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Bats in the Books: Design Ideas from Europe’s Great Libraries

Design from libraries. Two floors with shelves filled with books.

We can look back at the grand libraries in Europe for design ideas from a time where HVAC systems were windows and light was provided by the sun. By combining the best design ideas of the past with modern materials and systems, we can give our spaces a sense of grace, charm, and beauty that is very functional.


The old libraries were a metaphor in stone: stone, or brick because wooden structures were prone to fire. One of the symbolic design ideas from the libraries was the darkness to light structure. Symbolizing ignorance as darkness and libraries, sources of ideas and learning as light, many libraries had a dark, small, or narrow entrance that was topped by a staircase. When one ascended the stairs, the space was large, usually vaulted, with huge windows and long, deep spaces in white or ivory. This idea of ascending to the light is one that designers can use in a number of modern ways.


Two famous old libraries in Portugal use colonies of tiny bats who live onsite to keep the population of book-eating bugs in check. This idea of symbiosis and sustainability may be on the far edge of what modern users will find comfortable, but the idea behind the bats and books is one that designers are embracing. Flooring should not just be sustainably harvested and manufactured, but it should also provide protection against sound and vibration, as an example.


Some of the old libraries that were built in monasteries had a unique structure of a basement that was a crypt, and held the tombs or burial chambers of the monks, and above that were living spaces; at the very top, to symbolize the immortality of ideas and the power of learning, were the libraries. We have kept something of this design principle, though the idea of the power of learning has evolved to just power.


Another design principle that the libraries, both ancient and modern, can suggest to us is that there is never enough space. Libraries and home bookcases were always running out of space, and have been since the first book-lover carried the precious work to their stone cell. We don’t all collect books anymore, but whatever we collect, we probably don’t have enough room for it all. Design planning should incorporate the idea that we will run out of space sooner, rather than later, and we’ll need to expand.

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