Saturday, 31 July 2021

What A Library Should Be Like, 1924

Richard Le Gallienne's “What A Library Should Be Like: Some Suggestions For Those To Whom Books and Their Heritage Are Precious” appeared in House and Garden in December 1924 (here). Le Gallienne (1866–1947) was a prolific author and poet, contributor to The Yellow Book, and one-time lover of Oscar Wilde, who married three times, living in the US before settling in Menton (near Nice), France.

It appears that Le Gallienne had a very nice library later in life. According to Wikipedia:

During the Second World War he was prevented from returning to his Menton home and lived in Monaco for the rest of the war. His house in Menton was occupied by German troops and his library was nearly sent back to Germany as bounty. Le Gallienne appealed to a German officer in Monaco, who allowed him to return to Menton to collect his books.

Although this bibliophic advice was written by a practice-what-you-preach aesthete, it seems not to have been reprinted in almost a century, and so I have transcribed it below. The full reference is: Richard Le Gallienne, “What A Library Should Be Like,” House and Garden, vol. 46 (December 1924): 58, 110, 112.

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Some Suggestions For Those To Whom Books and Their Heritage Are Precious

JUST as there are gardens without souls, the loveless offspring of seedsmen's catalogs and newly acquired bank accounts, so is it with libraries. Neither have any more vital relation to their owners than an ice box, as little reflect their tastes, and are almost as seldom their personal concern.
  In English country houses the word library is often merely a euphemism for a combination of gunroom and smoking room. Guns, fishing rods, and pipe racks, with a copy of the Sporting Calendar, and a few old magazines, comprise its literature. We have all met such "libraries" in novels, and have wondered how the name chanced to be given to rooms where anything is to be found except a book or a reader.
  But there are libraries which do contain books in many and expensive "sets" that, in spite of them, still more drearily belie the description. These are even less often visited by friendly humanity, and their serried rows of uniform, morocco-bound volumes, frigidly enclosed behind glass doors, gleam lonely and uninviting as cabinets of minerals in a museum. Such libraries, we have been told, are bought by the yard like wall papers, irrespective of their literary contents, and have even less character than the other furnishings of the house, of which they form a regulation part. Obviously, these are not the libraries with which we have here to do.
  By a library we mean, of course, a cherished collection of books, and the room in which those books are sympathetically housed, a room that has taken on an unmistakable bookish character from their presence.

OUR library may be in the house or outside it, in a garden or in a woodland, by a stream among the rocks. It may be high up in a city garret, or it may be the warm heart of a palace. If one has a garden, there is no happier place for our library. "A library in a garden!" exclaims Mr. Edmund Gosse in one of his essays, "The phrase seems to contain the whole felicity of man!"
  The association of trees and books is, indeed, as old as the very derivations of the words "book" and "library," which are almost identical. Is not the word "book" derived from the Anglo-Saxon and German words for the beech tree (boce and buche) because the ancient Saxons and Germans did their first writing on beechen boards! And similarly the Latin word "liber" meant the inner bark of a tree used for writing on, before it meant "book," and gave us "library." When we reflect that the paper on which our books are printed is made from wood pulp, it will be seen that we arc still, in a sense, writing on the bark of trees, and the thought is worth playing with for a fanciful moment. The leaves of our books and the leaves on our garden trees should, therefore, feel at home together, being both made of the same mysterious substance, and when we bring our books into the garden it is but bringing them back to their green birthplace. And anyone who has built a library in a garden knows how at home indeed they are there. How the peace of both embrace and supplement each other, and, as we sit with our library door open on quiet summer afternoons, or on early mornings with the delicate sunlight playing tenderly like visible music on the nut-brown bindings, "while to and fro the room go the soft airs," the very stillness rarifies our minds, and the thoughts behind the words we read seem to steal out of themselves from the page, with the dews of their first utterance yet bright upon them. The low whisperings of the trees and the quiet talk of the books seem one, in a rare equilibrium of the soul. Yes! Mr. Gosse was right. A library in a garden! The phrase does contain the whole felicity of man!

YET it does not exhaust it. There are many other modes of felicity for a man who really loves his books whose library is the organic growth of years of collecting together those books and those only which sensitively express himself, and surround him like his own soul, his memories and his dreams, externalised in a companionable embodiment. Such a book lover will often indulge himself in imagining the many various libraries he might create for himself, like so many bookish castles in Spain. Sometimes he may dream of the libraries of great book lovers of the past. For example, if he is an omnivorous bibliomaniac, and never can have enough books about him, he may recall with envy the huge collection of Richard Heber, that "fiercest and strongest of all the bibliomaniacs," to whom Sir Walter Scott dedicated the sixth canto of Marmion. Heber is credited with owning at least 150,000 volumes, and for those as crazy as he the romantic thing about his "library" was that it was not all in one place. Eight houses were needed to hold it, all in different places, some in England, and some in ancient cities of Europe. Never was such a book glutton, a "hellus librorum." But think of the romantic adventure of pilgrimaging from one of his eight libraries to the other, the perpetual novelty of visiting and re-visiting his various Castles in Spain.

  However, I doubt whether the reader is with me in this rhapsody. Probably his dream of a library is something more sensible and static, and I dare say Montaigne's library in his old Gascon tower would be more to his taste. Indeed, who has not dreamed of that, and, well as it is known to us, it will be pertinent, and indeed practical, to quote something of his description: "'Tis in the third Story of a Tower of which the Ground-Room is my Chapel, the second Story an Apartment with a withdrawing Room and Closet, where I often lie to be more retired. Above it is a great Wardrobe, which formerly was the most useless part of the House. In that library I pass away most of the Days of my Life, and most of the Hours of the Day. In the Night I am never there. There is within it a Cabinet handsome and neat enough, with a very convenient Fire-place for the Winter, and Windows that afford a great deal of light, and very pleasant Prospects. … The Figure of my Study is round, and has no more flat Wall than what is taken up by my Table and Chairs; so that the remaining parts of the Circle present me a View of all my Books at once, set upon five Degrees of Shelves-round about me. It has three noble and free Prospects, and is sixteen Paces Diameter." Montaigne continues that only from fear of that "Trouble that frights me from all [page 111] Business," he had refrained from building on either side, "a Gallery of an hundred Paces long and twelve broad," because "every Place of Retirement requires a Walk." If we add those galleries for him in our imagination, can one conceive a library more after one's own heart! Here once more in another form is Mr. Gosse's "whole felicity of man." Perhaps some reader of this essay may have the whim—and the money—to reconstruct this old library in Montaigne's tower, not forgetting to complete it with the galleries.
  Wherever our library be situated, in a garden, in an ancestral tower, in some quaint old town with gables and belfries, or in a modern American city, the first condition of its being a real library, with the true library atmosphere, where the books can really breathe and live for us, instead of being merely stored, is that the room should not be stiff and formal. It should not be a square room, or a room we can see all at once. The one defect, to my mind, in Montaigne's library, though he himself esteemed it an advantage, was that he could see all his books at once.

  In this respect a library should be like a garden. The garden we can see all at once is not a garden but merely an horticultural exhibit. It has no surprises. And a library, similarly, should have room for surprises. It should be rambling in shape, or made to appear so. The [page 112] letter T, or better still, the letter I, with broad top and bottom, is a good ground plan. It should have two stone fireplaces, so disposed that one can only be seen at a time, roomy and hospitable, with deep angles, and there should be many alcoves, and nooks and corners, some with low windows and wide window seats. It should either be a room with low ceilings, and massive rafters of black oak, or it should be high, with galleries and winding stairways, and hidden some where in the galleries again should be other nooks, some with windows of richly dyed cathedral glass. One or two tiny rooms, with old tapestries for portieres, might be devised, suggesting secrecy and arcane mysteries; and everything, indeed, should be done to tempt the presiding genius of libraries, the nymph Quits, to make her abode there. Here and there should be bowls of roses, early violets, or drowsy wallflowers, and in some secluded corner the still statue of a goddess should come upon us with a white surprise. An old painting or two of some great dead scholar should be enshrined in hushed recesses, Erasmus, say, or Robert Burton of "The Anatomy of Melancholy"; and whatever other such objects of the sister arts are there should be un exciting, but with a quiet thrill in them, full of "whispers and of shadows."

  As for the bookshelves, they should be open, none of your forbidding glass doors, with locks and keys, behind which the books seem cold and distant as the coffined dead. Yet here and there an old Chippendale bookcase for rarities and delicate bindings, might blend its old world elegance and quaint lozenged panes, companionably among the open shelves. As for bindings, the old books will, of course, wear their old weathered coats of ribbed time-brown leather, or time-yellowed vellum. On these the morning sun and the evening lamplight fall most lovingly; and modern books, too, are best left in their original cloth which also soon take on a certain mellowness, as their different colors add variety to the whole informal, haphazard harmony. Nor should any uniformity in the heights of the volumes be aimed at. Nothing is so monotonous and un-suggestive to the eye, and so destructive of that gregariousness of all sorts and conditions of writers that counts for so much in the companionability of a library. "Sets" we must have, but these can be so disposed amid the general pattern as to give it firmness, without destroying its wayward charm.
  There is no need to speak of wall papers, for no wall space will be visible, as the library will be furnished from ceiling to floor with the most satisfactory mural decorations yet invented, namely—books; and, as to general furniture, such as tables and chairs, all that need be said is that they should be solid, simple, comfortable, and distinguished, Elizabethan and Jacobean, for preference, breathing austerity and reverie. And there should be Renaissance cabinet and writing desks with secret drawers. Which reminds me that one of those tiny hidden rooms above referred to should be accessible only by a sliding panel, the spring of which should be known only to the master of the library. And the library, too, should be provided with what one might call a postern, masked by shelves opening inward at a touch, and communicating with a private staircase, by which the master could escape intrusion at a moment's notice; for in a sense a library should be a fortress, a fortress of the soul, ready to repel attack by all enemies of quietude and dreams.
  For the essence of a library is solitude—solitude in the society of the choicest spirits of Time and Eternity. No idle creatures of a day should have entrance there.


[UPDATED 9 August 2021]

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