- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Books and shelves are just the beginning of today’s home library, which may also include state-of-the-art lighting, climate controls and digital technology. You don’t have to break the bank to create one, and you may well add to the value of your home.

“Home libraries are a very consistent trend,” says Jim Molinelli, an architect with Maryland-based Ardo Contracting, a company that specializes in customized home construction. Mr. Molinelli is also president of the Maryland Improvement Contractors Association. “People are looking for a place that gives them a sense of gentler, slower-paced time.”

In the slower-paced 19th century, essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Be a little careful about your library. Do you foresee what you will do with it? Very little to be sure. But the real question is, what it will do with you? You will come here and get books that will open your eyes, and your ears, and your curiosity, and turn you inside out or outside in.”

Emerson’s plea notwithstanding, many people place the home library squarely on the “things that were” shelf along with record players, typewriters and classical radio. After all, why crack a book when you can click a mouse? But before you conjure up another use for that spare room, you may want to rethink the library concept.

Today’s home libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from small book nooks in modest homes to over-the-top spaces complete with a massive fireplace, recessed shelving and dark wood paneling.

“Whether you have a separate space or not is really dependent upon the value of the home,” says Rob Grant, president of Contemporary Woodcrafts Inc., a Northern Virginia-based cabinet manufacturing business. “In larger homes, those over 7,000 square feet, you’re likely to have a separate space.”

“We build projects that range from $3,000 to $30,000,” says Mr. Grant, who notes that prices are dependent upon a number of variables, including room dimensions, number of bookcases and the materials used.

Many of today’s new homes already include space for a library, Mr. Grant says. Walk through the front door of most center-hall Colonials, and that room directly off to the right or left is dedicated library space.

“The biggest trend we’ve seen in the last 10 years has been home offices or home office-libraries,” he says. “Empty nesters frequently take over one of the bedrooms and turn it into a library or library-office.”

But don’t let your dreams overstep the reality, Mr. Grant says. Some spaces may be too small for what you want to do and won’t help when it comes time to sell your home.

“One of the biggest requests we have is for two desks,” says Mr. Grant. “But you need at least three feet of space to pull out a desk chair. With two, that’s six feet, and people don’t have that kind of space in these rooms.”

Even if you have a small space in an older home, there are plenty of ways to convert unused or little-used space into library space, says Bruce Wentworth of Wentworth Inc., an architectural, design and construction company based in Chevy Chase.

“It’s all about integrating bookcases into different rooms,” says Mr. Wentworth. “Even a dining room wall can become a library wall.”

A built-in bookcase or a couple of free-standing pieces of furniture can easily transform that dead space under the stairs into a reading center, says Mr. Wentworth.

“You can flank a fireplace with bookcases, or build them around a window or French doors,” he says.

Other possibilities include hallways or little-used “breakfast rooms” that can be transformed into comfortable, cozy spots with no more than an armchair and few shelves.

Of course, if your budget allows, you can build your dream space, complete with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and rolling ladders to take you around the room.

Houses in the upper brackets are practically guaranteed to have libraries, says Margie Halem, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Friendship Heights.

“Most of the houses we sell have libraries,” says Mrs. Halem, who recently sold a house with a contemporary-styled library complete with leopard carpet and red walls. “Some have special lighting, and I sold one recently with a humidor.”

Yet even with the humidor, Mrs. Halem doesn’t feel that a home library is worth all that much more when it comes time to sell.

“Those granite countertops and upgraded appliances in your kitchen probably matter more,” she says. “People know they can always add on bookcases later.”

Still, for homes in the upper brackets, the presence of a home library “certainly helps,” she says. “It’s practically expected with space of that size.”

Whether they are small in-the-corner nooks or large, dedicated rooms, many home libraries share a couple of characteristics.

Most people like the traditional look.

Achieving that look doesn’t necessarily mean dark wood, Mr. Grant says. Contemporary Woodcrafters sells a lot of painted lacquer bookcases, where the lacquer is matched to existing trim.

And these less expensive but furniture-quality bookcases may actually be a plus over the stained variety for homeowners planning to sell in the future.

“Not every homeowner may like that rich, dark, cherry mahogany that you install,” says Mr. Grant. “Painted lacquer often brings a higher rate of return than stained pieces.

Regardless of your bookcase style, most homeowners do like to be connected.

“These days you have to consider high-tech in every room,” says Mr. Molinelli.

In the last five years, issues of connectivity have actually become easier.

“Years ago we had to drill a lot more holes,” says Mr. Grant. “Now everything is getting smaller.”

Today’s libraries are often likely to feature speakers for DVD or stereo systems and flat screen televisions that are easily hidden. Architects and designers frequently work in collaboration with local audio companies to produce an optimal library space.

But if you have designed your library primarily to house your collection of books, there are some other considerations to take into account, says Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books, one of the largest used and rare bookshops in the world.

“You need to treat your books like you treat yourself,” says Mr. Stypeck, who is also co-host of “The Book Guys” radio program. “You never want to be in a situation where things are too dry or too moist. And keep them out of direct sunlight.”

If you have books that are particularly large, plan on constructing shelving that will allow them to be stored flat.

In any case, it’s a good idea to measure your books before ordering your shelves. You want to make sure that your collection will actually fit the space.

And if you collect magazines as well as books, providing an acid-free environment is crucial.

“There are a number of local companies who make individual acid-free bags of various sizes,” says Mr. Stypeck. “You just have to shop around.”

Is your space irregular or out of plumb? A good designer can accommodate just about any possibility.

“I had one case where the left and right side of the fireplace were not symmetrical,” says Mr. Wentworth, “but you can fool the eye with shelving.”

Lighting is also an important concern. Many homeowners request designs that include “lots of glass,” says Mr. Molinelli, because they want to be able to read with natural light. But sunlight can be quite damaging to books and other materials, so you may want to consider installing glass that will block those harmful UV rays.

Regularly work at night? Be sure your lighting is adequate.

Suppose you have just purchased a home with a substantial library space and don’t have the books to fill it. Don’t despair. Even if you haven’t spent a lifetime collecting books and just have a few tawdry paperback novels, you can still capture that sought-after 19th-century ambience that made J.P. Morgan proud.

California-based Book Decor (www.bookdecor.com), in business since 1988, specializes in providing books for those who have none. Fairly new leather-bound books sell for about $10, with older leather volumes (suitable for those traditional home libraries) go for $15. Clients usually require anywhere from 500 to 3,000 volumes, says Book Decor owner Leni Leth.

“If budget is a consideration, we tell people to buy over time,” she says. “It’s always OK to let your library evolve.”

These books, by the way, aren’t intended to be read. For one thing, they’re old. And they’re in Danish. The Danes only stopped producing leather-bound books en masse in the 1980s, says Miss Leth, who is Danish herself.

But for Book Decor’s clientele, most of whom want “instant library,” that’s incidental. One client ordered 12,000 books at once.

“It’s the look and feeling they produce on the bookshelf,” says Miss Leth, whose primary market is on the East Coast and Texas. “It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

And once you’ve got the books, home library decorating comes, well, naturally.

“You can’t make a mistake with books,” says Miss Leth. “You have these wonderful, old-looking books, and it looks like the library has been there for years.”

Bottom line: Design your library with your own needs in mind, but keep an eye toward the future.

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