The library/sunroom in Jim Noble's 19th-century Minneapolis house is all about the books. Leather-bound volumes, many of them antiques that have been in his family for generations, fill floor-to-ceiling shelves that line an entire wall.

"It's nice to have books around. They add so much ambience," said Noble, a principal with Noble Interior Design. "I hope we never live to see the day that books are eliminated from the home."

Michael Jones also loves books. But his loft condo in Minneapolis doesn't have space for a traditional library. He still buys books but downloads a lot of his lighter reading material on his Kindle. Recently he added a custom built-in bookshelf to his living room -- mainly to display his art collection. "I was running out of wall space," he said.

The two homes illustrate the role books have traditionally played in the American home -- and the role they may play in the future, as e-readers continue to revolutionize our relationship with the printed word.

Books were once powerful symbols of knowledge, wealth and status. In the 19th century, upper-class homes often included voluminous libraries.

"Books were very expensive, and a large library was the mark of an aristocrat," said Clifford Clark, professor of history and American studies at Carleton College in Northfield.

In a well-educated man's library -- and the library was definitely a male space, according to Clark -- books were items for display as well as reading. In the early 1900s, many people furnished their libraries with the "Harvard shelf," a reference to the 5-foot bookshelf required to contain the Harvard Classics. (That 51-volume anthology of works, selected by Harvard President Charles Eliot, consisted of all the books he considered essential to the background of an educated person.)

During the bungalow era, built-in bookshelves moved into middle-class homes, Clark said, but retained their symbolism as a marker of education.

Paperback explosion

But by the '50s and '60s, the role of books in the home started to change, Clark said. Inexpensive paperbacks became popular, and bookshelves became a place for displaying collectibles as well as books. As family rooms and TVs began making inroads in American homes, books themselves became more like TV -- a form of entertainment, Clark said. "Books became not a fount of knowledge but a way of keeping up to date, reading the latest novel."

The current explosion of new-media technology has again altered books' role. "In the 19th century, you used an encyclopedia -- now you Google," Clark noted. "Knowledge can be gained in so many ways, from so many sources. The book has lost its position as a symbol of knowledge."

And now that you can carry an e-reader anywhere, is there even a role for rooms and furniture designed for books and reading?

Yes, said Noble. "Just about every house I go into has bookshelves. No one has talked to me about managing their books differently. I do get asked to help people make them look nicer," he said. "People are always weeding out books, usually ugly paperbacks."

In his own home, which he shares with his wife and five children, the library is the most popular room in the house (admittedly, there is a TV there as well as books). "We kind of live in here," Noble said. "I spend more waking time here than anywhere else. Everybody does. It's the scale. It's cozy."

So far, the move to e-readers hasn't had much impact on the home front, said interior designer Suzanne Goodwin, of Suzanne Goodwin & Associates in Minneapolis. "The trend is really young yet. I'm sure it's coming, but it will take a while for the majority of the public to catch up."

Home builders are still putting in bookshelves, and people are still accessorizing with books, said Marie Meko, a designer with Gabberts Design Studio. But clients are increasingly selective about what goes on the shelves, she said. "People want books that look nice, not just paperbacks. Not just rows of books, like in old libraries. We're not piling them on shelves."

Meko believes books and e-readers fulfill different roles. "I'm a big iPad user. Professionally, I love it. I don't have to [carry] five catalogs. For traveling, I love it. But at home, personally, I like books to hold." She still buys coffee-table books as mementos of art exhibits she's seen or travels she's taken. "Books provide memories," she said.

Selective buying

Jones, the loft dweller who added a bookcase for his art, is starting to draw the line between books he merely wants to read and those he wants to keep, savor and display. "It's like downloading iTunes vs. buying a CD," he said. "I know I want the CD of Patti Smith's 'Horses.'" Now he's starting to apply the same selective strategy to his book-buying; he tends to buy art books and oversized visual books, but is more likely to read best-sellers on his Kindle.

His new built-in bookcase, which spans most of a 17-foot wall in his living room, contains some books but more art and artifacts. "I didn't like the idea of completely filling it with books," he said.

He also didn't like the idea of a traditional wood bookshelf. "Heavy wood things are not conducive to a loft," he said. "I wanted it substantial yet light."

He chose powder-coated steel. And he chose an architect to design and build it.

"Books are heavy, and to do that in wood, the bookshelf becomes extremely present," said Ben Awes, an architect/partner with CityDeskStudio, the firm responsible for Jones' project. "With steel, we could achieve the goal of carrying all these things with a much smaller [structure]."

Awes has designed modern steel bookshelves for several recent clients. "The clients are all living in lofts," he said. "It's a smaller kind of living. There are not as many places to put stuff." And the open floor plan of most lofts makes homeowners very conscious of what they put on their shelves and how it looks. "Something about the spaces people are living in makes them careful about what's out," Awes said. "These people all stated that books matter to them, but they wanted to be selective about it and treat the whole thing [the bookshelves] as an art piece."

That's what Jones appreciates about his bookshelves, which incorporate one curved shelf, two unmatched columns and a built-in desk, in bright orange for a pop of color. "I liked that style, the inconsistency," he said.

And even though he can use his Kindle anywhere in his condo, he still gravitates to the spot right in front of his bookshelves. "I read here, on the couch," he said.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784