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The importance of the library

According to the novelist Anthony Powell, ‘books do furnish a room’. He certainly had a well-furnished library in his Georgian home near Bath, but the library as a kind of sitting room has long been a leitmotif of the English country house interior. Today, however, many people think the book has had its chips, and what’s the point of a library without books? Will leather armchairs and tome laden shelves be replaced by a high-tech media room? Furniture maker Luke Hughes, who has worked on a number of historic library interiors, especially for Oxford and Cambridge colleges, doesn’t think so. He observes that ‘a digitized library world, devoid of books, has proved to be as much of a chimera as the much-trumpeted paper-free office’.

In many private country houses, libraries still have an intensely social role. They are the comfortable smaller sitting rooms where you’ll find the newspapers, the family photographs, albums and, most importantly, the permanent drinks tray, as well as the television and music system. Indeed, Wendy Nicholls, managing director of Colefax and Fowler, thinks there has actually been a serious library revival ‘It’s because they’re really the calm room of the house, a place to sit quietly and read at any time, as well as a room to have drinks before dinner. I’m a great fan of the open fire and the comfortable armchair to read in beside it-what could be better?’

Miss Nicholls has worked on libraries great and small, and has often linked the library with a dining room. Architect Hugh Petter of Adam Architecture agrees that the dining-room and- library combination has become something of a trend in new country houses. ‘This is partly because a large amount of space is required for the more communal large family kitchen and sitting room. You have to think about merging the other spaces, and clients respond to combining the more formal dining room with the softer pleasures of the library.’

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Interior designer Guy Oliver believes the reason the library is such a cherished room is that the book itself has, in some ways, become an even more significant object of late. ‘People have always collected books and, as literature becomes available digitally, there is a now a trend for niche publishers producing really beautiful illustrated books. Those who collect books of this type want to create a suitable home for their collections. Requests for libraries or library bookcases are much more frequent now than they have been for a while.’

That said, technology has transformed so much of modern life, and libraries are actually the beneficiaries of electronics and computers, rather than the victims. Mr Oliver has recently designed bookcases that display books until opened up to reveal a plasma-screen television. Mr Petter has worked on several new libraries that have fibreoptic lighting, ‘which has created the opportunity for washing the spines of books with subtle light and can be very arresting’. The real joy of contemporary technology, however, is the way in which it frees up other things. Instead of the irritating and ugly bushels of cord and plugs of a decade ago, wireless systems mean you can have rooms just as you want them.

Even arch-modernist technophiles like to include books in their houses, so you find library like rooms or spaces in the newest cool interiors. Shelves can be used to divide rooms in the manner of floating walls or be suspended from the ceiling -everything is possible. After all, as critic Alan Powers observes: ‘Books are rectangular, so they know their place. They always add a note of sophistication to the sleekest interiors. Books have always been trophy objects and the beauty is the trophy can be useful, too-just by being lifted off the shelf.’

In both modern and historic library interiors, the owners of a house may not have read all the volumes on the shelves, but they do want to create an atmosphere where you can, with the greatest of ease, lose yourself in the joy of reading or gazing at pictures in books. Although many rooms have become part library in modern times, where there is a dedicated library, lined with books in orderly rows and crammed with albums and family photos, the space remains quintessentially English in style -not quite, perhaps, the first room of the house, but often the most loved and remembered by guests.

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