At home in the private library

7 min read

The place of books, writings, thoughts and teachings - the library - was valued as a home by many scholars. Even the famous Cicero knew, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." When we read, we immerse ourselves in new worlds; books fire our imagination and offer us beautiful experiences, exciting moments, important insights, and touching encounters that are often even better than reality. So it is no surprise that books, literature, libraries can become our second home - or our adopted home. The personal value of a library can be immeasurable: "What I am and what I know, I owe to my father's library and my mother's salon" (Nicolaus Sombart, cultural sociologist and writer).


Stairs in front of a bookshelf
Photo by Dmitrij Paskevic on Unsplash
„My homeland is where my library is.“
Erasmus of Rotterdam

My home, my library, my prestige

The history of libraries began in ancient Rome - in the late Republic with the private libraries of Roman noble families. They were also indispensable objects of prestige in later centuries in the residences of rulers throughout Europe. The private library of Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony, built in 1556 for representative purposes, was used primarily by the princely house and by selected scholars until 1788. From 1788, it became a public library and was thus open to the people of the region, who could find interesting information on a variety of subjects. Perhaps about their own homeland as well?


Erasmus, depicted by Quentin Massys (1517). The Flemish painter painted the Dutch humanist in his study in Antwerp. © Quentin Matsys artist QS:P170,Q314275, Quinten Massys, Desiderius Erasmus 1517 , CC BY-SA 4.0
Read home. Lean back. Listen. Close your eyes. Then images arise in your mind. Of fairy-tale creatures (...), of customs and rituals, of myths and people. Home to take away.
Intro text ARD audio library

How much does such a princely or imperial private library tell us about the political, economic and social developments of its subjects? Quite a bit, because it reflects the private interests of the prince as well as the intellectual discourse between the ruler and circles of the population. The latter in particular provides information about life in this day and thus indirectly about much of what lies behind the concept of home as well.

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

Expensive luxury for elite circles

When the library of the Saxon prince became the state library, a small circle of the well-off upper class - representatives of the court, members of the nobility, and wealthy members of the educated and mercantile middle class - had already begun to invest considerable sums in special bookcases and shelving systems as representational furniture. In this way, a bibliophile circle of people created exclusive private libraries in which they could not only browse, but, more importantly, show off. So much for the insinuation. It is a fact that some extensive book collections were created in the 18th century. One example is Goethe's private library, which with about 7,000 volumes, can still be found in his home in Weimar. The house library of the Grimm brothers comprised 5,500 volumes, for which there is also a catalog. A notable private library of more recent date is the approximately 50,000 books of the writer Umberto Eco.

Goethe's library in his residence at Frauenplan in Weimar

Printed or digital - fraternal twins

And today? What about the private library? Who needs a book collection in the age of the internet and e-books? Who wants to represent in such an antiquated setting? Isn't that outdated and elitist behavior? Or is it about something else? The printed book made of paper, with a beautiful cover and pleasing haptics is still there for its fans.

Photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash
Printed books are not disappearing: The sales share of e-books in the book market as a whole was only 5.9 % in 2020.
Source: Statista

It is a bit like traveling: The feeling of time is different when reading a printed work than when enjoying literature digitally. How far you have come, how many pages you have already turned, is tangible and visible - just like the beginning and end of an adventure. That remains abstract with the e-book. It is the plane among the readable means of transport, while the classic paper book is more like a hiking boot or perhaps a train. Fittingly, Alexander Skipis, managing director of the German book trade association, told Deutschlandfunk radio: "With a book, we can offer something like a wellness oasis for the soul." That fits in with the much-invoked deceleration in these hectic times, which is possibly better facilitated by the printed product than by its digital twin.

Forever at home in the paradise of books

So the fact remains that anyone with space and a soft spot for printed books will still be happy to set up a private library or at least a nice wall of books. Of course, the bookshelf has also changed - it no longer contains the Brockhaus, but is now as colorful and as diverse as society itself. Next to novels and magazines are vases, design pieces or pictures, as the visual demands have changed. Here, too, the trend towards individualization is recognizable. After all, the personal literature collection should also look good - but what the passionate reader still cares about the most is breathing in the scent of paper and words while reading - all the more so if he dreams of the Garden of Eden like the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges:

"I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library."

Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash
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