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by Henry Petroski

Pub Date: Sept. 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40649-2
Publisher: Knopf

Petroski does for the bookcase what he did for The Pencil (1990) and for bridges in Engineer of Dreams (1995): offers an elaborately detailed history of a common item as an artifact. Ever the engineer (Petroski chairs the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University), he traces the development of the bookshelf “in response to real and perceived problems with existing technology,” i.e., the “shortcomings in the way . . . books were stored.” Obviously, bookshelves adapted to physical changes in books themselves. Roman and Greek scrolls were often stored in a container that looked rather like a hatbox. The development of codices and the use of papyrus, vellum, and other materials all called for differing storage methods. When books began to look like books—flat and rectangular—bookshelves became recognizable. In medieval times, particularly in European monasteries, books were shelved horizontally and were chained to the shelving unit. Petroski delights in detailing the engineering problems of making dozens of chained books accessible to the reader and scholar. He notes that arranging books vertically did not become a regular practice until overcrowding created the need, which was, in turn, created by the mass production of books after Gutenberg. Books previously designed to rest horizontally and with fore-edge out, had to be redesigned in response to shelving requirements. The author does a lovely job of describing famed libraries, such as those at St. John’s College at Cambridge, Merton College at Oxford, the Bodleian, and the Laurentian Library in Florence. He takes a lengthy look at the design of the British Museum Reading Room and the New York Public Library and the engineering feats required to shelve millions of books on miles of shelves (as early as 1910, the NYPL had 63 miles of shelving). The layperson or casual reader may struggle with Petroski’s often dry prose, but librarians, bibliophiles, and engineers will find the effort worthwhile. (67 illustrations)