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11 Feb 2012, 2:09pm
books curation Reading
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Shelf-Conscious, an article by Francesca Mari

 

Chris Killip, ‘The Library of Chained Books,’ Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, UK, 1992.

In the Middle Ages, when monasteries were the closest equivalent to a public library, monks kept works in their carrels. To increase circulation, these works were eventually chained to inclined desks, or lecterns, thus giving ownership of a work to a particular lectern rather than a particular monk. But as collections grew, surface space diminished, and books came to be stacked on shelves above the lectern, at first one and then many. The problem, of course, was that two books chained next to each another couldn’t be comfortably studied at the same time: elbows knocked; shackles clinked and tangled.

A selection from Odorico Pillone’s library with fore edges painted by Cesare Vecellio.

Hence the innovation of vertical storage. One book could be removed without disturbing the rest. Yet the transition was gradual. Books in monasteries retained their chains for some time, and many leather covers, particularly in private libraries, protruded irregularly, tricked-out as they were with embossing and jewels. Those books that did stand were oriented with their spines to the back of the shelf.

Sometimes an identifying design was drawn across the thick of the pages. A doctor of law just north of Venice named Odorico Pillone had Titian’s nephew, Cesare Vecellio, draw the fore edges of his books with scenes befitting their content. Other times a title label flagged off the inner edge of the cover or was affixed to the chain.

From The New York Times Shows You 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home, photographer unknown.

All text by Francesca Mari,

read all about it here: Paris Review – Shelf-Conscious, Francesca Mari.