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  • On Books And The Housing Of Them – W E Gladstone, March 1890

The British Library – now receiving 3 million books a year. Picture by Xavier de Jauréguiberry

In 1890 book lover and former British prime minister W.E. Gladstone was worried: Britain could one day be drowning in books. He predicted there could soon be 60,000 books a year being published. How would libraries store so many books? And how would they be organised?

In 2013 The British Library receives 3 million new books a year. Somehow we are coping.

But such was Gladstone’s concern in 1890 that he published a pamphlet: On Books And The Housing Of Them. In it he gives detailed advice on how to build your private library, what size shelves should be and how your books should be organised. And he had a radical solution to the problem of having too many books: A book cemetery.

But there’s more than the humour of hindsight evoked by this short pamphlet. At a time society is looking once more at the future of books, the future of libraries, and the birth of the Google Library (an attempt to digitise every book ever published), this proves to be a surprisingly timely publication by a 19th century bibliophile.

Take this quote for example: “Noble works ought not to be printed in mean and worthless forms, and cheapness ought to be limited by an instinctive sense and law of fitness. The binding of a book is the dress with which it walks out into the world. The paper, type and ink are the body, in which its soul is domiciled. And these three, soul, body, and habilament, are a triad which ought to be adjusted to one another by the laws of harmony and good sense.”

An explanatory preface in front of Gladstone’s booklet for today’s reader would be useful (it’s a free download from Gutenberg books or the Kindle library) but it seems that he was writing at a time when copyright laws between American and the USA were being ironed out and cheap printing was heralding a greater democracy in book publishing and book ownership. Gladstone warned: “When artificial fetters are relaxed, and printers, publishers, and authors obtain the reward which well-regulated commerce would afford them, then let floors beware lest they crack, and walls lest they bulge and burst, from the weight of books they will have to carry and to confine.”

He has no doubts over the importance of the book: “Books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man… In a room well filled with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary.” But he was having serious concerns about how libraries in the future would cope with so many books. How could you afford to have them all bound? (it seems Victorians paid to have books and periodicals bound anew when they bought one). How would you build rooms big enough and shelving long enough to store them all? And how would you organise the millions of books so you could quickly find the one you wanted?

Gladstone spends much time on the physical dimensions for shelving (could he have ever dreamed of millions of books stored on a hard disc measuring just a few inches across, or stored on a ‘cloud’?!). He writes: “First, the shelves must, as a rule, be fixed; secondly, the cases, or a large part of them, should have their side against the wall, and thus, projecting into the room for a convenient distance, they should be of twice the depth needed for a single line of books, and should hold two lines, one facing each way. Twelve inches is a fair and liberal depth for two rows of octavos.” That a leading politician should bother to take time out to advise others how how wide to make their library shelves is a wonderful example of how much importance he placed on books.

There is also much discussion on how books are categorised – A to Z or by subject? And he asks “whether the arrangement of a library ought not in some degree to correspond with and represent the mind of the man who forms it?” Surely still a question relevant to how people store books on their Google cloud or Kindle library?

Finally he discusses – and he acknowledges how sensitive this subject will be – what to do with all those books and periodicals that you hardly ever read and you don’t want clogging up your bookshelves. His solution is a book cemetery – an underground storage facility but likened more to storing vintage wine in vats than disposing of bodies in a graveyard. “Undoubtedly the idea of book-cemeteries such as I have supposed is very formidable” he writes. “It should be kept within the limits of the dire necessity which has evoked it from the underworld into the haunts of living men. But it will have to be faced, and faced perhaps oftener than might be supposed.” So that will be the ‘archive’ button on my Kindle then.

Since this booklet is free, I’d urge everyone to download it and read it. It’s a Victorian worthy grappling with issues and concepts that we still face today. His hope was that his measurement for private libraries would “prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries.” He probably failed to save me from the impending collapse of my house from the hundreds of books on my shelves but perhaps those architects of the virtual library at Google might find his advice helpful.

* I should add that Gladstone had an impressive library of his own – which you can visit and even sleep in! (They offer accommodation). See St Denioils. I’ve also been reminded that Gladstone had a Scouse accent so please read his pamphlet accordingly!