Luxury home with fireplace and full wall bookshelf.

How To Design The Home Library Of Your Dreams

Rachel Burris11-Minute Read
April 16, 2020

Imagine entering a room in your home that’s dedicated solely to learning. A room where you step on a ladder and swing across the shelves until you find that one book you’ve been dying to read. You take the book out, curl up in your comfiest chair and escape into a world that exists only within its pages.

In the past few years, media rooms have been in the spotlight as the go-to answer for what homeowners should do with their spare rooms. But as our lives have become increasingly overwhelmed by screens, home libraries are making a comeback. Although wooden-paneled rooms, built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and leather chairs by the fire may spring to mind when you think of home libraries, these old-fashioned designs are just the tip of the iceberg. Home libraries now come in all sizes and styles. From the grand, formal room to the bright, colorful reading nook, book lovers across the country are finding new ways to show off their collections.

If you have a spare room to convert, a small corner to fill or a dining or living room that could use some sprucing, creating a home library may be just what you need to elevate your home design and establish a cozy space where you can relax. To provide you with the best tips, we consulted with Sarah Barnard, an award-winning interior designer who specializes in personalized spaces that promote health and happiness and connect to nature and art. With our compelling design principles and thrifty tactics, the home library of your dreams is well within reach.

Create A Cozy Atmosphere

Large wood library courtesy of Sarah Bernard Design and Steve Dewall

Courtesy of Sarah Barnard Design + Steven Dewall

To achieve the ideal home library, you want to create a cozy atmosphere that compels you to curl up with a good book and forget the chaos of the world around you. However, coziness is a subjective feeling, which is why personalizing your library’s atmosphere is vital.

There’s a reason that Old World home libraries immediately come to mind when most people consider creating their own. It’s not just that they’ve been the most popular. It’s also the fact that there’s something innately comforting about the natural hues and materials used.

“For a recent project, with a traditional formal aesthetic, I specified dark American walnut floors and vibrant green and amber stone for the fireplace,” says Barnard. “Warm earth tones make the room feel cozy and friendly, even with a large scale.”

However, you don’t need to replicate this style in order to create a relaxing environment. Some of you will find that hygge, the Danish concept of comfort and joy, best speaks to your notion of coziness, while others may be more inclined by rustic, coastal or bohemian interiors. Regardless of the style you choose, your home library should be designed to be one of the most relaxing places in your home.

“Comfortable furniture, whether intended for cozy, relaxed reading or to maximize studying, will make a library feel warm and inviting,” says Barnard. “A plush chair placed by the window is an inviting space for the clients to read. Having large-scale furniture pieces and seating with deep cushions and irresistibly soft fabric adds to the warmth and intimacy of the room.”

Furniture plays a huge role in creating a welcoming space because it lends itself to physical comfort. However, there are other tricks that you can use to make your home library warmer and more intimate.

Light The Way

Well-planned lighting can add both comfort and utility to any room. When designing your library, you want to layer your lighting to not only ensure that you can see but also furnish the room with a more inviting glow. When layering, there are three different types of lighting you should use to enhance the coziness of your room: general, task and accent lighting.

General lighting, also known as ambient lighting, is the type that turns on with a flick of a switch when you enter the room. It’s the primary light source that creates an even level of illumination throughout the space. As the base of your lighting, it can take the form of a grand chandelier, understated recessed lights, modern track lights, etc. However, whatever you choose should not overwhelm the space. Your aim should be to re-create the warm glow of a fire, not the harsh glare of an office building. To prevent overhead lighting from overpowering the room, many people choose to install dimmers, which allow you to bathe the room in a softer light.

Task lighting, on the other hand, is more focused and concentrated. It directs light on a portion of the room that is intended to serve a specific function. When deciding what type of task lighting to include in your home library, you want to think about where you’ll be reading. You may want to place a floor lamp by a comfortable chair or a table lamp on the desk where you do most of your work. Well-placed task lighting will prevent you from squinting at the page and allow you to make your general lighting even warmer.

Accent lighting is a more dramatic kind of concentrated light. It draws the eye to specific objects in the room, highlighting the features you want to display. In home libraries, accent lighting is often used to illuminate the books in your bookcase or the artwork hanging on your walls. Recessed cabinet lights, track lights or picture lights can all be used to add sophistication to your room and endow your literary treasures with an air of significance.

Define The Mood

The mood you create for your home library will determine its overall feeling of coziness. Defining the mood will depend on how you combine smaller design elements into a cohesive whole. These elements include the material of your furniture, the design of your textiles, the color of your walls, as well as the art and plants you choose to decorate.

“There is a reverence associated with library spaces, so I often look to create a space that feels quiet, personalized and therapeutic,” says Barnard. “Heavy textiles can help muffle sound, as can a thick area rug. Displaying artwork near or among bookshelves can elevate the display of books and provides a unique reflection of the homeowners’ taste and personality.”

However, before you can start considering these elements, it’s essential to determine your goals. “The first things I discuss with my clients when designing their libraries are their dreams and intentions for that space,” says Barnard. “Is this an area primarily for work and study? Are they looking for a quiet, cozy space to relax with their reading, or is this a space to showcase their collections?”

In order to design your dream home library, you must be able to pinpoint how you’d ideally like to use the space. Much of your library’s mood will stem from its purpose, so consider who will be using the room and how they’ll be using it.

Pink library courtesy of Sarah Bernard Design and Chas Metivier

Courtesy of Sarah Barnard Design + Chas Metivier

For instance, the home library you’d design for yourself would have a very different feel from the one you’d create for your child. When designing a library for a young girl, Barnard fashioned the room based on its intended use. The bookcase is low to the ground, making it easy for children to reach. The table and chairs are simple and well-suited for children’s activities. The pink color of the walls and rug complement the blown-glass light fixtures, as well as the pictures of fairies, which decorate the room. Each of these elements come together to create a bold, whimsical mood that makes the room inviting and the act of reading an exciting endeavor.

Optimize Your Space

Before you can begin designing your home library, you need to have a clear understanding of the kind of space you’re working with. You must know what the size and orientation options are within your home.

Some of you may have the space to dedicate a full room on the first floor to your home library, but others of you may not. For those who are working with limited square footage, you may consider fully converting your basement, sectioning off a corner of a bedroom or even redefining a preexisting room. The options for your home library are endless, but the process must begin with choosing the right room.

Choose The Right Room

Modern library setup courtesy of Sarah Bernard Design and Steve Dewall.

Courtesy of Sarah Barnard Design + Steven Dewall

When searching for an adequate space for your home library, there are a number of factors that you must consider. The number of books you want to display and the amount of square footage that’s available will have the most substantial impact on which room you choose. But keep in mind that you can get creative with the space you have. Barnard explains, “Even a designated corner of a living room space can make for a beautiful library with the addition of sturdy shelving and comfortable seating.”

Barnard has had plenty of experience designing creative, space-efficient home libraries: “For a recent client with an extensive book collection, we planned her dining room as a multipurpose space to encourage entertaining and contemplation. Custom wall-to-wall shelving and colorful vintage, office furniture makes for playful dining room seating that functions well for reading and researching.”

However, beyond the extent of available space, you must also think about the overall environment of your home library, including the presence of natural light. “Ideally, a library will have a specific mix of areas of indirect light to protect the books and a central space with adequate natural light for reading,” says Barnard.

Books can have a long lifespan, but only if protected, so you must consider how the environment of your potential location will impact the condition of your books. While your newly converted basement may seem like an ideal space for your home library, basements tend to be moist environments that attract mold. If the air in your basement is damp or musty, you may have to rethink your choice.

Organize Your Book Collection

Horizontal book shelves courtesy of Sarah Bernard Designs and Steve Dewall.

Courtesy of Sarah Barnard Design + Steven Dewall

How you decide to organize your book collection will play a considerable role in the overall look and feel of your home library. Although your personal preference is fundamental, the types and quantity of your books will be the most significant determinant of the style of shelving you use.

“Study shelving, whether it’s stand-alone or attached to a wall, is the most convenient and space-saving option for displaying books,” says Barnard. “I like to have a large, flat surface nearby to showcase and enjoy oversized art or coffee table books.”

“For clients with large quantities of books, I recommend floor to ceiling shelving, or rows of horizontal wall shelves to present their collection as one impressive display,” she adds. “An extensive book collection can function almost as a significant work of art if given ample space.”

Much like a work of art, you want to consider the overall impression that your collection has on the beholder. While your first instinct may be to display all of your books in a neat row, doing so can have a monotonous visual effect. So, don’t be afraid to stack a selection of books that you want to stand out. Barnard suggests “alternating between vertically and horizontally arranging books on shelves to add structure and visual breaks.”

When people think of organizational systems for libraries, the Dewey Decimal System often comes to mind. Although this arrangement is often drilled into us at a young age, it may not be the most conducive for home libraries, given how confusing it tends to be. For home libraries, personal preference is paramount.

“The effectiveness of most organizational systems depends on its functionality for the user, so the best way to organize books will differ depending on a person’s individual preferences and needs,” says Barnard. “For visual thinkers, organizing by colors, textures or other aesthetic decisions may be the most pleasing and useful option. For those with an academic relationship to their library, shelves organized alphabetically by subject will help to access resources quickly.”

Here’s are some options you can consider for arranging your book collection:

  • Overall organization:
    • Dewey Decimal System
    • Alphabetically
    • Aesthetically – by color, texture, condition, height, size, etc.
  • Sectional organization:
    • Subject or genre
    • Hardcover vs. paperback
    • Favorites (in a row or stacked)
    • To be read (ideal for stacking)

If you’re unsure of what arrangement you’d prefer, feel free to experiment with a few.

To determine the ideal organization of your books, you must consider how you plan to use your home library and the extent to which you want the style to influence your display. If you’re unsure, don’t worry. As you begin to use the space, you can play around with different arrangements.

“Ultimately, the joy of having a home library is customizing your space to fit personal needs and desires, so experiment with different organizational methods to discover what brings the most joy.“ However, Barnard advises, “No matter the organizational method, it is generally a good idea to group large and heavy books low on the shelf for safety.”

Experiment With Seating

Furniture and its placement within the room is an essential consideration for home libraries. Since you’re creating a setting for getting lost in a book, you must be sure that the furniture you choose is comfortable. Oversized, deep-seated chairs with ottomans and chaise lounges lend themselves to a relaxing reading experience. Small side tables are useful for holding cups of coffee or glasses of wine. But you should also consider including a table for large display books and a desk for working or studying. Much like the mood and organization, the furniture you choose will be dependent on how you intend to use the room.

As for its placement, you can experiment with your furniture arrangement. However, Barnard recommends using the room’s natural light as a guide. “I recommend storing books out of direct sunlight, as consistent exposure to the sun can bleach book covers and spines and turn paper brittle,” she says. “The areas of the room that receive direct natural light should be reserved for comfy reading or study spaces, and are an excellent central location to arrange furniture.”

Keep Your Design In-Budget

There’s no question about it, designing your own library can be a time-consuming and expensive project. However, you can keep your design in-budget by staying thrifty.

To cut costs, Barnard recommends that you take inventory and buy upcycled home decor. “Rearranging what you currently have and adding one or two exceptional items can update and elevate a space,” she says. “There are many beautiful and high-quality vintage bookshelves, displays and furniture often found at a less significant price than newly manufactured pieces. Sourcing vintage furniture is also a sustainable choice,” says Barnard.

Instead of buying brand new furniture, you can go second-hand stores, estate sales, flea markets and online marketplaces, like eBay Etsy and Craigslist, to find more affordable pieces. Choosing to go this route will make your home library not only more sustainable but also more unique.

Additional Home Library Ideas

As you refine the mood of your home library, you should spruce up the space with personalized touches. You can experiment with different decor ideas, but Barnard suggests that you focus on the objects you hold dear: “Incorporate personal treasures in your home library, with books as the focal point, supplement with beloved furniture, textiles and objects.”

Your home library and everything inside of it should spark happiness and reflect your passions. The artwork you treasure should be prominently displayed to inspire you and your guests. Your favorite plants should be scattered around the room to breathe life into the space. Soft blankets and cozy throw pillows should be added for comfort, as well as color and texture. And if you’ve always dreamt of having a rolling library ladder that swings around your shelves, you should be sure to install it, too.

The Bottom Line

If having your own home library has been your dream, it’s time to make it a reality. Even if you don’t have a spare room, you can transform any available space into a gorgeous home library. Just remember that the ideal home library will reflect your lifestyle and feel warm and inviting. If you want more ideas for how to make your space feel homier, check out our tips for creating a cozy atmosphere.

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    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Quicken Loans, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.