A barrister requires the use of many law books and may frequently move to new chambers. A specialised form of portable bookcase has thus developed to meet their needs. A barrister’s bookcase consists of several separate shelf units that may be stacked together to form a cabinet. An additional plinth and hood complete the piece. When moving chambers, each shelf is carried separately without needing to remove its contents and becomes a carrying-case full of books.
As most high-quality bookcases are closed by doors, but also to retain the books when being carried, a barrister’s bookcase has glazed doors. As the shelves must still separate it’s not possible to provide the usual hinged doors opening sideways and so instead they use an “up and over” mechanism on each shelf. The better quality cases use a metal scissor mechanism inside the shelves to ensure that the doors move in a parallel fashion without skewing and jamming. Many of this style, exported worldwide, were made by the Skandia Furniture Co. of Rockford, Illinois around the beginning of the 20th century.
This style of bookcase was either made in a Dickensian period, or harkens back to the style of such times, so they’re most commonly glazed with a leaded light and small panes of glass.
Each shelf of a true barrister’s bookcase must be portable with a heavy load of books. The more robust examples have folding handles at the ends of each shelf. Modern “decorator” copies of these may look the same, but are often too lightly constructed to be carried whilst loaded, or may even be simply a single fixed case as per a normal bookcase, but with separate doors to each shelf to give the appearance of a barrister’s bookcase.
Private libraries appeared during the late Roman republic: Seneca inveighed against libraries fitted out for show by illiterate owners who scarcely read their titles in the course of a lifetime, but displayed the scrolls in bookcases of citrus wood inlaid with ivory that ran right to the ceiling: “by now, like bathrooms and hot water, a library is got up as standard equipment for a fine house
Revolving bookcases, known as zhuanluntang, have been documented in imperial China, and its invention is credited to Fu Xi in 544. Descriptions of revolving bookcases have been found in 8th- and 9th-century Chinese texts. Revolving bookcases were popularized in Buddhist monasteries during the Song Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Taizu, who ordered the mass printing of the Buddhist Tripiṭaka scriptures.
When books were written by hand and were not produced in great quantities, they were kept in small boxes or chests which owners (usually the wealthy or clergy) carried with them. As manuscript volumes accumulated in religious houses or in homes of the wealthy, they were stored on shelves or in cupboards. These cupboards are the direct predecessors of today’s bookcases. Later the doors were discarded, and the evolution of the bookcase proceeded. Even then, however, the volumes were not arranged in the modern fashion. They were either placed in piles upon their sides, or if upright, were ranged with their backs to the wall and their edges outwards. The band of leather, vellum or parchment which closed the book was often used for the inscription of the title, which was thus on the fore-edge instead of on the spine. Titles were also commonly written onto the fore-edge.
It was not until the invention of printing had greatly reduced the cost of books, thus allowing many more people direct access to owning books, that it became the practice to write the title on the spine and shelve books with the spine outwards. Early bookcases were usually of oak, which is still deemed by some to be the most appropriate wood for an elegant library.
The oldest bookcases in England are those in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which were placed in position in the last year or two of the sixteenth century; in that library are the earliest extant examples of shelved galleries over the flat wall-cases. Long ranges of book-shelves are somewhat severe in appearance, and many attempts have been made by means of carved cornices and pilasters to give them a less austere appearance. These attempts were most successful as in the hands of the English cabinetmakers of the second half of the eighteenth century.