The Most Amazing Private Library in the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksYou are a passionate book collector and have unlimited resources to build the library of your dreams — what kind of library would you build? What would it look like? How many books would it contain? Meet Jay Scott Walker (born 1955), an extremely successful inventor and entrepreneur, who founded Priceline, Synapse Group, and Walker Digital, and worth an estimated $1.6 billion. As an inventor, one of the question that Walker has always faced is: How do we create? To this Walker responded: “Part of the question that I have answered is — we create by surrounding ourselves with stimuli: with human achievement, with history, with the things that drive us and make us human — the passionate discovery, the bones of dinosaurs long gone, the maps of space that we’ve experienced, and ultimately the hallways that stimulate our mind and our imagination.” To that end, Walker, a long-time bibliophile, built the library of his dreams at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 2002. He calls it, appropriately, “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination.” 

The private library, that is connected to his home by a long hallway, holds more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. But what makes this library truly spectacular is the completely integrated audio-visual experience. When Walker steps into the library, it wakes up; that is to say, the library begins to glow with carefully directed theatrical lights; glass panels, depicting key moments in the timeline of human invention, that light up with LED lights, and a custom soundtrack begins to play — all of which are computer-controlled. In this unique traditional/high-tech playground for the mind, Walker is able to walk around the books shelves, where books are organized randomly by height and color, and find items by either serendipity or recollection. Interestingly, despite his extraordinary wealth, Walker is not a complete bibliophile snob. Of course, he owns some extremely valuable works, like early-20th-century books with jeweled bindings (containing gold, rubies, and diamonds) that were handcrafted by Sangorski & Sutcliffe that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, refreshingly, he also owns hundreds of leather-bound works by Franklin Press and Easton Press that are worth anywhere from $75 to hundreds of dollars.

The suspended main platform has several wood counters and work areas, a giant lit globe, and a comfortable couch, two chairs, and tables for reading. Directly above is a giant glass chandelier that is lit by 6,000 LEDs from the James Bond movie, Die Another Day. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher, famous for his impossible realities, like Relativity (1953), House of Stairs (1951), and Waterfall (1961). In fact, the wood tiling throughout the library echoes the multi-shaded triangles that appear in Escher’s works. Walker admits, “It is designed to be intentionally disorienting.” At the far end of the library is a massive three-story window with a planetarium, featuring a Clyde Lynds sculpture, a Andrea Cellarius celestial atlas (1660), Quester 7 telescope, and a globe of the moon signed by 9 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon. The exhibits change all the time because Walker enjoys the ideas that spring forth from interesting juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map next to a modern map or globe, or an Enigma code machine next to a early computer.

Building such an incredible library had its challenges. The architect, Mark Finlay (Mark Finlay Architects), known for designing stunning stately country houses, explained the process and construction. Walker directed the architects: “Think of it as a theater, from a lighting and engineering standpoint. But it’s not a performance space. It’s and engagement space.” To meet this objective, the architects initially built a 7-foot long model and used miniature cameras to get a sense of the experience of moving around the stairs and suspended walkways and glass bridges. To build the main floor and intersecting stairs and walkways, the exterior walls had to be constructed with a steel exoskeleton to hold up the room. In addition, the floors and walls required steel framing to support thousands of pounds.

Sadly, the library is not open to the public. However, Walker, as a philanthropist, does conduct tours for school-aged children and used as a setting for raising funds for local nonprofit organizations. Fortunately for curious bibliophiles, David Hofman has filmed a dazzling documentary of the library, tiled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” that can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOCqVm2yz2c.

Walker is also a patron of the TED talks, and is often speaks about inventions. You can hear him talking about some of the historical objects in his library, in addition to a quick tour of the library: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQDQ9rUx-6g&frags=pl%2Cwn

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Read related posts: The Power of Literature
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization
Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

For further reading: https://www.wired.com/2008/09/ff-walker/
https://www.wsj.com/articles/private-libraries-that-inspire-11556209156
markfinlay.com/connecticut-private-residence


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