Have eBooks Deleted the Home Library?

Jay Johnson, IWI - I used to work for one of the major bookstore chains (one that’s still around), and I’d like to make a public confession: I love physical, pick-me-up-and-turn-my-paper-pages printed books. But when I visit with a good number of our design clients, creating a home library isn’t a big priority for them. They’d prefer the high-end furnishings for the living room, the huge dining table that can accommodate big dinner parties, a great room filled with home entertainment and gaming options, and so on. My interior design partner Irwin Weiner and I talked about how our clients react to books, and it’s very similar to the overall American reading profile. Here are the sad statistics, according to a Jenkins Group study.

  • A third of high school grads will never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college grads will never read another book after college.
  • Guess what percentage of U.S. families didn’t buy or read a book last year? (80%)
  • About 70% of U.S. adults haven’t been to a bookstore in the past five years.
  • Over half (57%) of new books aren’t read to completion, and over half of those aren’t read past page 18!

So when you factor in eBooks, with one out of every five American readers now going digital in their reading habits (here’s a summary of the 2012 Pew Research Center’s report), there’s a scarcity of  potential design clients who will ask you to design a home library.

Were you raised in a house with a home library? I was, and it was a great resource when I was growing up. But that was before computers. Consider that many people don’t buy printed books now and family reference materials like dictionaries and sets of encyclopedias have migrated online where they can be continually updated. Step into any public library today, and you’ll find a lot of multimedia, like computer games and movies and rooms with computer terminals where you can jump online and look up the things you used to find exclusively on the library shelves.

Does that mean you shouldn’t design a library for your clients? Well, let’s explore that premise. We think there’s definitely a place in the non-reading, eBook age for a “library” in the house—but like any other space, the room will have to evolve and serve multiple functions.

There Are Booklovers Out There. If you’re fortunate enough to truly want a home library, which could be one or more rooms dedicated to nothing but books and related items, then we highly recommend the book At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries. It’s a gloriously photographed resource, and it includes a library in one of our client’s homes (we didn’t design their amazing California library, home to first editions and extensive works of Samuel Johnson, but we had the pleasure of working with them on their New York City pied-à-terre). You’ll find advice for choosing furniture, lighting, and shelving along with how to find, edit, categorize, care for, preserve, and restore rare and out-of-print books. It’s also a good resource for how to start a book collection, if you don’t know where to begin. Beautiful books are like sculpture or other works of art; they can be highlighted with art lights, beautifully displayed behind glass, or read in a comfortable chair.

Play the “Good Parent” Card. Home libraries shouldn’t be just for adults! Most parents value reading highly for their children, and the best way to instill a love for reading—which later translates into predictable success in school—is to have the adults in the family model good reading habits for their children. (Here’s the Pew Research Center study, if you want some facts to back you up.) So rather than a stuffy adults-only library space in the home that seldom sees use, and kids books banished to the out-of-sight Siberia of children’s bedrooms, why not gather everything together in one room and turn the shelves over to titles that both adults and children can enjoy? The function of the room will be reading together and bonding, working and playing together at the computer, playtime for children coexisting with adults accomplishing home office tasks and craft projects, and so on.

Home Libraries are Great Rooms to Decorate. If you only think of the home library as a bunch of boring wooden built-in shelves along the wall, you’ll need to rethink the design concept. Look at Albert Hadley’s famous library design for Brooke Astor, for instance (see photo above). The shelves boasted gold trim and ten coats of oxblood red paint. This room was no boring wallflower.

Here are some of our decorating thoughts on the library.

  • Shelves and books in a room absorb sound, so the acoustics are really wonderful. That’s a big selling point to clients. That makes the room itself great for any activity, from conversation to watching TV. And the sound-dampening quality adds a calm mood to the room, which many clients will find relaxing.
  • Home libraries should serve classic functions as both a sitting room and a home office or den. Those family usage patterns haven’t changed much over the years.
  • Make way for technology, and add electronics to the home library: television, modem, computer, wireless printer, gaming console, and phone.
  • Use shelves and built-in wall units for every conceivable purpose. They’ll store books, of course. They’ll display family photo albums and self-published photo books, wedding albums, and vacation memories. They’re also ideal for the display of your collections, which could range from travel souvenirs to antique pens and glass paperweights. Collections amp up the decorative factor in any home library and turn the room into a show-and-tell destination; each item has an interesting backstory.
  • Use shelves and wall units for storage. Decorative boxes and baskets turn shelves into easy-access storage space for files and papers, craft supplies, your Etsy seller materials, children’s toys, and board games (another use for the library: old-fashioned board games and card games make great family memories, along with video gaming systems).
  • We like to plan open shelving at the top of a built-in wall unit, with drawers and cabinets underneath for extra storage and concealed surprises—we’ve concealed china and crystal servings, cable wiring and home entertainment systems, and even pull-out beverage refrigerators. The cabinet-concealed beverage fridge is an instant way to bring life to a home library, by the way. Water and soft drinks, sometimes laced with adult beverages, make the room a refreshment-filled hangout versus an outpost that feels isolated from the kitchen.

Home Library Furniture Should Be Versatile. You don’t need to have all four walls lined with built-in shelves. You can have a single wall of shelves. You can also find a breakfront or an antique bibliotheque and it can add a smaller-scale decorative element to the room. Many of them feature glass doors and fabric, which are great for concealing a flat screen TV. 

So what do you think? Have eBooks and non-reading habits killed off the home library? Not really. You do have to veer away from the “library” label, we think, and design your space based on its multiple functions. And if you're game, you might even enjoy starting a collection of beautiful books that you can read and display. Or you can expand on your love of cooking and source coffee table books about food. Or you can create a combined child-and-adult room where reading material of all ages instills a lifelong love of reading. Or you can set up the room to display limited edition art books from high-end publishers like Taschen. Or you can collect first-edition books that have been signed by their authors. Or … you get the idea!