The pop-up home library

My last post on the home library got me thinking about the evolution of another prized book collection…

It all started while in Cornwall on holiday in 2009. The pressure was on: it was the last few weeks of summer before heading back to college. The topic of my senior dissertation was proving to be much more elusive than I would have preferred. While mulling it over one day I went into a discount bookshop in Newquay. I laid my eyes on a pop-up version of The Jungle Book by the paper engineer, Matthew Reinhart, and all my questions seemed to be answered. Although it seemed like a strange idea, I knew I wanted to write about pop-up books.

The Jungle Book by Matthew Reinhart


The true origins of the movable book form aren’t known. The thirteenth century Catalan philosopher, Ramón Llull, is the most renowned early paper engineer, as he used the volvelle or rotating disc form in order to illustrate his theories. It was also used to tell fortunes, to create codes and for teaching anatomy.

Despite the early promise of such forms, there was no further experimentation with paper engineering until the eighteenth century. This is when mechanical books as we now know them began to be devised. Robert Sayer, the owner of a late eighteenth century Fleet Street bookshop, adapted the lift-the-flap mechanisms used in educational paper engineering in order to provide children’s entertainment. These harlequinades were greatly sought-after by wealthy families, and often used as after dinner amusements.

Robert Sayer’s Harlequinade

Although the function of movable books changed, their forms did not until the emergence of other publishers of children’s literature. A range was soon established: paper dolls, panoramas and peepshows are only a few. These paved the way for the increasingly sophisticated pop-ups that are familiar today.

My supervisor was very kind and got behind my rather unusual topic; the research that followed was by far the most interesting and rewarding of my college career. I still hope to someday have the opportunity to continue with this research.

My collection continues to grow in anticipation. It’s housed behind glass in the sitting room sideboard. I like to admire the colours on a grey day and to pull a few favourites out from time to time to enjoy the artistry of the paper engineering.

Trail: Paper Poetry by David Pelham

Wizard of Oz by Robert Sabuda

The home library

My very modest personal library is housed on unglamorous stands scattered throughout the house. It’s all in need of a rethink in terms of its organisation, but at the moment it has its own internal logic (only clear to me, apparently!). Generally, my English texts from college are kept in my room, Art History is on the landing, while fiction and reference are on separate shelves in the sitting room.


Reference bookshelf

One of the benefits of having been an English Literature student is that this library has developed almost effortlessly. Although many of my classmates cleared out their books after every exam period, I couldn’t bear to part with my copies. Along with these much-loved paperbacks, I have a few books that I am especially attached to.

The first one was bought while on a very tame sixth-year staycation in Galway with friends. Even now Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop is one of my favourites – so homely and welcoming! The book is a 1913 reprint of G. B. Shaw’s The Philanderer (1898) and I just fell in love with it. The criss-cross texture of the binding makes it lovely to hold and the smell of its pages is heavenly to the bibliophile. I even like the sun fading around the edges that has turned the green a browny-yellow. It’s the book that really started off my collection.


‘The Philanderer’

In my first year of college, I went to Greene’s Bookshop on Clare Street almost every week to pick up a bargain or two. As a big fan of children’s literature, The Heroes by Charles Kingsley (1933), a collection of Greek myths, caught my eye. There are gorgeous illustrations for each tale of Perseus, Theseus and the Argonauts. While I’ve been too concerned about the binding to actually read my copy of The Philanderer, I’ve dipped into The Heroes regularly; most recently it was before my summer trip to the Greek Islands.


From ‘The Heroes': “I would gladly have horse’s hoofs like you, if I could sing songs as yours.”

The gem of my collection is a first edition of William Faulkner’s 1954 novel, A Fable, very kindly given to me for my 21st birthday by a friend. The jacket is fairly understated, but Faulkner spent ten years slaving over the book, and it won both the 1955 Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It’s not as highly-acclaimed as his other works, but that’s probably because it’s the most dense of his very dense oeuvre and is essentially an allegory. Shamefully, I must confess that I bought a cheap copy to read, rather than sullying the first edition.


Since Greene’s shut down, I’ve picked up a few unusual books in charity shops, but my weekly routine has stopped; this isn’t a bad thing considering that our bookshelves are undoubtedly full! Perhaps I should unleash a bit of Dewey Decimal…


Greene’s Bookshop

The wonder of lists

The blog started with a flurry of excitement but dissertation editing got in the way. I’ve been finished and home in Ireland for about a week, so now is the time to get back to the exciting world of spectacular libraries!

I have a confession to make. Exploring lists with titles like “The 25 Most Beautiful Libraries in the World” makes me extremely happy. Like googling cute pictures of animals on a dreary day, looking at the stunning facades and interiors of the University of Salamanca Library, or closer to home, the Bodleian, cheers me up. Although I may have never seen most of these gorgeous buildings in real life (hopefully that will change!), I feel transported away from everyday trials and tribulations just for a moment through the very act of looking. As a former History of Art student, this rapture may have partly resulted from three years of really focusing on the power of the image. In looking at paintings, sculptures and buildings as a class, we were encouraged to almost get inside the image in order to find some kind of meaning or rationale. 

University of Salamanca Library

Bodleian Library, Oxford

I must admit that I have a preference for the corniced, ancient feel of older libraries. The Reading Room at La Sorbonne is completely breathtaking – what a joy it must be to look upon such art work while studying! These kinds of buildings surely fit more neatly into my heavily romanticised view of the power of the image. It probably doesn’t help that the History of Architecture modules I took as an undergraduate were all medieval, so I’m now drawn to the elaborate and decorative.


La Sorbonne Reading Room

Although I didn’t always feel as though I understood all of the works of art in our dizzying and wonderful treks through historical periods, the colours, contours and general visual impression left some marks on my mind. In a strange way, I feel as though the modern entries in my beloved library lists make a similar impression. For me, modern architecture touches the visitor more directly through actual contact with the building. Although there are modern buildings that stir the heart at first glimpse, there is often a more defined functionality at the core of the modern library aesthetic. To give an example and perhaps save myself from some criticism from my fellow Art History buffs, I loved the Trinity College Dublin Library for its quality of light because it helped me to work efficiently. Although these libraries rebel slightly against my pictorial escapism, they provide the inspiration to actually go and see them for myself!  


Philological Library, Berlin

The Flavorwire 25 College Library selection is my favourite of the lists – the one I keep returning to as a sure-fire pick-me-up on dull, drizzly days:

If you need a quick fix without all of the page turning, Oddee’s “20 Most Beautiful” is pretty enthralling:

But any google image search will do! I try to do a bit of research about each library as they catch my eye so I can keep up with the things I learned as an undergraduate but also to build up my professional knowledge in an enjoyable (and yes, dorky) way.


George Peabody Library, Baltimore

A library of one’s own

As this is the first post of a blog that hopes to at least gesture towards issues in the library and information studies world, I wanted to tentatively start with a snapshot of my very real affection for a library that I feel is partly my own. Although I spent a good deal of time on a Saturday morning as a teenager in my local library, it was small, dusty and very dated. Trinity College Library dazzled on my first day as an undergraduate, as I was overwhelmed with its complex structure and seemingly unending shelves. It took some time to master, but by Christmas of that first year I felt I had some idea about the inner workings of the sophisticated system.

The Old Library

More than that sense of newfound mastery though, it was the first library that really felt like an academic home from home. Its concrete and glass elevation is a far cry from the rusticated allure of the Old Library that fills tourist guides and posters. However, I find it is the quality of light in many of its spaces that makes it truly beautiful. Despite my familiarity with the library system, it took me two years to really get to know what I desired in a study space. Finally, a particular seat under the lantern roof at the front of the library became “mine”. I felt most productive sitting with my back to the window (to avoid staring idly at passersby), enlivened by the natural light. The coolness of the area meant that there was no chance of feeling drowsy (and often meant I had to layer-up especially!). For two years this seat served me well, seeing me through many essays and what seemed like a mammoth dissertation on pop-up books in children’s literature.

Trinity Library, complete with lantern window

Studying for an MPhil in English at Cambridge this year has meant that my old chair has been left behind. New (studying) pastures have been sought. I knew I didn’t have the luxury of time to find a library space to fit my own study needs; instead, it took about two months. I find the University Library (the third floor in the South Wing, theology section) great for researching. It’s quiet, and the long desks face a window that looks out on the red bricks of the tower, while still giving an impression of sky. There are faint echoes of the shouts of the children in the playground next door; these seem a comforting reminder of the world beyond the walls of the university.

Inside the University Library

Writing is a different story. I need near-silence and ample space. The huge desks on the bottom floor of my college library at Fitzwilliam has aided me through countless hours of essay writing. Again, the desks face the windows, and there is a sense of separateness from fellow students as the desks are staggered. In moments of contemplation, I can look out at the lovely Grove manor house that stands in the centre of the college, previously owned by the Darwin family.

Fitzwilliam Library

My academic process has been split between these spaces. Although I frequented my old faithful seat while at home and working during vacation time, the year away from Trinity has enabled me to see the benefit of really utilising different library spaces, whether in terms of differing functionalities, or merely for a productive change of scenery.

As I start at Newnham College as a graduate trainee in September, I’m sure to appreciate the complexity of the library space in an entirely different manner. Instead of looking at it as a student and assessing what it can do for me, I will be experiencing the space as a librarian-in-training, and facilitating the complete utilisation of the study areas by Newnham’s students. I look forward to this transformation in vision.

Future place of work: Newnham College Library