The Theological Hall at Strahov Monastery in Prague
The Theological Hall, built in the 1670s, at Strahov Monastery in Prague © Will Pryce

When Gary Card moved to his flat in a former factory in Dalston, east London, the designer had one issue of dispute with his partner of 14 years: the way he organised the bookshelves. His partner insisted on arranging all their books according to colour.

“It suggests that we don’t read,” says Card, who creates outlandish sets and props for shops and magazines, as well as the odd piece for Lady Gaga. “It looks like we think books are purely decorative . . . The kind of books I buy are tactile – I fold the corners down. They can’t be replaced by ebooks.”

However, the worst thing about the coloured-coded shelves, says Card – who wears bright primary colours, while his partner sticks to black – is that he has grown secretly to love their rainbow home library.

Christopher Foyle, the chairman of Foyles bookshop, has his own system for organising the 12,000 books he has collected over 55 years. They are located in a purpose-built library in the south of France, close to where he and his wife Catherine live. His organisational scheme is not too dissimilar from those used at his family bookshops. He sorts the books by subject, dividing Central America, for example, into Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Olmec, Zapotec; and then, within each of these sub-subjects, alphabetically by author.

His home library is a resource to be drawn on when researching his interests, particularly ancient history and “alternative” archaeology – dismissed by some as “pseudo archaeology”, such as theories of pre-Columbian transoceanic contact between the Americas and Europe and Asia.

He also has a library of about 5,000 antiquarian leather-bound books and medieval manuscripts at his other home – 12th-century Beeleigh Abbey, a 400-acre estate in Essex.

Foyle and Card are both horrified by the idea of culling their collections and see the Kindle as a poor substitute for fingering print and paper. The ebook has made no difference to their book collections.

Not so Nicki Brown, an advertising manager from north London. Over the years, she had amassed hundreds of books. Most were displayed in bookcases dotted around her house, while guilty crime reads or dog-eared copies were locked out of sight. She could not bear the idea of throwing them away – even those she hated. Her collection was “a physical record of everything [she had] read and a feeling that a home was a place full of books”.

Then she got a Kindle, and the former sceptic is now an evangelist. She loves having 200 books on her at all times and the instant gratification of being able to read a sequel immediately after ending the first. The Kindle made her question the reason for having a huge home library. So she decided to donate all the books she did not have on display to charity. Then it was books she did not plan on rereading. The giveaway continued until she had donated 90 per cent of her collection. Brown, 41, still keeps a few of her favourite books on display. “I love having the space for pictures of my family rather than being a slave to showcasing my book collection. I have found it very liberating.”

Our home libraries are deeply personal. Organising book collections can be therapeutic; dividing them after a break-up can be heartbreaking; while blending them with a new partner can unearth hitherto unknown personality traits. I was horrified when my previous boyfriend told me when we decided to move in together that keeping books was a bourgeois affectation, a show-off badge of learning.

Adam Lee is a photographer who recently worked on a project called “Identity Documents”, a series of still lives about people’s book collections. Unlike portraiture, which he says only shows what someone is like physically, images of their books indicate what they are like on the inside. “Some people’s eclecticism was interesting,” he says. “I photographed a canon in the Catholic church and his bookcases showed an interesting mix of High Church literature and philosophy but also some trashy airport novels. It ties into [the idea] that we are not simply an ethnicity or a gender but are composite things.”

JD McClatchy – a poet, adjunct professor of creative writing at Yale University and author of American Writers at Home – believes there “remains a trace of shrine-like devotion of books. I can’t think of a home I’ve been in that didn’t at least have an ugly piece of furniture with mostly unread books on its shelf. Perhaps they still serve as what the ancient Romans called lares, household gods”.

Anxiety over culling her thousands of books before moving into an old people’s home drove Diana Athill, the memoirist and editor, into hospital for two days. Nick Hornby, who chronicles his reading habits in a column for the Believer magazine (which has been compiled in a book, Stuff I’ve Been Reading), is driven into a panic when disposing of his old books. He has learnt never to reread favourite books. “If you are lucky, your intellectual development never stops. Aged 15 to 25 you clasp books to your bosom and later if you reread them, you wince,” he says.

The digital era has in some ways made book collections harder to justify. With so many of us opting for ebooks over paperbacks, what is the point of keeping books? Just as many decided to ditch their record collections for a digital library, might the same happen to books?

Hilary Mason, data scientist in residence at Accel Partners, believes it will. She only acquires physical books that have sentimental attachment or are written by friends. Anticipating emptier bookshelves, Ikea has introduced a deep version of its “Billy” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture retailer believes more of us will in future line our shelves with objects rather than books.

Rather than replace books, the internet has created another space to portray our bookish credentials. A number of websites, such as Bookshelf Porn, have sprung up to showcase users’ book collections. Others, like Goodreads and Pinterest display digital bookcases.

Jasper Sutcliffe, head of buying at Foyles bookshop, says the way people buy books is changing. “Publishers are producing more beautiful editions. They predicted the demise of hardbacks. In fact, it’s the opposite.” He says that people read the classics on ereaders and buy hardbacks because they want to put the physical format on shelves or give them as presents. “People still want to be surrounded by the physical things.”

David Campbell launched Everyman’s Library in 1991 as a “hardback permanent library of record”, as author John Updike described it. Then it was an alternative to more ephemeral paperbacks and now it offers a tangible substitute to ebooks.

“When I started to produce hardbacks, I thought consumers, especially for the classics, would want a hardback. The arrival of the ebook has confirmed my hunch was right,” says Campbell. Ebooks have not harmed the publishing company, but spurred its growth, he says.

Steve Leveen, co-founder of speciality reader Levenger, embellishes his printed books. “I write when I read the book, where I read it, what I think about it as I read it. I often print out emails I exchange with friends, or the author, about the book, in some special cases, even a handwritten note from the author. Thus my print books become time capsules.”

The Library: A World History’, by James WP Campbell and Will Pryce (Thames & Hudson), £48

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