to get rid of them.
  9. The type of wood for the shelving and the quality will matter as well as the treatment of the wood. I need to read more about what type of wood is best and how it should be treated. I believe I read somewhere that the treatment should be done prior to installation in the room, but I am not sure if this was for new construction or the case where books were present in the room during the treatment and installation.
  10. Barrister book cases can often damage book bindings even if they do help keep the dust away. I have had a cheap version of this model for years and will confess that sometimes I have minimally hurt the spines of a few taller books trying to a avoid the glass casing during removal.
  11. Fixtures are more than just for good looks. If I don’t have good reading light, I won’t want to read in the library. The best option would be lighting that is not too bright and which doesn’t produce a lot of glare.
  12. Leave enough room for growth of the collection. I would like floor-to-ceiling bookcases rather than leaving a gap at the top for the display of knick-knacks. That will give me extra space to grow and avoid the gathering of dust at the top of the shelving that is a pain to clean. A few narrow and extra wide pull-out shelves closer to waist height for the storage of maps, ephemera, and other irregularly shaped art books would be helpful.
  13. I’m short. I am going to need a tall ladder of some kind and a way to easily move it around the room.
  14. If the architect asks for more technical specifics, I’ve ordered Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers by Michele F. Pacifico and Thomas P. Wilsted.

    One example of how books were housed in the mid-1400s. This is Jean Mielot of Burgundy, manuscript illuminator, among other roles.  Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Mi%C3%A9lot

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