Bolin: Books will always remain, great libraries will always house them

Libraries without books? Not a chance. As much as technocrats prophesize the coming demise of the book, it will never happen.

My friend, Terry Birdwhistell, the Dean of Libraries at the University of Kentucky, echoed that very sentiment last summer at the University of Kentucky Friends of the Library Dinner.

Library deans will come and go, but the book will always remain, and great libraries will always find space to house them. Perhaps no one knew more about books and the housing of them than William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), the author of a book – well, it is really a tract, only 29 pages long – titled “On Books and the Housing of Them.”

Anne Fadiman, a fellow writer, found a copy of Gladstone’s book in a secondhand bookshop, and at first it didn’t dawn on her that the author was that Gladstone, but, as Fadiman put it, “It was that Gladstone: four times British Prime Minister, grand old man of the Liberal Party, scholar, financier, theologian, orator, humanitarian and thorn in the side of Benjamin Disraeli, who, when asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, replied, “‘If Mr. Gladstone were to fall into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, it would be a calamity.’”

Fadiman knew that Gladstone’s little book is a jewel with many facets and “if you wish to understand the character of both W. E. Gladstone and Victorian England, everything you need to know is contained within the small compass of “On Books and the Housing of Them.”

Gladstone deals with the old problem of “too many books, too little space,” a problem certainly existing in the Bolin household, and apparently a problem at Murray State’s Waterfield Library as well, but more on that later.

Gladstone argued that this problem might be solved by some sort of sophisticated shelving system, a system that might “prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries.”

In a “note” at the beginning of the book, the publisher wrote that “it is well to remember concerning “Books and the Housing of Them” that the books themselves should be worthy the care the owner bestows on them.”

After the books have been meticulously selected, and after thousands of books have been deemed so meritorious that one just has to own them, what then?

Gladstone suggested an elaborate shelving system around the walls of a room. Shelves would be built along the walls, but every few feet, shelves would also be built projecting at right angles into the room.

I wish I could draw you a diagram, but I will just have to let Gladstone describe it for you.

He calculated that a library room 20 by 40 feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, 12 inches deep and nine feet high, “so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than 20 inches high,” would accommodate between 18 and 20 thousand volumes.

In addition to his idea of shelves projecting into a room, Gladstone also designed a system of rolling shelves, a system that is used today in the Radcliffe Camera room of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and at “The New York Times Book Review.” I suppose Gladstone’s system is the basis of the plan used as well in the basement stacks at Waterfield Library.

Fadiman has seen a photograph of Gladstone sitting in his own library at Hawarden Castle, a room that he called the Temple of Peace. As Fadiman describes it, “He sits in a wooden armchair, surrounded by leather-bound volumes on shelves that are, of course, constructed according to the principles set forth in “On Books and the Housing of Them.’”

Gladstone spent many a happy hour in his Temple of Peace, reading books of course, but also caring for them.

“The book must of necessity be put into a bookcase,” he wrote. “And the bookcase must be housed. And the house must be kept. And the library must be dusted, must be arranged, must be catalogued. What a vista of toil, yet not unhappy toil.”

When I retire from Murray State’s department of history, I will be faced with the task of moving all of those history books from my sixth floor Faculty Hall office to our home.

Perhaps I will build shelves, or rather have them built, and fashion a room according to Gladstone’s plan.

And perhaps with Evelyn I can while away the days of my retirement in just such a room, reading, writing and caring for books.


Column by Duane Bolin, Professor of history