The story of bookshelves

by unstash team on April 17, 2012

where there are bookshelves, there will be books

Speaking of books in the previous post, we’d be remiss to not mention the story behind bookshelves.

You would think that bookshelves have been around as long as books, but in many ways the modern personal bookshelf was an invention of the book publishing industry in the 1930′s.

Public libraries have been around as early as the 1400s.  Since then, books that happened to be individually owned were often chained to desks or stored in trunks or armoires.

In 1930, a consortium of trade publishers recognized they couldn’t cost-effectively match supply and demand, so they hired Edward L. Bernays, the inventor of public relations,” to persuade people to buy more.

“In 1930 Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, and several other major New York publishers contacted public relations doyen Edward Bernays, the ‘father of spin,’ to strategize how best to inject life into the faltering U.S. book industry. In addition to attacking the industry’s price structure, which at the time relied heavily on a volatile low price/high volume formula, Bernays proposed a novel idea for inspiring people to buy more books despite economic downturn. As Bernays biographer Larry Tye has written: ‘“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes. Today accumulating printed books and shelving them in one’s home may seem like mundane facts of life, at least among those economically enfranchised enough to do so. In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, those activities couldn’t be assumed and needed to be learned.”

- Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print

Since then, the number of books one owned became a form of cultural capital.  Statements such as ”A house is not a home without at least one bookcase full of books” or ”Nothing furnishes a room like books” have become common.

One survey out of the UK suggests that the average bookshelf is filled with 80 books we haven’t read.  Furthermore, an Ipsos public affairs survey states that 27% of American’s haven’t read a book in the past year.  And yet, Ikea continues to churn out 130,000 bookshelves every single week for us to store these books we don’t read.

Besides Bernays brilliant marketing insight, what does the story of the bookshelf say about us?

Or the current booming storage industry?

Is there an intrinsic human desire to fill the spaces we have?  Or was that too manufactured?

How might communities and economies based upon values of sharing impact what we choose to purchase and own?

See Shelf-conscious by Francesca Mari for further reading on this.

* The above image is of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld’s personal library (If you do a google image search of him you can find a number of great shots of Lagefeld like a superhero amid his many books)


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

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