Top five personal libraries
May 8, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Reading has always been one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon. The power of reading is the power of transformation. Within the words typed on a page lies another world. A world you can visit without a passport, luggage, or hotel reservations. A book, for me, is a lovely invitation. I’m not alone in this love of the written word, and in times of yore, a nicely appointed personal library was the mark of a highly successful and influential person. In other words, to be well-read was a status symbol. That social climbing fictional giant, Gatsby, understood the inherent value of a vast home library. (Even though it was all a charade, it was an illusion meant to dazzle and fast-forward him to high social standing.) Join me as we journey through my list of the top five personal libraries. Tell me what makes your list in the comments below…
The Biltmore Library
We’ll start our journey in the residence of George Vanderbilt. George, the youngest in the massively wealthy Vanderbilt family, was a shy person who often retreated to a world of literature. By the age of twelve, he even started journals that cataloged his reading conquests. When he passed away in 1914, he had logged over 3,000 books (translating to about 80 books a year). When construction began for his private home in the late 1800s, the massive library was one of the first design considerations (with the next being the professional management of the estate’s farmland). The shelves of his library allow the visitor an intimate glimpse into his interests, joys, and musings. George was well-traveled and as a result the 22,000 volume collection boasts many editions from non-English-speaking locations. His voracious reading gave George an international education and he was known for his socially-conscious perspective (in a time when industrial barons were not known for their generosity of spirit). George’s passion for literacy was matched by his wife Edith. She was directly involved with literacy and educational programs aimed at helping raise the downtrodden out of poverty.
The design of this library is meticulous – just like the care given to each book. Rumor has it, Vanderbilt would often send his newly acquired treasures to a book binder for loving restoration. The room in which they were housed received this same level of attention. George’s library is a retreat, an invitation into an afternoon of literary exploration. It’s the kind of space that envelops you and asks you to sit for a spell in the plush Queen Anne chairs. To let the warmth of the wood paneling and dancing embers of the fireplace lull you into a safe place where your mind can wander freely. To put it simply – it’s a room I’d love to stay in! And in our next library, you can do just that…
How about this for a tagline: “come sleep among the books.” That’s the exact sentiment expressed by the curators and caretakers at the Gladstone Library in North Wales. Home to over 100,000 articles of printed materials, this library remains a vital location for modern scholars. The relevance of this collection of artifacts would greatly please the library’s founder, William Gladstone. Four-time Prime Minister of the UK, he was committed to sharing the gift of knowledge to his neighbors – particularly those who were less fortunate. While his collection of books is lovingly curated and maintained, they find themselves in a “new” location. They originally were housed in William’s private estate, but at the turn of the 20th century, they were afforded the posh surroundings we now can enjoy. In fact, the Gladstone family funded the residential wing. These twenty-six bedrooms provide respite for travelers worldwide, but true to William’s own vision the library membership is free of charge. He believed everyone was entitled to philosophical, religious, and scientific literary pursuits. What a fantastic legacy.
When it comes to expressing the significance of books, perhaps no one did it better than Thomas Jefferson. Quite simply he stated that “I cannot live without books.” This brilliant political mind had amassed the largest American personal library by the early 1800s and he sold this collection to Congress for about $24,000 (in today’s money that’s nearly $400,000). This transaction of nearly 7,000 volumes formed the basis for the nation’s library, the Library of Congress. Britain had set fire to the original library and without Jefferson’s collection, it would have taken our young country decades to build this literary foundation. Like the other curators on this list, books defined the person. Even though Jefferson was compensated for the donation, it couldn’t have been an easy moment for a man who prized books. In fact, he had suffered the loss of books earlier in the 1700s when his family home was engulfed in flame. You can see that love extended in his stewardship of the books to Congress: he labeled and cataloged each volume.
The Morgan Library
Tucked away, amid the hustle and bustle of New York City is a gem. Its architecture is noble – a byproduct of the iconic design firm of McKim, Mead, and White. Its interior is equal parts cozy and awe-inspiring – a result of the lush materials and diverse volumes. This special space was made in the early 1900s for J.P. Morgan’s growing book collection. A giant of the early American finance and business world, his love of books started early. His report cards come from a veritable hit list of the most prestigious educational institutions. J.P. was clearly being groomed for greatness. In the mid 1800s, however, his trajectory hit a hiccup. Rheumatic fever left him in bouts of extreme pain and he spent a year focused on healing. I can imagine, for an active young man, twelve months of rest was difficult. Books were a salve and became precious to him for his entire life.
The artifacts housed within these walls are quite diverse. Medieval illuminated texts, intricate metalwork-covered volumes, and original drafts of famous works – this library is home to it all. Ancient cylinder seals find refuge among Impressionist art – it is a heady mix. If personal libraries are a peek into someone’s inner workings (which I believe to be true), then J.P. Morgan was a true Renaissance man. And like his powerful peers, he gifted everything to the public. As the great orator Frederick Douglass once said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Making these literary treasures accessible challenges our own perspectives by inviting us to grow. A great book is meant to be shared and in this age of digital media, thoughts can be shared at lightening speed. But for my money, the tangible library is more special than it’s Kindle counterpart. Opening up a book, especially in a space purpose-built for the occasion, is an experience to be treasured. Which takes us to the final library on our list…
The Beauty & The Beast Library
I know, this isn’t a real library – but it remains one of my favorites. For a young Midwestern girl, Princess Belle and her love of reading, was like discovering a new best friend. She wore her badge of book nerd with pride and was a revelation as a one-woman revolution against the tyranny of ignorance. Belle was someone who honored each text and was equally rooted in her world and in the world of imagination. When I first viewed the library scene I was downright giddy. And I must admit, all these years later, I still feel a little flutter. Oh! To climb the ladder, to ascend and find the perfect volume for a weekend filled with reading. What a joy! I always imagined that if we were to catch up with Belle years later, that she would be a curator, transforming the castle’s library into a space for the people. After all, isn’t that what we’ve learned from our venture through the top five personal libraries? Tell me, dear reader, what real-life (or fictional) libraries are your favorites and if someone peeked at your personal library, what would they learn about you?