A home library may strike you as a feature you can't afford. After all, isn't it top-end luxury homes that most often set aside entire rooms for the sole purpose of displaying fine books? But the truth is that a home library doesn't need to be a spacious room—a spare bedroom, a walk-up attic, or even just a quiet corner of an existing bedroom or family room can serve as your library. Nor does your library need to have expensive shelving and furniture. You can create a perfectly functional home library using furniture and accessories you already have, or items purchased at second-hand stores or yard sales.
Here are some things to consider when planning an affordable home library.
Choosing a Space
How much space you dedicate to a home library will depend on how much free space you have in your home, as well as the relative value you place on quiet reading. Depending on your lifestyle, for example, you may see a well-equipped home library as being a better use of limited space than maintaining a formal dining room you never use. If you are an empty nest household, that spare guest bedroom might be put to better use by converting it to a combination home office/library.
If your home already seems cramped to you with limited space options, there's no need to give up on the idea of a home library. Perfectly functional but small, libraries can be tucked into the empty triangular space beneath a stairway, for example. If you have a small off-the-kitchen home office, perhaps you can recast its use to give priority to library activities. Dedicated bibliophiles have even been known to convert a walk-in closet to function as a home library.
If there is any unfinished space in your home, such as a basement or walk-up attic, this can be an ideal spot to place a home library. Ideally, the space you choose should have good lighting or at least plenty of wall outlets for plugging in lamps.
Bookshelves form the core of a home library—their presence often is what defines a room as a library. Your dream library may include walls lined with built-in bookcases with glass doors. But such custom built-ins can be quite expensive, so they may not be possible if you're renting or if your budget is tight.
While it's possible to buy a wall's worth of inexpensive laminate bookcases, they often sag over time under the weight of your books. Collecting an assortment of sturdy wooden bookcases from your favorite secondhand sources and then painting or staining them to match is a better option. Be aware that the heights and styles probably won't be an exact match, and don't expect to find a home library's worth of bookcases in a single shopping trip.
Repurposing found items to use as bookcases is another option. For example, you can turn a collection of crates into a wall of bookcases if you secure them to each other and to the wall. You can also use a vintage china cabinet with glass doors to house a special selection of books, such as antique leather-bound classics or beautifully illustrated children's books.
The hardware store can also yield a wall or two of inexpensive bookcases if you opt for metal utility shelves in an informally styled home library. Many utility units meant for garage storage are too deep to use as functional bookshelves, but the shallower versions designed for home canning storage are frequently just 12 to 15 inches in depth—perfect for books. Because the shelves are typically open on the sides, you will need to use some sort of bookend at the end of each row.
But if you do have some discretionary money in your budget, spending it on the construction of some custom built-in bookshelves is a good choice. And if you are a DIYer with modestly good skills, built-in shelves can be more affordable than you think.
Equally important to the shelving is comfortable seating where you can spend hours happily reading. You can't concentrate on your book if your back is aching and popped springs are poking you.
If you live alone, or if you're creating your home library as a private retreat, combine a cushy chair with a soft ottoman for your feet. You can add a second chair and use a larger, shared ottoman if you plan to share the space with another reader. If you prefer to curl up with your legs to the side, opt for a loveseat or sofa instead.
You'll also need one or more chairs for your desk or worktable—perhaps vintage rolling chairs designed for a game table or even just a single dining chair. These chairs should have excellent back support that provides comfort as you work.
Whatever seating you choose, opt for pieces that fit your body and your decorating style. If the frame and cushions feel right, you can always reupholster your seating pieces using remnants or other low-cost fabrics. Reupholstering the seats of dining-style chairs for your desk or conference table is an especially quick and simple fix.
A home library doubles beautifully as a home office or study space and will benefit from a desk or other work surface. This is an essential feature if your activities include writing or computer work. .Even if you rarely work from home, placing a desk in your home library gives you a place to pay bills, write letters, and set up your computer and printer.
Depending on your decorating style, you might enjoy an antique wooden executive desk with a privacy panel and lots of drawers, a vintage metal desk from a defunct industrial or office space, or a simple table desk discarded during a hotel renovation. Whichever you choose, make sure it's sturdy and intact. You can always repaint or refinish the piece if it has extensive surface damage.
If you don't need drawer space, a sturdy round or rectangular dining table works well as a desk, especially if you enjoy an expansive work surface. The large surface provides plenty of space to spread out your papers and stack the books you're currently using. If you pull chairs up to the table, you can also use the space to host a study group or book club.
If space is extremely limited, even a small wall-mounted drop-down desk will give you a useful working surface when you need it.
Good lighting is important in every room of your home, but it's especially crucial in a home library. Ideally, you'll need all three types of home lighting: ambient, task, and mood.
Ambient lighting provides for general illumination. If your ceiling is set up for a hard-wired fixture, consider installing a hanging fixture and a wall dimmer switch. Wall sconces also look dramatic when installed with dimmers.
But don't rely on overhead ambient light for reading and studying. This is where task lighting comes in. Opt for a floor or table lamp for each reader's seat, and make sure you choose the right lamp height. The light should shine on the book pages for optimal reading comfort. You'll also need a desk or table lamp for your desk. For a larger study or conference table, you can opt for one or more desk lights or an overhead fixture, swagged or hard-wired, that shines directly on the tabletop surface.
Mood lighting adds a pleasing ambiance to a home library. You can tuck uplights in corners or behind pedestals or statuary. Light your bookcases with puck lights on the ceiling of the upper shelves, or install downlights along the tops of your bookcases. In addition to creating atmosphere, lighting your bookcases helps you browse the titles. If you hang artwork in your library, consider highlighting special pieces with picture lights.
Lighting fixtures can be expensive, so this can be a good reason to shop at second-hand stores or bargain outlets. You may want to invest in one high-end lamp for decor purposes while economizing on the other lighting fixtures.
Although shelves, seating, and a work surface provide the basic functional elements of a home library, the addition of a few additional items will help personalize your space and elevate it into a truly special space. Often, it's easy enough to decorate a home office with extra items from elsewhere in the house, or items found at garage sales or a relative's attic.
At a minimum, you need to place an end table next to each upholstered chair, sofa, or loveseat in your home library. If your seating includes a pair of club or wing chairs, you can place a single, shared occasional table between them. These end tables should be large enough to hold the current book when you lay it down, a cup of tea or glass of wine, and a table lamp. You can go a bit smaller if you use a wall-mounted or floor lamp.
- If you've opted for a sofa, a loveseat, or a pair of either, you'll also need a coffee table or cocktail ottoman to place in front or in between them.
- An obsolete television armoire works well for hiding printers and scanners if you plan to place a computer in your home library.
- To keep a record of your book collection in an old-fashioned way, keep an eye out for an old card catalog at flea markets, antique malls, and auctions. You won't lose all of your data if your computer crashes.
A home library should feel hushed, cozy and restful. If you paint the walls, make sure you choose the right paint colors. Avoid using bright, clear colors that invigorate. For example, sunny yellow, bright orange, bold fuchsia, and lime green encourage activity instead of inviting you to relax and read. Most warm neutrals look cozy enough for the cocoon-like library effect. With cool neutrals, such as gray, stick with medium to dark shades to avoid an icy effect. If you prefer more color, choose medium-dark to dark shades if you use a clear, pure color.
For lighter finishes, opt for a muted version of your favorite color, ideally with a brown, gold, or gray undertone. Cool pastels, in particular, tend to look too sweet for a home library. Pure white works fine if you're going for a stark, Scandinavian-inspired space. Otherwise, soften white library walls by choosing a shade with warm undertones.
If you opt for wallpaper, avoid kitschy or cutesy patterns. Bold or busy patterns are fine, as long as you follow the same color guidelines suggested for painted walls.
The right window treatments for your home library depend on your windows and the time of day during which you plan to use the space. For the most flexibility, opt for treatments that work well both day and night.
To make your home library a cozy space at night, consider floor-length curtains or draperies lined for privacy. Instead of buying new ones, try altering vintage drapery panels to fit your windows. Make sure the panels open and close, either along a rod or by using tiebacks or holdbacks, so you can let in the natural light during the day.
If glare is an issue at certain times of the day, install a light-filtering treatment under your curtain or drapery panels. A pair of sheer panels works well as an under-treatment, especially if you can open and close them as needed. Adjustable treatments such as semi-sheer fabric shades, wooden blinds, and woven shades are also good options.
Accessorizing your home library is the final step that personalizes and warms your space.
- Scatter a few decorative objects among your bookcase shelves.
- Soften floors and footsteps with a vintage rug, either room-sized or just under your seating area. A large rug can both make the space feel warmer and deaden sound transmission.
- Arrange attractive vignettes on bookcases and tabletops.
- Hang pleasing artwork, whether single pieces or art groupings.
When it comes to accessories and decorations, less is often more when it comes to a home library. Choose items that help create a restful, contemplative mood, possibly with literary themes.
Books are of course an essential element of a home library. After all, if you don't love to read, there's no point in dedicating an entire room to the storage and enjoyment of books. If you're a dedicated bibliophile, you may already have enough volumes to fill your shelves. But if not, your home library won't feel complete unless you fill out your bookshelves.
Collecting books doesn't have to mean spending big bucks. You don't have to fill your shelves with first editions, and you don't have to buy recent releases at retail prices. Flea markets, yard sales, antique malls, estate sales, and thrift stores are all fantastic sources for books.
Flea markets sometimes have sellers who specialize in books, both newish and old. You'll find the best prices at yard sales, where it's not uncommon to find stacks of recent bestsellers for less than a dollar apiece. Many thrift stores have sections just for books, where you can browse the titles just as you would in a retail bookstore.
When shopping for volumes to fill your library shelves, don't buy books you'll never read—no matter how beautifully they're bound. Instead, select books you want to read again and again or use for research. Alternatively, if you're a collector, select only those vintage or collectible books that fit your particular period or area of interest.
If you choose to buy beautiful leather-bound books with contents that don't interest you, you can treat them as decorative elements. You can decorate with books by using them to elevate objects in a tabletop vignette or by stacking them on the floor to create an alternative occasional table.
Is a Home Library Right for You?
Just because you live in a modest or smallish home doesn't mean you can't convert an existing room—or just some found space—into a functional home library. If you repurpose used furniture or giveaways and use some creativity in your planning, any home can include a restful, quiet refuge that will feed your love of books and reading.