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Gail Green
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There are several important characteristics to be considered in designing a rare book library. As a designer, the most prominent categories are the room’s lighting, air quality, cabinetry (shelving), finishes, and overall architectural plan. As the book becomes a more arcane form, these specific conditions will define and determine the longevity of the collection. If there is one characteristic to which rare books respond, it is to the stability, consistency and beauty of their environment.

  1. Lighting - The sun is an enemy to books. Natural light can lead to a book’s disintegration. Many libraries, both public and personal, have now become spaces with few windows, limiting permeation by the sun. For best results, light precautions need to begin with a UV film over each window, protected by additional layers of draperies. These decorative panels, as noted drapery fabricator Robin Feuer suggests, “need to be lined and interlined for the best protection. For added protection, a solar shade with maximum opacity should be added.” In addition, strips are oftentimes placed on the sides of the windows, insuring the least light invasion. Insofar as interior lighting is concerned, Richard Renfro of Renfro Design suggests placing LED light strips on the underside of the ledge above each a shelf. Compared to other types of lighting, LED’s are not as hot and emit a nice, consistent stream of light upon the books below. Free of UV rays and infrared frequencies, they can be left on for considerable periods of time. Phantom Lighting who makes such concealed linear strip lighting notes “that the lighting strip creates a safe, low-voltage light appropriate for lighting books continuously.”  Sandra Liotus, Liotus Lighting Design, engineers and builds glass fiber optic lighting which removes all infra-red and ultra violet lighting frequencies, allowing rare books to be lit without worry of fading, wet or dry rot, or reduced relative humidity.”
  2. Environment - Stabile, constant, and consistent are the key words here. Maintaining an even temperature with a consistent humidity level contributes to the most effective environmental conditions for the private library. Ivan Pollak, IP Consulting engineers, notes, “It is imperative that books be exposed to both a stable temperature of between 65 to 70 degrees and a relative humidity level of 45 to 55%. The important thing to remember in relation to both the humidity and temperature is that both remain constant, and that if any kind of change be required, it be done gradually. This means that the temperature and humidity be set and left without any kind of radical change.” In addition, the air quality needs to be as pure as possible. This is because books are made from celluloids that are highly vulnerable to air impurities. These impurities can be particularly aggressive, creating an acidic or chemical reaction to the books. A too high ph factor is toxic to paper. Thus, the ph level should be neutralized and climate control maintenance should be instituted whenever possible.
    • Extremes in all aspects need to be avoided. Insofar as moisture is concerned, Ivan Pollak notes that “It is best not to place the library too close to a bathroom, where the humidity levels can run high because of the close proximity to water.” Paper can be hygroscopic, readily absorbing moisture. “If one has an HVAC system, Ivan notes, then it is possible to capture the bad air while precluding and filtering outside impurities.” Proper air conditions will also prevent mold from proliferating. Humidifiers are beneficial when there isn’t a system that can moderate the humidity and temperature levels. Air conditioning in the summer and overall heating in the winter are essential in maintaining the proper temperature. Excessive heat can destroy and accelerate the decay of books. Thus, it is best to maintain a cool, dry environment for your collection with as little temperature fluctuation, as possible. In addition, books should not be stored in basements or attics, or near any heat sources. Doors and windows should be sealed and weatherstripped in order to prevent the intrusion of outside air, light and pollutants.
  3. Shelving - Metal shelving, though ideal for rare books, looks very institutional. John Molinari of William Somerville Inc., a premium architectural woodworker, notes that “The best alternatives are non-porous, full body, solvent free finishes on hard woods such as mahogany or walnut. It is best to avoid woods like Oak because of its high acidic nature.” John suggests that the wood be protected with a waterborne top coat finish on all exposed surfaces and that any MDF substrate be formaldehyde free and that the glue which bonds the veneer to the MDF substrate also be formaldehyde free so that the core does not emit toxic gases that can harm precious artifacts especially items made of paper and material of that nature. Ideally, the shelves should be adjustable with enough space behind each shelf for proper air ventilation. John also suggests placing folios on the lower shelves behind glass doors, as an extra additional precaution from pollutants. Tall books should not be shelved next to short books to prevent warping. In addition, do not pack the books too tightly for fear of damaging the books when removing them to read and to provide a bit of air to circulate around them. An ideal case height is 5′4″. Books over 18″ high should be placed on bottom shelves, not stacked more than three high. Bookcases that are 36″ wide should be at least 1″ thick, so as to prevent sagging. Bookcases over 36 ” wide should have 1 1/2″ thick shelves with 2 internal 3/4″ X 3/4 ” steel tubing for rigidity, one tube towards the front and one towards the back.
    • When possible, arranging books by size is quite effective, with each size tome protecting the other. Steven Gertz, famed Booktryst Rare Book blogger and dealer, suggests leaving “ at least 1″ clearance between book height and shelf above to allow for easy, uncramped placing and removal of books from their shelf-space. Never remove a book by pulling on upper edge at spine - it risks tearing the cloth or leather at spine head.” Rare and collectible books should be stored properly as to prevent any kind of structural or physical damage. Glass front bookcases are quite effective in preventing additional hazardous factors from getting through. Better still, use a Tru Vue acrylic glass with non-reflective glare. For fragile books, separate book enclosures are de rigeur. Due to the vast amount of air pollutants derived from outside sources and interior furniture, it is best to encase fragile books within acid-free casings that are well-sealed.
  4. Design - Because rare books thrive best under specific conditions, it is best to segregate the private library from the rest of the home. This is done by creating an ante area, a controlled prelude space designated for the adjustment and gradual acclimatization of temperature and closure to air impurities. In addition to being an effective means of keeping out bad elements, ante rooms are beautiful areas unto themselves, as graceful and oftentimes interesting entries into main rooms. For the built in cabinetry, the bookshelves should be adjustable with flexibility for different sized volumes. Ideally, the shelving should line the room at one continuous height, so that it wraps the space in an aura of envelopment. The furniture then gets placed towards the middle of the room on a carpet, creating a floating effect that enhances the overall ethereal feel.
    • Floors - The harder the floor the better. This means non-porous stone floors with protective sealants are best. While placing a rug on top of its surface is not ideal, it is better than wall to wall carpeting which tends to capture more impurities. Radiant floors, in providing slow moving consistent heat streams, are most effective. Hard wood floors are also good.
    • Walls - When possible, stone walls with protective sealant coats are best. Gypsum walls tend to be too porous. However, if stone walls are not an option, a good protective wall finish over sheet rock such as Venetian plaster with its many smooth layers is advisable.
    • Ceilings - Avoid hung ceilings with ductwork. Instead, use through the walls ventilation systems. Ideally, the ceiling should be a solid surface with no penetration of outside light.
    • Lighting - Other than the book friendly lighting systems noted above, the ambient light provided by a table or floor lamp is quite acceptable. These fixtures are on for short amounts of time and thus generally not so harmful.
    • Fabrics - Leathers coverings are superior to those made of fabrics, whose woven fibers are more vulnerable to toxic elements and dirt. Keep in mind that synthetics of any kind are not good. And, seams and decorative trims on furnishings should be kept to a minimum. The less places for germs to hide the better. Of course, what would a private library be without beautifully upholstered walls, antique carpets, window seats with beautiful draperies, lush fabrics, mohair throws, leather sofas, ornamental plasterwork with classical motifs, felt covered tables on which to place a book, a beautiful wood desk and chair and a painting or two of your favorite author!

Surely the sanctuary, the private library is the collector’s ultimate utopia at home, where history mixes with the imagination, and the past becomes alive. With diligent care and attention, rare books will thrive and perpetuate, ever increasing in value. As Jefferson correctly perceives, “A room without books is like a life without meaning.”

Filed under: Design

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