5 Times Bookshelves Were(n’t) on the Move

Thinking in Public

This article features Dr. Lydia Pyne, Historian and Author of “Bookshelf.”

“Bookshelves exist as a series of relationships…what moves on a bookshelf and what is fixed—the shelf itself or what is on it.” Here are some examples of bookshelves that were(n’t) on the move!

  1. Chained bookshelves

In the Middle Ages, books were expensive. Like REALLY expensive. Before the printing press books were copied by hand. So libraries safeguarded their books with chains attached to a book’s spine. Library patrons could remove the book from a shelf and read it, but they could not borrow it. Only the librarians could unlock the books. Today you can see such a chained library at the Hereford Cathedral in England.

  1. Snead & Co built-in bookshelves

You’ve probably heard of Andrew Carnegie, the American tycoon and philanthropist and are familiar with the various insitutitions that bear his name, including the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Part of the library building initiatives spurred by Carnegie and colleagues in the early 1900s was a revolution in the bookshelf. Wooden bookshelves did not support sufficient weight, and often lacked aesthetic appeal. Architects turned to companies like Snead & Co. of Louisville, Kentucky to create custom bookshelves that were part of libraries’ architecture. Snead & Co. shelves supported themselves, held more weight, and were quite stylish with their wrought iron.

  1. The modern chained bookshelf

With the invention of e-readers like the Kindle and Nook came the hysteria over the death of traditional print books. But what wasn’t expected was a change in our understanding of personal bookshelves. Have you ever loaned or been loaned a book by a friend? Try doing it with an e-reader (hint: you can’t). The e-reader is the modern chained bookshelf. The “books” are tied to your personal account and devices. Even digital library loans control how long you can access a title.

  1. Floating bookshelves

Lieutenant John Irving’s cabin, facing port (note the iron knee, bookshelves, and folding table)

Stuck on boats for years, 18th and 19th-century scientific explorers often fitted bookshelves onto their ships. The bookshelves ensured that the books were kept dry. Because they needed enough material to keep them occupied for YEARS, the bookshelves were distributed across the ship to ensure the ship kept its balance. For example, when Captain Sir John Franklin was tasked with finding a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (the Northwest Passage), he made sure to stock up on books. Lydia Pyne explains how: “When the Terror and the Erebus sailed from Greenhilthe, near London, in June of 1845, the Erebus had a library of 1,700 volumes and the Terror carried 1,200 books, including “everything from narratives of earlier Arctic expeditions and geographical journals to Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and bound copies of Punch magazine.”

  1. Donkey bookshelves

The first Donkey Mobile Library, an NGO program by Ethiopia Reads, brings books to over 65 villages in Africa. When the library arrives, it is typically parked under a  shaded tree. Volunteers pull out stools so children can come by and read. A librarian and donkey-keeper manage the operations.