An ode to the lost art of library books

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Anna Brech
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As libraries vanish the world over, one photographer seeks to capture the shared experience of reading with a nostalgic project

Anyone who grew up with a love of reading will know well the singular joy of library books.

You browsed for hours to find that old copy of Malory Towers with “property of Lucy, aged 8” scrawled in the inset. 

You poured over a much-loved edition of The Tiger Who Came To Tea - the same one that passed through a thousand small hands. 

You made yourself at home in a musty treasure trove of books and cassette tapes (remember those?), all in one place for everyone to share.

Britain’s library system is now in sharp decline, in a trend that’s mirrored all around the world. 

It’s a situation that makes a unique project by the photographer Kerry Mansfield all the more poignant.

Moved by the plight of the world’s vanishing libraries, Mansfield decided to pay tribute to the shared experience of reading.

The artist, based in San Francisco, lovingly photographed and archived over 180 ex-library books for her series Expired

The collection provides a nostalgic look at out-of-print volumes that were once upon a time much loved, from Babar to The Little Prince

Mansfield is particularly interested in capturing the story behind each of the library books, and the imperfections they picked up during their time on the shelves.

This includes photographing the checkout card that once went hand-in-hand with the library experience, listing all the names of people who’ve read that book.

“I remember reading the list of names that had come before me and cradling the feeling that I was a part of this book’s history,” Mansfield says (as reported via Architectural Digest).

“Its shared, communal experience [was] exposed by curlicue handwritten names and room assignments revealing repeat customers devouring the book beyond its deadline.”

From a dog-eared copy of To Kill A Mockingbird to envelopes stamped by the mark of time, Mansfield’s series deftly captures all the nuances of library reading.

The result is a touching throwback to a medium that’s changed so much, a check-out card now feels vintage. 

It’s also testament to the physical comfort of books, which - even in the throes of rapid eBook development - nothing can come close to.

For Mansfield, however, the project is not wholly about regret.

“Each picture serves as an homage to the book’s history, etched onto the pages by way of marginalia, a yellowed coffee splatter, or sticky peanut-butter-and-jelly fingerprints,” she says

“It’s easy to feel a sense of abuse and loss, but these books say much more. They show the evidence of everyone that has touched them, because they were well read, and well loved. 

“They were not left on shelves, untouched. Now they have a new life, as portraits or records of the shared experience unique to the library book.”

See more about Kerry Mansfield’s work and her new book, Expired, over on her website

Images: Getty, Kerry Mansfield on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.