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Rare Books 101

The Private Library: The Living Room

  • Jul 1, 2015

We are often asked at Bauman Rare Books if we think there is a future for material books. Answer: Yes! If you build your OWN library. The more people who know and understand how to collect books and build good libraries will be doing their part to ensure the survival of books and maybe (no pressure) civilization itself.

Building a library that makes you proud, is functional and beautiful takes some mindfulness, but it should be a personal pleasure that you don’t leave up to some high-priced designer.

For example, we get asked what our personal libraries look like. Here is a little peek at mine:

mix of sentimental paperbacks on a shelf
Below, on this shelf is a mix of sentimental paperbacks and universally ignored books I intend to read but probably won’t until my son grows up.

So, let’s talk books and where to put them. How to LOVE them, USE them and let others do the same.

Let’s start where most people enter:


The living room is a great place to experiment with a mix of both modern and older titles; contemporary books and rare books. Rare titles should be placed on a slightly high shelf in this room of the house. The indulgences that make life more wonderful – parties, food, wine, friends, family – are not book friendly. By all means if yours is an open, friendly home, share those rare books with your family and guests. But, remember that clumsy things can happen and if you love your books and your friends, you will place the books on a higher shelf (not so high that you cannot get to them to use them or clean the shelf) but don’t make it easy for pets, family and friends to test your loyalty!

If you live in a large home with a Great Room, bookshelves that span from floor to ceiling make a big room seem cozy, classic and complete. Rare sets and leather bound rare titles ground these kinds of spaces with their neutral earth tones and occasionally colorful spines. Many American homes have Great Rooms, similar to the European Manor style but uniquely American in their use of light and windows in order to bring a sense of nature inside. Once again, this means that you should take care that the books are not over exposed to light to reduce the possibility of fading. If you live in an area with strong sunlight, consider installing good shades and a system to climb to the books.

Heavy, thick wooden shelving, sleek modern metal shelving…the design of the home will be most evident in this room. Shelving in the living room should compliment the structure and architecture of the home. The bookshelves should work with the integrity of the resources and materials used whenever possible. If your budget does not allow custom shelving, consider stand alone stock shelves that can be easily made to appear custom. The books will give this large room the warmth and color it usually lacks.

Because a living room is based on comfort, if you choose to center your library in this room, or at least part of your collection, remember that beauty should also be part of the equation. Because beauty is subjective, I prefer to use words like “coherence” and “symmetry” and “balance”, cleverly attempting to stay out of the whole “what is beauty” debate.

A word about organizing your library by color. Interior designers love this approach but, in my opinion, it leaves a home looking staged and cold. Expect some not too secret eye-rolls from your friends. Leave that color matching stuff to concept spaces and “design laboratories” like Design Within Reach. However, if you can do it well and boldly, I say use it sparingly.

Collectors who have amassed or are in the process of amassing a library should take a note:  How you arrange and control your library will directly affect their longevity. A well-planned library, no matter what approach is taken, tends to be cleaner, more orderly and easier to catalog. Books tend not to get lost and there is less attrition or damage when the books are properly placed.

A great private library is at once free and restrained depending on the home and the people who live inside it. How do you really live? An English Manor style library will not suit an American beach cottage or my little Dutch home in Jersey City. (Gasp! She crosses the Hudson!) And, please don’t wish that your family and friends would be careful with your books: They won’t be. Love them for who they are and plan accordingly.

However, it is a good idea to borrow a few techniques from everyone’s favorite publishing birds: If you have paperbacks (especially the very cool English Penguin variety), by all means, throw them on the shelves. We all read them and they encourage others to read with their sexy flexibility and flirty colors… All manner of books can co-exist given enough smart grouping and enough distance apart. If the books are shelved neatly, with enough visual space broken up with other books and perhaps some items you would like to display, the eye has a tendency to FIND or CREATE symmetry and balance.

But don’t live a lie. My aesthetic and yours will never be the same. My books, like Harold Lloyd, are neat in appearance but in quick danger of disarray.

And given all that I’ve already written, you may disagree with me and prefer a more chaotic approach, and if this is so, this feeling of book anarchy should extend throughout your home so that there is symmetry in your anarchy. There are famous personal libraries where books are stacked on floors, shoved sideways into bookcases, seemingly at random. The owners of most of these great, cluttered, personal libraries have mastered their own idea of order so there is a sense of happiness and comfort. Despite which approach you take, books and how they are ordered in your home should reflect the collector and how those in the home actually live.

A library of any sort should be a joy. Don’t think too hard – build good, strong bookshelves and utilize a combination of good sense and instinct to populate the shelves and you can’t go wrong.

If you have any questions, you know where to find me.

Angel Webster

Angel is a bookseller at the Madison Avenue gallery. She remembers receiving a Bachelor’s Degree from Rutgers University a long time ago and her Master of Fine Arts from Brooklyn College almost as long ago, but finds working with rare books more educational. She reads, writes, and gardens in Jersey City and she is always looking forward to a new favorite book. Recent favorites include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations.

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One Response to “The Private Library: The Living Room”

  • Ben says:

    Thank you for this post. It was a great read, especially since I sometimes wonder whether or not my library would be enough to rebuild civilization. It is definitely good advice not wish that other will be careful with one’s books. While I have had no disasters, I still occasionally cringe when people handle my books.