‘More than forty miles of shelves’

The handwriting on this fascinating image taken inside the British Museum Library, ca. 1906, reads, “More than forty miles of shelves, two millions of books, and ‘of the making … is no end.’” The accompanying summary at the Library of Congress appears to get something wrong, however: “Photograph shows the book stacks in the reading room of the British Museum library, London, England.” This scene shows an important aspect of this library’s support for reading and research, but it should not be mistaken for part of a reading room.

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Source: Library of Congress, http://loc.gov/pictures/item/2014650185/

What makes this image so interesting to me is the technology of the modern bookstack, which supported the housing of and access to ever increasing quantities of books. Beautiful reading rooms in impressive buildings were one thing, but such wonders were coming to depend on technology such as this—modular, of steel and iron.

And notice how the gaps in the metal “floors” and “ceilings” made ventilation possible.1

For more background in the American context, see the detailed marketing publication offered by a manufacturer of such equipment: Snead & Co. Iron Works, Library Planning, Bookstacks, and Shelving (Jersey City, New Jersey, 1915).

In Germany, this stacks system, installed separately from the spaces where people read, was called the “Magazine System” or “French System.”2

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the GHI, Washington, DC.


  1. Thank you to Anna Maria Boß, the GHI’s librarian, for pointing this feature and the following reference out to me.  ↩
  2. See Titus Mehlig, Die Revolution im preußischen Bibliotheksbau um 1880, Berliner Handreichungen zur Bibliotheks– und Informationswissenschaft 198 (Berlin: Humboldt University, 2007).  ↩
Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “‘More than forty miles of shelves’,” History of Knowledge, March 28, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/03/28/more-than-forty-miles-of-shelves/.