Reid Byers on “The Private Library”

February 22, 2023, 6pm, Zoom

On Wednesday evening, February 22, Ticknor Society member Reid Byers took his Zoom audience on an extraordinary journey across continents and millennia to view and learn all about a remarkable variety of private libraries and their architecture, furnishings, and users. It was fascinating to learn precisely where these rooms of books were located, and who was permitted in these spaces, or, conversely, denied use of them! 

Approaching his subject historically, Reid began his talk with what archaeology has taught us about private house libraries in the Ancient Near East, at sites such as Babylonia and Ur. Then, after viewing a reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian library (image above), we visited the House of the Library at Pompeii—see a floor plan here—built during the Roman Empire. We traveled to Europe, where we viewed a dazzling array of grand house libraries built over several centuries within English country homes. A high point? The library at Highclere Castle, of course, which many of us came to feel comfortable actually being in during six seasons of Downton Abbey (and two full-length movies).

Present day private libraries here in the US were also represented.  One example is the remarkable private library built by businessman Jay Walker in Connecticut. Another is the Washburn Memorial Library in Livermore, Maine.  The first is no doubt safe due to care offered by its wealthy founder, but the continued existence of the second is unfortunately under threat today due to its age and lack of such affluent friends. 

We learned from Reid about contributions to what we know about private libraries from the illustrious figures Thomas Fielding, Charles II, Nell Gwyn, Edith Wharton, Palladio, Horace, Hadrian, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. We followed the development of fixed shelving, mobile shelving, library ladders, and scribe’s desks. And we were urged to give thought to the future of private libraries.

This very engaging talk could do no more than give us a hint of the contents of Reid’s 2021 book, Private Libraries: The History of the Architecture and Furnishings of the Domestic Book Room (Oak Knoll Press, now in its third printing). A visual treasure house of drawings, charts, and photographs, and text, you can learn more about the book and read some of its highly laudatory reviews on the publisher’s website

Ticknor members can sign into their online account and watch Reid’s full talk on the Videos page.

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