022: The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski

by Gerard

As promised, here’s #4:

022.4: Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Knopf, 1999. 231 pp. ISBN 0-965-004552.

Where do you put books about bookshelves? Well, luckily, the Dewey has a place for them. In much the same way the Dewey has a classification for the Dewey itself, books on bookshelves are placed in the division for library science (the 020s). While one could make a decent case for classing it in the 600s with technology, bookshelves exist in relatively few domains. They’re in households, bookshops, and libraries. Since a lot of the history of bookshelves has been on how to make them for the masses (read “libraries”), their history falls under 022—Administration of physical plant (libraries).

Henry Petroski’s Book on the Bookshelf is an in-depth look at the history, construction, and evolution of the modern bookshelf. Early written works were in scroll form and the storage, care, and management of the scrolls was important. They were kept in two different ways—either rolled and stacked in cubby-holes or stored on the rolled end in large circular baskets to keep them from crushing each other. Scrolls became unmanageable because information-gatherers were out collecting information on horseback, so the transition was made from rolled writing surfaces to flat ones. These flat pages were tied together to form the first codex. Codices were first stored in boxes and trunks, spine down (info on written on the fore-edges of books), and locked up until needed. These trunks were kept by monasteries to make copies thereof.

After a while, the number of books kept by monasteries grew unwieldy and the monks built armaria (the precursor to the modern armoire) to hold the books for safekeeping. Book were laid on their backs and lent out sparingly. When books became a little more commonplace, gentleman-scholars began keeping them in their homes and studies, but depictions of book storage yields a multitude of arrangements. There were book boxes, with volumes thrown haphazardly in them; wall-mounted shelves, with books on their fore-edges, sides, spines, etc.; and even book-wheels (think Ferris wheel design), with opened books in each of eight platforms. Surprisingly enough, no one had thought to place books on the shelf, standing up, with the spines out.

When there were enough books in one place to build a unique building where they were kept and available to the public, there were still problems with their storage and care. To ensure that books weren’t stolen from these new libraries, they were outfitted with clasped and chained to the bookcases. Unfortunately, the easiest place to affix the clasp was on one of the fore-edge boards, so books were shelved standing up (finally!) but placed with the spine facing the back of the shelving unit. Finally, after some tweaking and trust in the general public, books were flipped around and placed in the way we see them today.

Petroski’s writing on such a quotidian subject is fortunately both inviting and poetic. You can tell he shares a remarkable affinity for the furniture (even when many around him do not). The history itself is much what one would expect. In the beginning, bookshelves were few and weirdly arranged, and now they are efficient and versatile. Since shelving technology progressed in a rather straightforward manner, Petroski also delves into the history of the book itself as well as bookshops, bookbinders, and mini-biographies of the inventors of the many types of shelving units (even a bit on Melvil Dewey himself!). My main problem with the book is that there is no mention of Eastern bookshelving. China invented paper before Western Europe (and also won the moveable metal type race), but no mention is made of Asian book-shelving technology. This seems to be a pitfall of many history books (not just Petroski’s), but it’s irksome just the same. All in all, it was a great book (if you’re into this sort of thing).