Ten Tips: Home Libraries
Make your books as interesting to look at as they are to read.
By Lila Edythe
The good news is that designers and librarians agree that there’s no one right way to display books in a home. (Although please, stay away from the trend of “spine-in” display. “While it may create a cohesive color palette, it’s cringeworthy to the bibliophiles of the world,” says Jackson- and Brooklyn, New York-based interior designer Felicity Sargent. “I am vehemently opposed to it.” We couldn’t agree more.)
We asked three local experts to share what they think about when curating and displaying clients’ home libraries, which all agree should be as unique as their owners.
Designer Felicity Sargent has studied interior design, studio art, and art history, and has a master’s degree in English literature, so home libraries are close to her heart. “Even the smallest living space is deserving of a dedicated home library,” she says. In this 1,000-square-foot East Jackson condo, Sargent used a prominent piece of furniture to define the library space. “Its height anchors the space,” says Sargent, who founded Felicity Sargent Design in 2015. “It draws the eye upward, emphasizing the expanse of the ceiling, while simultaneously bringing the seating area inward, creating a cozy, intimate gathering space.”
- Home libraries don’t need to follow the Dewey Decimal System, and books don’t need to be arranged in a neat little row. They can be stacked, leaned, piled, and interspersed with other items. Have fun with it! The more unique, the better.
- Personally, I prefer books without dust jackets for the more streamlined and elegant aesthetic it creates. So often there’s a beautiful binding hidden beneath the jacket.
- Color is a simple way to arrange things, and I understand when clients want to do that. Personally, I use this method to organize my closet, but not my bookshelf. I think contrast and variety are beautiful and, to me, when books are arranged by the colors of the rainbow, the display looks fussy and contrived. The most beautiful rooms look soulful and effortless.
- This piece, which I stumbled upon at Home Again, isn’t just a home to books, but serves as a focal point in the room, filling a large blank wall with books and beautiful objects that add interest while offering dual-purpose storage: The top half is for display, while the bottom half is concealed for functional (and possibly unsightly) items. Here we’ve hidden a home office, including a printer and filing system.
The main living spaces in this 7,000-square-foot home have distant valley views but Andy Ankeny, a principal at Carney Logan Burke Architects, situated the library to take advantage of the dramatic views of a mountain right next to the property. This placement also created an intimate relationship between the library and the old-growth ponderosa pine forest just outside. Ankeny says that while “the majority of the house has a sculptural approach to the white walls for an amazing art collection, in the library we used more framed wood elements to enclose the space.”
- The lighting in this space was from a very high ceiling, but libraries need a large amount of light so we layered light from multiple sources: high in the ceiling, recessed within some of the shelves, and with decorative and floor lamps, which aren’t visible in this image.
- Since the library is far from the kitchen, we included a very subtle bar element, but downplayed the materials so that it didn’t feel like typical kitchen-style fixtures within the space, and we located it in the room to be hidden upon entry. It is discrete in relation to the books, art, and exterior views.
- Every linear inch of the clients’ existing collection of books was measured to move from their previous house into this library in a seamless transition. While we measured the amount of shelving in the clients’ prior library, this is an entirely different design and shelving layout. We simply used the linear feet of shelving plus the height and depth of shelving as a metric to make sure that all of their collection would fit within the new layout. We also accounted for placement of art and small sculptural figures.
“Books make a house a home: They add texture and warmth,” says Christy Shannon Smirl, a library scientist and founder of Foxtail Books & Library Services. Before founding Foxtail, Smirl worked in private, academic, and public libraries (including Teton County Library). She has worked on libraries as small as ten books in a windowsill to 5,000 volumes taking up four walls, and says a librarian looks at home libraries differently than an interior designer does: “Just as an interior designer is the expert on adding layers of furniture and textiles to a space, a librarian fills your space with a rich collection of stories and tools that are chosen from all the books in the world specifically for you.”
- Keep your favorite titles, most beautiful books, and other points of pride on eye-level shelves where they will get the most attention.
- Pull book spines close to the shelf’s edge to catch the light in the room. This can also help hide unsightly bracket holes on the sides of adjustable shelving.
- Rare and heirloom-quality volumes should be protected with archival covers and kept out of direct sunlight.
- Add decorative objects made from a variety of materials—wood, metal, ceramics, or glass—to highlight the variety of subject matter and the beautiful texture of your books.
- Alternate spine orientation between vertical and horizontal, and switch where books are placed on the shelves—left, right, or centered—for an eclectic style to match the variety of your books. Tomes that are too tall for a shelf can be stacked flat with other art and photography books, or moved to a coffee table.
- Bookends protect books from falling over and being damaged.