Libraries are an ancient building type. Beginning with the first literate societies—the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome—libraries have been a constant resource for cultural tradition and renewal. Yet the literature on libraries as works of architecture is much smaller than their cultural importance suggests. Until the mid-19th century, not much had been published on the architecture of libraries. And it is only in the past half-century that architectural studies—theory, criticism, and history—have taken up the building type in its full complexity. There are still many gaps in the literature, especially for non-Western cultures and for all periods before the 17th century. Sometimes libraries—Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia is a good example—are discussed with no reference to their intended purpose, as if the functions they serve have no bearing on the architecture. Nonetheless, there is a growing scholarly interest in the history of libraries. And the best recent studies, whether by librarians, historians, or architectural historians, have sought to understand these buildings in their own right, drawing attention to the interrelated issues of librarianship, book collecting, public service, and design. This article presents works in architectural and art history, history, and library studies, and focuses on works that cover the design and function of libraries. It does not include items primarily oriented to book history, manuscript studies, bibliographic studies, collections, or theoretical issues of librarianship, although some of the entries touch upon these concerns. These fields may be of interest to researchers of library architecture when they indicate something about the purposes and services of libraries. However, the literature of those adjacent fields is simply too vast to reduce for inclusion here.
Most overviews of library history focus on collections, librarianship, patronage, book history, and cultural context; few focus on architecture. Those that do are typically limited in geographical or chronological scope and cover western Europe most fully. Campbell 2013 is an exception and should be the first reference for a researcher interested in the overall history of library architecture. Clark 1901, Staikos 2004–2013, and Staikos 2017 also provide good overviews with substantial bibliographies. Pevsner 1976 is still a standard reference for its focus on typology. Harris 1999 and Murray 2012 integrate architectural discussions with other concerns, including collections and the role of librarians. Thompson 1969 and Gormley 1974 provide overviews of the state of architectural research into libraries as it stood almost 50 years ago now (from 2018). The literature has increased substantially since then, but these two articles are still useful for pointing to several hard-to-find items that might otherwise escape the researcher’s notice.
Campbell, James W. P. The Library: A World History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
The best available overview of library architecture, this is billed as a world history but focuses on Europe, with occasional attention to south Asia and Southeast Asia and a few other places. With excellent photographs, its usefulness for serious architectural research is hindered by a dearth of floor plans and drawings. The bibliography has breadth and includes some specialized works but is not comprehensive. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable, reliable reference.
Clark, John Willis. The Care of Books: An Essay on the Development of Libraries and Their Fittings, from the Earliest Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1901.
Especially strong on monastic and collegiate libraries in France and Britain, this is a classic in the history of libraries. Attention to architecture, furnishings, and book fittings makes this an especially useful volume for all researchers interested in premodern European libraries. Well illustrated with floor plans and other architectural drawings and photographs, it is easily accessible online at Archive.org and Project Gutenberg. Best used alongside Campbell 2013 for recent corrections.
Gormley, Dennis M. “A Bibliographic Essay of Western Library Architecture to the Mid-Twentieth Century.” Journal of Library History 9.1 (January 1974): 4–24.
Aside from Thompson 1969, which is not limited to Western libraries, this is the only bibliographic guide to the architectural history of libraries. A vast amount has been published since this article, but it remains of some use as an orientation to earlier literature, including some 19th-century works.
Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
A standard reference moving chronologically and considering the major aspects of library history: collection organization, care of books, literacy, librarianship, and, to a much lesser degree, buildings. Bibliographies at the end of each chapter are brief and of limited use in architectural history research.
Murray, Stuart A. P. The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse, 2012.
A popular account presenting a useful survey of library history, suitable for reference and general background, especially for undergraduate research. It highlights architecture, the care and storage of books, and the development of public libraries. While profusely illustrated, it offers a paltry bibliography of no use to the scholar. Focuses on Europe and the United States with brief excursions in Asia.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. A History of Building Types. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
The section on libraries covers only European and a few American examples. This has long been a starting point for anyone getting familiar with the building type’s history in brief. Most of the references are also cited in other works such as Campbell 2013 and Staikos 2004–2013. The notes remain helpful.
Staikos, Konstantinos S. The Architecture of Western Libraries: From the Minoan Era to Michelangelo. Translated by Timothy Cullen, Alexandra Doumas, Nikos Koutras, and Katerina Spathi. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2017.
Like Staikos 2004–2013, this is an important volume surveying the architectural history of libraries. It presents an overview rather than the in-depth accounts of the multivolume entry.
Staikos, Konstantinos S. The History of the Library in the Western World. 6 vols. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004–2013.
More comprehensive than Staikos 2017, this major series is the most comprehensive study of Western libraries available in English. Volume 1 covers Greece, Volume 2 is on Rome, Volume 3 is on Byzantium, Volume 4 is on medieval monasteries and universities, and Volume 5 covers the Renaissance. Volume 6 is a general index. Few institutions hold the full set, so consulting it as a whole will require work on the researcher’s part.
Thompson, Donald E. “A History of Library Architecture: A Bibliographical Essay.” Journal of Library History 4.2 (April 1969): 133–141.
Aside from Gormley 1974, this is the only bibliographic guide to the architectural history of libraries. This is now out of date but still provides basic guidance to some earlier and obscure references.
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