In the last decade we have experienced a revolution in the way we store our knowledge. Yet while we can now shrink an entire personal library onto an electronic device the size and weight of a single paperback, there has also been an explosion in the creativity behind the design of that most basic of household items, the bookshelf.
Modern bookshelves are no longer just somewhere to store books. They are modern art, they are engineering experiments, and they are status symbols, ingenious theatres on which our books parade rather than mere planks for storage. Despite inroads made by e-readers, the bookshelf continues to play a central role in 21st-century culture. Financial analysts Bloomberg have even used IKEA's BILLY bookshelf as an international index of economic growth.
Indeed, for many readers, their bookshelves are almost as important to them as their books. Readers like to give good homes to their books. As a child, I loved my Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak, a four volume boxed set which included an alphabet book, a book of rhymes about each month called Chicken Soup with Rice, a counting book, and a cautionary tale. I enjoyed reading the books themselves, but I also took pleasure in simply taking the books out and replacing them in their proper places. Now a little older, I have enjoyed sharing them with my young children.
Is the renaissance in bookcase design a last hurrah before books vanish into computers as music has done, to be conjured up on demand at the press of a button? Or rather might it herald a new chapter in home decoration? With fewer books to be housed, perhaps readers will look for more exciting ways of storing their home libraries than merely an adequate shelf, the bookcase becoming its own trophy cabinet. Alternatively, a determination to 'save the book' may see people move towards treasuring their volumes in more fitting surroundings.
There is of course no reason why physical and virtual bookshelves cannot be complementary. But readers love playing with books, love arranging and rearranging them. What online bookcases cannot provide is that sense of physicality, not to mention that very public display, offering visible pointers of who you are (or who you would like to be perceived to be) to guests and clients. Your bookcase design says (almost) as much about you as your books on show.
In 1901 John Willis Clark wrote about the 'ever-present need for more space to hold the invading hordes of books that represent the literature of to-day' in his fascinating and groundbreaking study of library fixtures and fittings, The Care of Books. A century later we are still faced with the same, happy, problem. The bookshelf is in rude health.