A bookcase, or bookshelf, is a piece of furniture, almost always with horizontal shelves, used to store books. It may be fitted with glass doors. A bookcase consists of a unit including two or more shelves which may not all be used to contain books or other printed materials. Shelves may be fixed or adjustable to different positions in the case. In rooms entirely devoted to the storage of books they may be permanently fixed to the walls and/or floor.
Bookcases frequently have doors that should be closed to protect the books from air pollution, and bookshelves are open-fronted. These doors are almost always glazed, so as to allow the spines of the books to be read. Especially valuable books may be kept in locked cases with wooden or glazed doors. A bookshelf normally stands on some other piece of furniture such as a desk or chest. Larger books are more likely to be kept in horizontal piles and very large books flat on wide shelves. In Latin and Greek the idea of bookcase is represented by Bibliotheca and Bibliothēkē (Greek: βιβλιοθήκη), derivatives of which mean library in many modern languages. A bookcase is also known as a bookshelf, a bookstand, a cupboard and a bookrack.
History of the bookcase
Private libraries appeared during the late Roman republic: Seneca inveighed against libraries fitted out for show by illiterate owners who scarcely read their titles in the course of a lifetime, but displayed the scrolls in bookcases (armaria) of citrus wood inlaid with ivory that ran right to the ceiling: “by now, like bathrooms and hot water, a library is got up as standard equipment for a fine house (domus). When books were written by hand and were not produced in great quantities, they were kept in small boxes or chests which owners (usually the wealthy or clergy) carried with them. As manuscript volumes accumulated in religious houses or in homes of the wealthy, they were stored on shelves or in cupboards. These cupboards are the direct predecessors of today’s bookcases. Later the doors were discarded, and the evolution of the bookcase proceeded.
Even then, however, the volumes were not arranged in the modern fashion. They were either placed in piles upon their sides, or if upright, were ranged with their backs to the wall and their edges outwards. The band of leather, vellum or parchment which closed the book was often used for the inscription of the title, which was thus on the fore-edge instead of on the spine. Titles were also commonly written onto the fore-edge. It was not until the invention of printing had greatly reduced the cost of books, thus allowing many more people direct access to owning books, that it became the practice to write the title on the spine and shelve books with the spine outwards. Early bookcases were usually of oak, which is still deemed by some to be the most appropriate wood for an elegant library.
The oldest bookcases in England are those in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which were placed in position in the last year or two of the sixteenth century; in that library are the earliest extant examples of shelved galleries over the flat wall-cases. Long ranges of book-shelves are somewhat severe in appearance, and many attempts have been made by means of carved cornices and pilasters to give them a less austere appearance. These attempts were most successful as in the hands of the English cabinetmakers of the second half of the eighteenth century. Designers and manufacturers
Both Chippendale and Sheraton made or designed many bookcases, mostly glazed with little lozenges encased in fretwork frames, often of great charm and elegance. In the eyes of some, the grace of some of Sheraton’s satinwood bookcases has rarely been equalled. The French cabinetmakers of the same period were also highly successful with small ornamental cases. Mahogany, rosewood satinwood and even choicer exotic timbers were used; they were often inlaid with marquetry and mounted with chased and gilded bronze. Dwarf bookcases were frequently finished with a slab of choice marble at the top.
In 1876, John Danner of Canton, Ohio, invented a revolving bookcase with a patented “pivot and post” design. The ingenuity of his work resided in the economy of space it provided. Thirty-two volumes of the American Cyclopedia could be stored in a compact space, and readily available for perusal at the touch of a finger. Danner’s bookcase appeared in the 1894 Montgomery Ward catalog. In 1878 he exhibited his bookcases at the Paris International Exhibition and won a gold medal. The John Danner Manufacturing Company was known for honorable workmanship and affordability. The woods were oak, black walnut, western ash, and Philippine mahogany. Viewed as a progressive businessman, Danner was credited with drawing a large trade and business to the city of Canton.
In the great public libraries of the twentieth century the bookcases are often of iron, as in the British Museum where the shelves are covered with cowhide, or steel, as in the Library of Congress at Washington, D.C., or of slate, as in the Fitzwilliam Library at Cambridge.
Systems of arrangement
There are three common ways of arranging stationary bookcases: flat against the wall; in stacks or ranges parallel to each other with merely enough space between to allow of the passage of a librarian; or in bays or alcoves, where cases jut out into the room at right angles to the wall-cases. The stack system is suitable only for public libraries where economy of space is essential; the bay system is not only handsome but utilizes the space to great advantage. The library of the City of London at the Guildhall is a peculiarly effective example of the bay arrangement.
For libraries where space is extremely tight there is yet another system, usually called mobile aisle shelving. In such systems rows of bookcases are mounted on wheels and packed tightly together with only one or more aisles between them. It is possible then to visit only two bookcase sides at a time, all the others being pressed close together. A gearing mechanism allows users move the bookcases and open the aisle in the desired location. Because of the danger of tripping on the floor mounted rails or being squashed between bookcases these systems may have electronic sensors and/or recessed track, or are reserved for closed stacks where access is restricted.
The purpose of bookshelves is not merely an aesthetic one. While books on a shelf or in a bookcase always look great, furnishing a touch of class to any room, the books themselves are also being stored in the way best suited to their preservation. Such books are in fact resting most comfortably in mutually-supportive ranks. This vertical bookshelf storage is the ideal for normal-sized books as it avoids the common deformities that come from storing books on their side. What many people do not realize is that books should not be simply stuffed or crammed into shelves in an attempt to fit in as many as possible, but that some care must also be taken in how they are actually arranged on the shelf.