Through conservation keyhole”Elf on the shelf”

There are just 5 days until Christmas and it feels like festive season is at its´ highest peak.  This time of year everything becomes a chance to be Christmases.  The radio stations play Christmas songs, you bake Christmas cookies, you wear Christmas pyjamas and Christmas socks, and you watch Christmas classics. I’m also in full holiday spirit and become Santa’s “preservation Elf 🙂 “- “ I am Elf on the shelf” and  Santa wants me to tell you some story about… well, just shelves.

2438ee0a-a6af-437b-8693-3f70e0f5ec7eSanta knows that it is difficult to see books in Library without shelves.  But the story of the bookcases cannot be told without telling the story of the book.7606054d-e640-43cb-bd93-202c24fcf566The books were not always books as we know them now. In the last few years fascinating stories have been shared by my colleagues through our blog  and many new, interesting facts will be shared next year. 11Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century, transcribing and binding pages of manuscripts were largely done by monks. The volumes then went to jewellers and goldsmiths for ornamentation. Finished with heavy covers and metal mountings, such books were weighty and needed proper storage spaces. Most of these early book collections were kept by the clergy, administrative bodies and the wealthy. Books were kept in trunks, chained to desks, stacked in piles on the floor and stored using variety of methods throughout history. The problem, of course, was that two books chained next to each other couldn’t be comfortably studied at the same time: elbows knocked; shackles clinked and tangled. Hence the innovation of vertical storage. Books were stored on shelves or in cupboards so that one book could be removed without disturbing the rest. These cupboards are the direct predecessors of today’s bookcases.12The evolution of the printing process by Johannes Guttenberg gave rise to more personal book collections and private libraries. As these libraries amassed various storage solution were explored.  Andre-Charles is often recognized as the first the low bookcase cabinet maker. Bookcase designed by him had marble top and doors with silk curtains and was approximately 4 feet high by 5 feet. It is less clear, however, who invented the tall, enclosed bookcase . An early reference, points to a carpenter who worked with English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on July 23, 1666 “Comes Simpson the joiner,” and “he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in: They are now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs.”

A century later, both short and tall bookcases were already common. Often, they were ornately carved, painted and more decorative. English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale  (1718-79) described 14 bookcases models in his “Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director” (1766).

In 1876, John Danner of Canton from Ohio, invented a revolving bookcase with a patented “pivot and post” design. 14

The creativity of his work resided in the economy of space it provided. Thirty-two large volumes could be stored in a compact space, and readily available for perusal at the touch of a finger. His bookcase was exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878 and won a gold medal. Over the next century, the technology of book production made them more affordable. 7

Bookcases became more widely available, and they have been built-in, wall-to-wall and in many styles. Until the mid-1950s, it had been common practice for storage layouts to consist of static shelving stacks, which were arranged facing a central aisle.  This meant that there was a lot of space taken up just for the aisles between shelves. The first type of shelving which allowed aisle space to be minimised, was designed and produced by Thomas Foulkes in 1936.  The shelves were mounted on wheeled bases that moved along tracks.18

Each individual shelving stack could move laterally along tracks to enable users to access other shelves that were stored behind it.

In this post, I have shared a little bit of the library bookcases story, a tradition almost as old as the books. Around festive season many people have their own festive traditions, often built over many years and passed down from one generation to the next. Christmas trees, fairy lights and more recently the Christmas elf tradition.

I hope you have enjoyed this humorous post and whatever your practice and tradition is,


please remember,

spread holiday cheer


have a Happy New Year!


Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

1 reply


  1. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year! | conservation with ella

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