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LOOKS FOR BOOKS Designing a home library for your collection as well as your comfort


For the book lover, few things are as alluring as the idea of a personal library. Just think: a place to display the bound volumes of Shakespeare and Thackery, those expensive art folios, those 19th-century prints you picked up oh-so-cheap at a second-hand book stall along the Seine in Paris ...

But the realities of a home can present a problem, especially if your fantasy includes placing all this in the traditional English library, complete with floor-to-ceiling shelves, deep mahogany paneling, leather chairs and a crackling fire. Maybe you don't have an enormous room with endless shelves and a massive stone fireplace. And what about the computer or television that needs a home?

A library needn't be limited to certain narrow images, however. Like every other room, a library can reflect one's own tastes, as well as play to the strengths of the room. You'll still get that retreat you envision -- with a little planning.

First off, a library is more than a place to display books. "A library is a very personal space," says Ted L. Pearson, vice president of Rita St. Clair Associates. "Books transport you. So a library should separate you from the rest of the world."

Gary Lawrik, president of Lawrik Interiors Ltd. of Annapolis, says many of his clients insist on having a library, even if it means giving up their living room or dining room.

"A lot of owners of medium-sized houses want libraries," Mr. Lawrik says. "People want cozy, and a library promises that." Mr. Pearson concurs: "The library becomes like a cocoon."

Thus, Mr. Lawrik has one client who has requested a wet bar in his library, and another who wanted a place to put his children's toys, because the kids often ended up in the library. Mr. Lawrik had a cupboard built in to resolve that problem.

Richard Taylor, a partner in Taylor/Siegmeister of Baltimore, recalls one client who wanted the library to double as a guest room. Mr. Taylor managed to combine functionality with fantasy by cutting down a regular-size bed and converting it into a daybed.

Another client, who was remodeling a 1950s contemporary home in Baltimore County, wanted the television set in the library -- but it had to be unobtrusive. So Mr. Taylor found an early French armoire and placed the set inside it.

That client said she envisioned the library as "a place where we can just lie down in front of the fire and read. We have a large den that is more of a social room. We envisioned this room for ourselves."

It is small -- 12 feet by 16 feet, she says. But it's both functional and inviting.

The books she and her husband wanted to display are mostly photography and art books -- usually quite large. And they had several artworks, primarily African pottery (she is an anthropologist) and pieces by the American ceramist Bennett Bean. The books and the artworks occupy the shelves that fill up one wall of the room.

Mr. Pearson cautions that because books come in different sizes, so should shelves.

"With novels, you can use shallower shelves because they're usually a smaller size than, say, an art book," he says. "Books that have to do with art, architecture and design are bigger, so you might put them on a table, or place them on deeper shelves. Very often, we suggest pull-out shelves, so you can read these books while standing at a wall."

Because the library is a place to read, good lighting and seating are essential.

"The idea is to have several places at which you can sit," says Mr. Pearson. "A sofa and a comfortable chair, such as a wing chair, are ideal." Mr. Lawrik suggests a chair with an ottoman, or perhaps a love seat.

Remember that lighting serves several purposes -- illuminating the written page, the immediate surrounding area (chairs, rugs), and the walls beyond the books. "Avoid too strong a contrast -- you can get eyestrain," Mr. Pearson advises.

Multiple lighting is suggested: halogen lights and swing-arm lamps, and lamps with dimmers or three-way switches. Mr. Lawrik has put in recessed lighting, about 12 inches from the bookcase, for clients. Mr. Pearson says that "often we suggest low-voltage lights behind each shelf for attractive display, and to make selecting a book easier."

Integrating books with other elements is key to having an attractive library.

"If you collect dolls, pottery, bronzes -- by all means show them off," Mr. Pearson says. "You don't have to have wall-to-wall books. The room can become terribly heavy."

But when you have as many books as Richard Macksey, wall-to-wall books become a necessity. Dr. Macksey, who teaches comparative literature at the Johns Hopkins University, is a bibliophile and a self-confessed "pack rat." The last count of books in his rambling 1921 Guilford home numbered, he guesses, about 50,000.

Books, naturally, occupy nearly every room in the house. The 1972 renovation of his library, by Baltimore architect Richard Lewis, was intended to accommodate a serious book lover. The room is climate-controlled by a heat pump, lessening the effects that Baltimore's humid summers have on books.

There are ceiling-to-floor shelves on all four walls. The ceiling is 15 feet high, meaning Dr. Macksey must use a stepladder to reach some books. The shelves (pine with a walnut finish) are deep enough that he can double-shelve. One wall does have a fireplace -- "mostly symbolic, because Richard [Lewis] didn't want the room to become claustrophobic," Dr. Macksey says.

He breaks up the monotony of wall-to-wall books with a number of artworks and artifacts, including four large 14th-century Spanish Psalter leaves over the fireplace mantel, and a 19th-century telescope and tripod -- a gift from students -- that is situated near a Palladian window.

The room is large enough -- 16 feet by 28 feet -- for Dr. Macksey to hold seminars in. His students sit in Windsor chairs around a long French country oak table. "My library is a social place, where you can sit and talk," he says. "It's not a showpiece room. It's supposed to be functional and not too formal."

For people with large collections of books, the library often is the place where the most important or personal volumes are kept. Dr. Macksey keeps mostly literary first editions, in several languages, in his library. Arthur Gutman, another Baltimore bibliophile and collector, has many books in his den but uses the library as a place to show off prized books. As president of the Mencken Society, he has a handsome collection of about 250 books by and about the Bard of Baltimore, which he displays in the library of his North Baltimore condominium.

Also in the library are a lot of his military books and large plate books, as well as two shelves of his collection of lead toy soldiers. A few reference books grace his desk, which is a mahogany reproduction kneehole, with a leather top.

On the walls are two maps of Maryland, done about 1710 by the cartographer Mortier. "My wife, Wheezie, believes in having decoration along with the books," Mr. Gutman explains. Mrs. Gutman's lustered English pottery also is interspersed along the shelves for decoration.

Designers agree that as the rules change for libraries, the task of making them both useful and tasteful becomes more difficult. "Oftentimes, the library becomes multifunctional," Mr. Lawrik says. "You really have to think about what you're doing. But, when done right, a library can be the nicest room in the house."

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