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A bookcase, or bookshelf, is a piece of furniture, almost always with horizontal shelves, used to store books. A bookcase frequently has doors that may be closed to protect the books, bookshelves are open-fronted. These doors are usually glazed, so as to allow the spines of the books to be read.

History of the bookcase

When books were written by hand and were not produced in great quantities, they were kept in small containers 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.

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.

Oldest bookcases

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.

Library shelving

In the great public libraries of the twentieth century the bookcases are often of iron, as in the British Museummarker where the shelves are covered with cowhide, or steel, as in the Library of Congressmarker at Washington, D.C.marker, or of slate, as in the Fitzwilliam Library at Cambridgemarker.

Systems of arrangement

Parallel arrangement of bookshelves.
Mobile aisle shelving.
There are three stationary systems of arranging 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 Londonmarker at the Guildhallmarker 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.

Barrister's bookcase

A barrister requires the use of many law books and may frequently move to new chambers. A specialised form of portable bookcase has thus developed to meet their needs. A barrister's bookcase consists of several separate shelf units that may be stacked together to form a cabinet. An additional plinth and hood complete the piece. When moving chambers, each shelf is carried separately without needing to remove its contents and becomes a carrying-case full of books.

As most high-quality bookcases are closed by doors, but also to retain the books when being carried, a barrister's bookcase has glazed doors. As the shelves must still separate it's not possible to provide the usual hinged doors opening sideways and so instead they use an "up and over" mechanism on each shelf. The better quality cases use a metal scissor mechanism inside the shelves to ensure that the doors move in a parallel fashion without skewing and jamming. Many of this style, exported worldwide, were made by the Skandia Furniture Co. of Rockford, Illinoismarker around the beginning of the 20th century.

This style of bookcase was either made in a Dickensian period, or harkens back to the style of such times, so they're most commonly glazed with a leaded light and small panes of glass.

The true barrister's bookcase must be capable of each shelf being carried with a heavy load of books. The more robust examples have folding handles at the ends of each shelf. Modern "decorator" copies of these may look the same, but are often too lightly constructed to be carried whilst loaded, or may even be simply a single fixed case as per a normal bookcase, but with separate doors to each shelf to give the appearance of a barrister's bookcase.

Literature on bookcases

The construction and arrangement of bookcases was learnedly discussed in the light of experience by W. E. Gladstone in the Nineteenth Century for March 1890.

The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski also discusses the shelving of books in some detail.

See also Sympson the Joiner and the early glazed bookcases made for Samuel Pepys.

Bookcases in fiction

In several stories, a secret area is hidden behind a bookcase built into the wall. The entrance is typically opened when a particular book on the shelf is pulled off or uses a switch in a statue, usually under the head. One particularly humorous example is found in the film Young Frankenstein, when Doctor Frankenstein's laboratory is opened via a bookcase triggered by a candle.

References




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