Libraries are not just rooms for storing books. They are palaces of the imagination. While public libraries are on the brink of being a thing of the past, residential libraries are the newest luxury and must-have status symbol.
The main reading room at the New York Public Library, which was inaugurates in 1911. It is one of the largest rooms in the United States and currently seats approx. 624 readers.
Is it possible that to the list of defunct building types – castles, cotton mills, public baths – we might one day soon add the library? Public libraries are closing across Europe, and the Americas as the job of the storage and retrieval of knowledge migrates to the digital realm.
Architectural historian James Campbell argues that libraries have, since ancient times, proved adept at adapting to new technologies. In his The Library: A World History, he takes us to the oldest library in the world, the Tripitaka Koreana, whose shelves hold timber printing blocks rather than books. He introduces the Malatestiana Library in Cesena, Italy; completed in 1452, it looks more like a chapel, with rows of pews under a vaulted ceiling. Its bulky volumes are chained to desks; if you want to read a book, you are directed to the desk where it's located and must sit there. If you want a different book, you have to move to the desk where it's chained.
A glimpse of The Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination, the private library of Jay Walker located on this Connecticut estate.
With printing, books became smaller – and less precious – so they could be unchained and stored on shelves, first in alcoves, and later in stacks of multiple stories. By the 17th and 18th centuries, having a library became a status symbol. Some libraries, such as that at Austria's Altenburg Abbey, contained far more in the way of riotous decoration than they did books. Some libraries rebound their books to match the décor; others painted Trompe d'oeil books on their walls to disguise their meager collections. In the 19th century, gas lighting raised the risk of fire, and libraries became some of the first buildings to be constructed of iron.
Campbell hedges his bets on the future of the library. They are places in which to read, but also to think, to dream, and to celebrate knowledge. He says there will always be a need for such places.
Perhaps, as it did in the 17th and 18th centuries, the library will be the ultimate status symbol again – just not for public use. Private collectors are snatching up rare books at auction at record-setting numbers. Wealthy homeowners are already building grand personal libraries to house their vast collections. Case in point: inventor, entrepreneur, and founder of Priceline.com, Jay Walker's Connecticut estate is home to a 3 ½ level, 3,600 sq. ft. library embellished with custom woodworking, glass floors, and an angular staircase that is said to be inspired by the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher. Aptly named, The Walker Library of the History of the Human Imagination, the 50,000-volume library holds a remarkable selection of rare works and objects including a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence and an atlas from 1669 noted for being the first to show the sun at the center of the solar system.
Whether public libraries will be obsolete or whether they will involve books and still be called libraries, only time will tell. But the trend for the ultra-luxurious private libraries has just begun.