The Best Libraries In The World

With education as our focus here at The Best Colleges, we obviously love libraries. College libraries, public libraries, private libraries, it doesn’t matter, we think they are all awesome. With that in mind we’ve done hours of research trying to find the most interesting libraries in the world, and come up with these 35 that we thought were especially noteworthy. We’ve tried to balance our list between architecturally interesting libraries and libraries with interesting collections, but most of these libraries are actually fascinating in both respects. We’d love to spend a day in any of these libraries, and we hope you’ll agree.

35. National Library, Minsk, Belarus

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One of the most distinctive libraries on our list, the National Library of Belarus is shaped like a Rhombicuboctahedron (here’s what a rhombicuboctahedron is, just in case you’re not a mathematician.) The building is 22 stories tall, and was opened in 2006, although the library has been in operation since 1922. The Library is the copyright library of Belarus, and is an attraction in Minsk, featuring a public observation deck and public concerts on its lawn. The Library holds over 8 million items, and has the third largest collection of Russian works in the world.

34. University of Coimbra General Library, Coimbra, Portugal

The University of Coimbra General Library has been in operation since the early 16th century. Inventories for the library exist from the years 1513 and 1532, and show that the library at the time held more than 120 manuscripts. The The Library was definitely established in 1537, and today holds over a million books, with a separate building for pre-19th century books. This is the Biblioteca Joanina, and its architecture is done in majestic Baroque style. The Library is open every day to the public.

33. The National Library of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore

The National Library of Singapore is located a 16 story tall building, recently built in 2005. The library has over 200,000 books and also has a performing arts center with a 615 seat theater. The building is adorned with multiple gardens that feature views of the city of Singapore.

32. Stockholm Public Library, Stockholm, Sweden

The Stockholm Public Library is one of Stockholm’s most notable buildings. The library was opened in 1928 and designed by Gunnar Asplund, one of Sweden’s most important modern architects. The interior of the main part of the building is a rotunda, giving visitors a visually pleasing view of many of the library’s shelves along the rotunda walls. The Stockholm Public Library holds more than 2 million volumes and over 2.4 million mixed media items.

31. Rijkmuseum Library, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Rijkmuseum Library is part of the Dutch National Museum located in Amsterdam. The library is focused on art history and holds over 350,000 volumes. Interestingly, the online catalog of the Rijkmuseum Library has on display over 140,000 monographs, 20,000 art sale catalogs, and 3,200 magazines. The library is open to the publicm and although books and magazines can’t be checked out, they can be viewed in the reading room.

30. José Vasconcelos Library, Mexico City, Mexico

The José Vasconcelos Library, located in Mexico City, unfortunately had some stumbling blocks in its construction that led to the library being closed for 22 months from 2007 until 2008, but the building is phenomenal, and I have to agree with former Mexican president Vicente Fox who called it one of the most advanced constructions of the 21st century. The library cost nearly $100 million to build, and was was the largest infrastructure investment for the Fox administration that spanned 2000-2006. The shelving of the library is visually impressive and complemented by several incredible sculptures including one by artist Gabriel Orozco called Ballena that is a painted genuine whale skeleton.

29. Herzog August Library, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

The Herzog August Library was founded in 1572 by a German Duke, and by the 17th century it was one of the largest libraries in Europe. The Library’s collection is over 900,000 books, more than a third of which were printed from the 15th to the 18th century. The Library is internationally known for its Middle Ages and Early modern Europe collection.

28. The Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt

The Library of Alexandria was the greatest library in antiquity, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The new Library of Alexandria is a memorial to that library, and an attempt at rebuilding. The Library cost $220 million to build and was completed in 2002. The Library doubles as a cultural center, and contains a planetarium, a manuscript restoration lab, art galleries and exhibition space, museums, a conference center, and niche libraries for children, young adults, and the blind. Currently the Library contains over 500,000 books, but there is shelf space for over 8 million, leaving plenty of room for addition.

27. Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire

The Phillips Exeter Academy Library is the largest secondary school library in the world. This is one of the most impressive libraries on our list, in a way, since it’s merely a part of a prep school (albeit one of the most wealthy prep schools in the world.) The architect of the Library was Louis Kahn, and the the structure has won numerous architectural awards, including a Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects (given to no more than one building a year). The Library was commemorated on a US Postal Service stamp in 2005 as one of the Postal Services twelve Masterworks of Modern American Architecture.

26. George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland

The George Peabody Library is the research library of Johns Hopkins University, and was originally the Peabody Institute Library, an institution that was meant to be a cultural center for Baltimore. The Library was a part of the Institute from 1878 until 1967 when it became owned by the city of Baltimore, eventually passing to Johns Hopkins in 1982 where it now holds the University’s special collections. Many of the collection’s titles date to the 19th century and the library has one of the world’s foremost collections of Don Quixote editions. The building was described by the first Peabody provost as a “cathedral of books.” The interior features a 61 foot high atrium, a beautiful black and white marble floor, and many balconies and golden columns. The library is open to browsers.

25. Wiblingen Monastery Library, Ulm, Germany

The Wiblingen Monastery was founded in 1093, and remodeled in the Baroque style in the 18th century. The Library is notable to art historians because of it’s rich ornamentation and beautiful fresco ceiling. Before entering the Library visitors see the inscription “In quo omnes thesauri sapientiae et scientiae” which means “In which are stored all treasures of knowledge and science”, a perfect quote for any library. The Library imagery is full of knowledge related imagery, both Pagan and Christian. The Library is open to the public and guided tours are available.

24. Chateau de Chantilly Library, Chantilly, France

Another library on our list with a Gutenberg bible, the Chateau de Chantilly library is part of a French estate that also includes one of France’s most important art galleries. The main part of the estate (Grand Chateau) was built in 1528-1531 with the other attached building (Petit Chateu) being built in 1560. The Grand Chateau was destroyed during the French Revolution and later entirely rebuilt from 1875-1881. The library of the estate contains over 1300 manuscripts and 12,500 printed works, including the aforementioned Gutenberg Bible (one of more than 700 incunabula), and roughly 200 medieval manuscripts. The library is often open to the public for guided tours.

23. State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

The State Library of Victoria was founded in 1854, and now holds over 1.5 million books, and has special collections dealing with chess, the arts, the diaries of Melbourne’s founders, and the folios of Captain James Cook. The centerpiece of the library is the LaTrobe Reading Room, a soaring octagonal space that has room for over 1 million books and 500 researchers or readers. At the time of completion, the LaTrobe Reading Room was the largest dome in the world.

22. Salt Lake City Public Library, Salt Lake City, Utah

Utah’s Salt Lake City Public Library’s main library is a unique building built in 2003 that features a beautiful five story curved glass wall that ends in a 20,000 sq ft skylight, following the architect’s commitment to focusing on natural lighting. The top of the building is also in use with a rooftop garden planted with trees and flowers. The Library holds more than 500,000 books, and has a large collection of zines.

21. Strahov Monastery Library, Prague, Czech Republic

The Strahov Monastery Library, located in Prague, is contained within the Strahov Monastery that was founded in 1149. The main portions of the library are the Theological Hall, built in 1679, and the Philosopical Hall completed in 1779. The monastery was occupied by the communist government starting in 1950, and was transformed into the Museum of National Literature. When the Communist regime fell out of power in 1989 the monastery and Library were returned to the Premonstratesian order, who set about restoring the Library, leading to the impressive structure that can be seen today. The Library holds more than 110,000 volumes, over 1200 of which are incunabula.

20. Melk Monastery Library, Melk, Austria

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and shortly thereafter a school was founded which led to the library’s formation in the 12th century. The Melk Library quickly became one of the largest manuscript holders in the world, and was also majorly involved in the production of manuscripts. The Library features a high ceiling adorned with beautiful frescos painted by Paul Troger. Today the Library is still renowned for its collection of medieval manuscripts and also has a prominent collection of musical manuscripts.

19. Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Danish Royal Library is the national library of Denmark and was founded in 1648 by King Frederik III. The library holds all works that have been printed in Denmark since the 17th century, and nearly every Danish book ever written resides in the library, back to the first Danish book that was printed in 1482. The Danish Royal Library is the largest library in the Nordic countries. Many significant works are held here, including the correspondence of Hans Christian Anderson, historical maps of the Polar Region, and the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, named for the Icelandic scholar Arnas Magnæus who spent much of his life building a collection of manuscripts from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden until his death in 1730.

18. Trinity College Library (“The Long Room”), Dublin, Ireland

The Trinity College Library in Dublin is the largest library in Dublin, and fulfills many of the same functions for Ireland that the Library of Congress fulfills for the United States. The Library actually consists of four separate buildings, but we are concerned here with the old Trinity College Library, built in 1732. The “Long Room” in the Old Library is one of Ireland’s biggest tourist draws and houses the Book of Kells (a beautiful Gospel book created by Celtic monks roughly around 800) and many other very early works.

17. Jay Walker’s Private Library

Jay Walker is an American inventor and entrepreneur who has used his wealth to develop a notable private library. Walker has dubbed his Library “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination.” The Library is located in his Connecticut home and contains more than 50,000 books including many early works and museum worthy items. The architecture is a multi-level design inspired by the surreal works of M.C. Escher. Wired called the library “the most amazing library in the world” and Walker has discussed the library in a TED talk. Unfortunately, the library is not open to the public, but Walker has been known to host notable public figures.

16. The Morgan Library & Museum, NY, NY, USA

The Morgan Library & Museum was formed in 1906 to hold the private collection of banking magnate J.P. Morgan. The library housed his collection of manuscripts, printed books, prints, and drawings. The library has many illumninated manuscripts, incunabula, and many original manuscripts, including works by Sir Walter Scott and de Balzac. There are also notable drawings of many notable artists, including Leonardo, Raphael, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. Other interestings holdings of the Morgan Library include scraps of paper that Bob Dylan used to write down “Blowin’ in the Wind”, concept drawings for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and a Charles Dickens manuscript of A Christmas Carol.

15. Library of the Benedictine Monastery, Admont, Austria

The Library of the Benedictine Monastery is the largest monastery library in the world. The Library holds 70,000 volumes, including 1,400 manuscripts and 900 incunables. Some of the manuscripts were gifted by the Monastery’s founder Archbishop Gebhard, who founded the Monastery in 1074. The ceiling of the Library is made of seven cupolas, all decorated with elaborate frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte that display the progression of human knowledge. The design of the Library is heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.

14. National Library of Sweden, Stockholm, Sweden

The National Library of Sweden is responsible for preserving all Swedish printed and A/V material and holds more than 20 million objects. There has been some form of National Library in Sweden since the 1500s and was expanded early on by purchases of collections from Swedish monasteries that were dissolved in the Reformation and later via war spoils from the Thirty Years War. The Library obtained the library of Würzburg and the royal library of Prague during this war, and notably also obtained a 13th century copy of the “Devil’s Bible” (which can be viewed online here.)

13. Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria

Much like the Library of Congress, the Austrian National Library is responsible for the collection of all publications that appear in Austria. The Library has many important works including the world’s foremost Globe collection, rare books dating from the 4th century, including a UNESCO Memory of the World Programme item (the Vienna Dioscurides, a 6th century illuminated manuscript that deals with medicine and healing), and a map collection that includes maps dating as far back as the 16th century. The library is currently housed in the Hofburg Palace and the baroque Palais Mollard-Clary, and was originally housed in the Prunksaal, a magnificent building with beautiful frescoes.

12. Abbey Library of Saint Gall, St. Gallen, Switzerland

The Abbey Library of Saint Gall is the oldest library in Switzerland and holds about 160,000 volumes. The library was founded by Saint Othmar, who founded the Abbey of St. Gall in 719. This is one of the oldest monastery libraries in the world, and holds manuscripts from as far back as the 8th century. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named the library a World Heritage site in 1983, calling it a “a perfect example of a great Carolingian monastery”. Many of the rare manuscripts that the library holds can be accessed through this website, and the public is welcome to use the library, although pre-1900 books must be read on site.

11. Seattle Central Library, Seattle, WA

The Seattle Central Library opened in 2004 and features a beautiful glass and steel modern design created by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN. The goal of the design was to make an inviting open and airy space, avoiding the popular perception of libraries as dark and stuffy. The library can hold up to 1.45 million books and materials, and serves over 2 million patrons a year.

10. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto, Canada

The Thomas Fisher Rare Book library is the largest rare book collection in Canada. The library is affiliated with the University of Toronto. The collection includes numerous notable works, including Newton’s Principia (1687), Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), and a Babylonian cueniform tablet that dates to 1789 BC. The library also contains a large and notable collection donated by a man named Robert S. Kenny, who was a Communist Party of Canada member. The collection is made up of over 25,000 items dealing with labor movements worldwide, with a particular emphasis on Canada.

9. New York Public Library, New York, New York

The New York Public Library is awe inspiring in its scope and breadth. It is the the third largest library in North America, has over 50 million items in its collection, and consists of 87 libraries serving 3.5 million people. The Rose Main Reading Room features grand windows and chandaliers, as well as a beautiful gilded and painted ceiling. The Library special collections include the first Gutenberg Bible to come to America, and a special emphasis on Americana. The Library is one of the most recognizable on our list, with multiple appearances in feature films, with its inclusion as a key setting in the film “The Day After Tomorrow” and as the setting of a significant portion of the movie “Ghostbusters”.

8. Library of Parliament, Ottawa, Canada

The Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada is a Canadian landmark, so much so that it adorns the back of the Canadian ten dollar bill. The building was inspired by the British Museum Reading Room. The walls of the Library are supported by 16 flying buttresses, and the main reading room has a vaulted ceiling complementing the walls and stacks which featured white pine paneling with beautifully detailed carvings of flowers, masks, textures, and mythical creatures. The collection of the Library consists of over 600,000 items, curated by a staff of 300. Access to the facility is generally restricted to Canadian parliamentary business, but tours are often made available.

7. Boston Public Library


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The Boston Public Library is the first publicly supported library in the US. It was established in 1848 and has since grown to its present collection size of 22 million items, which makes it the second largest library in the United States. The Central Library consists of two buildings, the Johnson Building and the beautiful McKim Building. The McKim building houses the library’s research collection and exhibitions. It was built in 1895 and contains many beautiful murals, including Edward Abbey’s most famous that depicts the legend of the Holy Grail. The main room of the McKim building is Bates Hall which has an amazing coffered ceiling. The research collection at McKim is made up of over 1.7 million rareties, including many medieval manuscripts, incunabula, early Shakespeare that includes a First Folio, colonial Boston records, a major Daniel Defoe collection, and the libraries of many famous men of history including John Adams, William Lloyd Garrison, and Nathaniel Bowditch.

6. National Library of St. Mark’s, Venice, Italy

The National Library of St. Mark’s is a Renaissance building and is home to one of the most important classical texts collection on earth. The Library was built over a lengthy period of time and began in 1537, but the collection began as early as 1468 when Cardinal Bessarion gifted his collection of 250 manuscripts and 750 codices. Beginning in 1603 a law was created that required one copy of all books printed in Venice to be housed at the National Library. The Library today holds more than a million books, over 13,000 manuscripts, 2883 incunabula, and more than 24,000 16th century works.

5. Vatican Library, Vatican City, Rome

The Vatican Library is the library of the Holy See and one of the oldest libraries in the world. It was established in 1475, but existed in early forms roughly since the beginning of the Catholic Church. The library has added to its collection over the years primarily through bequests and gifts. The Vatican Library currently holds over 1.1 million books, 75,000 manuscripts, and over 8,500 incunabula. The library owns the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible and many other important medieval works.

4. Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT

The Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is the largest building in the world that has the express purpose of preserving rare books and manuscripts. The library’s holdings are incredible and include special collections of numerous important writers including Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, and Joseph Conrad. The central shelving area of Beinecke is a beautiful structure with glass walls and soft lighting that protect the works from direct light. The library is accessible to the public and it’s exhibition hall displays many of the library’s rare works, including an original Gutenberg Bible, one of only 48 copies.

3. Reading Room at the British Museum, London, England

The Reading Room at the British Museum is found in the center of the Great Court of the British Museum. The structure has a domed roof, and the ceiling is made of a kind of papier-mâché. For much of the Room’s history, access was only granted to registered researches, and during this period many notable figures studied at the Library, including Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Mahatma Ghandi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Lenin, and H.G. Wells. The Library’s collection was moved to the new British Library in 2000 and the Reading Room now houses an information center and a curated collection of books relating to history, art, travel and other subjects relevant to the collection’s of the British Museum. Right now, and since 2006, the Reading Room has been housing a temporary exhibition centered around China’s famous Terracotta Army

2. Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK

The Bodleian Library is the library of the University of Oxford. It was established in 1602, making it one of the oldest libraries in Europe. The Library has over 11 million items, and many, many items of historical import, including four copies of the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, and Shakespeare’s First Folio (from 1623.) The Library consists of multiple buildings, perhaps the most visually interesting of which is Radcliffe Camera, built in 1737-1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. It’s the earliest circular library in England, and has appeared in multiple films, including “Young Sherlock Holmes”, “The Saint”, “The Red Violin”, and “The Golden Compass”.

1. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The Library of Congress is essentially the national library of the United States and the oldest federal cultural institution in the US. The library consists of three different buildings and is the largest library in the world as measured by shelf space and number of volumes. The library is open to the public, but as the research institution of Congress only members of Congress (and Supreme Court justices and certain other government officials) may check out books. Interestingly, the library serves a function as the “library of last resort” in the US, making certain items available to other United States libraries if they are not available via other means. The holdings of the library are impressive and varied, and include over 32 million books, more than 61 million manuscripts, a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a perfect vellum copy of the Gutenberg Bible (one of only four in the world), over 1 million newspapers from the last three centuries, over 5 million maps, 6 million pieces of sheet music, and more than 14 millions photos and prints.

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