The decline of private libraries

The Humanist Library of Sélestat (Alsace) preserves a collection of over 600 volumes once in the private library of the German humanist Beatus Rhenanus (1485-1547) 

To read is to have time to read. Time which would otherwise be spent in more productive and economically profitable ways, at least for most people in pre-industrial and industrial societies.

To read is to have time to read but also to have money to buy education and books. The modern world tends, sometimes slowly, sometimes more radically, towards universal education and the affordability of literacy. Books have never been cheaper and never have more people had access to education. There is progress, and there is real achievement.

The desire for knowledge, passion to read and the cost of them both led to the rise of the private library. As literacy democratised and the book trade ballooned, institutions ceased to be the sole keepers of books. They were not the only ones to keep libraries. The family library came into its own. By the end of the 20th century, from aristocratic Britain to communist Romania, the family library was a familiar feature of many urban homes.

Today, more people can afford to buy and preserve books. Books are cheaper, and there are also Ikea shelves. And yet, few urban homes in the West boast a private library. At least one which numbers more than a handful of novels, self-help books and travel guides. Nor has the private library been replaced by a proportionate virtual library of e-books. Widespread in the affording classes during the 20th century, the private library is now in steep decline.




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