1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bookcase

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12330331911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 4 — BookcaseJames George Joseph Penderel-Brodhurst

BOOKCASE, an article of furniture, forming a shelved receptacle, usually perpendicular or horizontal, for the storage of books. When books, being written by hand, were excessively scarce, they were kept in small coffers which the great carried about with them on their journeys. As manuscript volumes accumulated in the religious houses or in regal palaces, they were stored upon shelves or in cupboards, and it is from these cupboards that the bookcase of to-day directly descends. At a somewhat later date the doors were, for convenience’ sake, discarded, and the evolution of the bookcase made one step forward. 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 back. It was not until the invention of printing had greatly cheapened books that it became the practice to write the title on the back and place the edges inwards. Early bookcases were usually of oak, which is still deemed to be the most appropriate wood for a stately library. The oldest bookcases in England are those in the Bodleian library at Oxford, which were placed in position in the last year or two of the 16th century; in that library are the earliest extant examples of shelved galleries over the flat wall-cases. Long ranges of book-shelves are necessarily somewhat severe in appearance, and many attempts have been made by means of carved cornices and pilasters to give them a more riant appearance—attempts which were never so successful as in the hands of the great English cabinet-makers of the second half of the 18th century.

Both Chippendale and Sheraton made or designed great numbers of bookcases, mostly glazed with little lozenges encased in fret-work frames often of great charm and elegance. The alluring grace of some of Sheraton’s satinwood bookcases has very rarely indeed been equalled. The French cabinet-makers 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 marqueterie and mounted with chased and gilded bronze. Dwarf bookcases were frequently finished with a slab of choice marble at the top. In the great public libraries of the 20th century the bookcases are often of iron, as in the British Museum where the shelves are covered with cowhide, of steel, as in the library of Congress at Washington, or of slate, as in the Fitzwilliam library at Cambridge. There are three 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 London at the Guildhall is a peculiarly effective example of the bay arrangement.

The whole question of 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.  (J. P.-B.)