On Book and the Housing of Them

Oct 5, 2008

Murray, KY – Perhaps no one knew more about books than William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), the author of a book well, it is really a tract, only 29 pages long titled On Books and the Housing of Them. The writer, Anne Fadiman, found a copy of Gladstone's book in a secondhand bookshop, and at first it didn't dawn on her that the author was that Gladstone, but, as Fadiman put it, It was that Gladstone: four times British Prime Minister, grand old man of the Liberal Party, scholar, financier, theologian, orator, humanitarian, and thorn in the side of Benjamin Disraeli, who, when asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, replied, `If Mr. Gladstone were to fall into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, it would be a calamity.'

Fadiman knew that Gladstone's little book is a jewel with many facets and if you wish to understand the character of both W. E. Gladstone and Victorian England, everything you need to know is contained within the small compass of `On Books and the Housing of Them.' Gladstone deals with the old problem of too many books, too little space, a problem certainly in the Bolin household. On Books and the Housing of Them is almost impossible to find, unless one could fortuitously happen upon a copy in a used bookstore. I did, however, find a digitized copy on the internet, but the printed out copy of loose pages is just not the same as the real thing, some dusty, frayed, bound copy, published in New York by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1890.

For the housing of books, Gladstone suggested an elaborate shelving system around the walls of a room. Shelves would be built along the walls, but every few feet, shelves would also be built projecting at right angles into the room. I wish I could draw you a diagram, but I will just have to let Gladstone describe it for you. He calculated that a library room twenty by forty feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, twelve inches deep, and nine feet high, so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than twenty inches high, would accommodate between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand volumes. In addition to his idea of shelves projecting into a room, Gladstone also designed a system of rolling shelves, a system that is used today in the Radcliffe Camera room of Oxford's Bodleian Library and at The New York Times Book Review. I suppose Gladstone's system is the basis of the plan used as well in the basement stacks at Murray State's Waterfield Library.

Fadiman has seen a photograph of Gladstone sitting in his own library at Hawarden Castle, a room that he called the Temple of Peace. As Fadiman describes it He sits in a wooden armchair, surrounded by leather bound volumes on shelves that are, of course, constructed according to the principles set forth in `On Books and the Housing of Them.' When I retire from Murray State's Department of History, I will be faced with the task of moving all of those History books from my sixth floor Faculty Hall office to our home. Perhaps I will build shelves, or rather have them built, and fashion a room according to Gladstone's plan. And perhaps with Evelyn I can while away the days of my retirement in just such a room, reading, writing, and caring for books.