Learning History through Library Tourism
Check out amazing historic libraries from around the world.
We’re in the midst of the summer travel season (although anytime is a good time to travel!). Along with searching out the best restaurants, beaches, city sights, or mountaintops, there’s something else to keep an eye out for: libraries of historical significance. It’s a journey that can take you around the world. Here are just a few selections of libraries that are important not just because of the value they provide to the community but also their invaluable historic role. (Note that, sadly, there are many historic libraries that are no longer in existence.)
The Villa of the Papyri, Ercolano, Italy
This is a rarity in that it’s an ancient library with holdings that survived to modern times. Located in what was the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, the Villa of the Papyri held thousands of papyri texts from the philosopher and poet Philodemus. Herculaneum was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, but the thorough coating of volcanic ash didn’t destroy the papyri; instead, it carbonized them. Excavations in the eighteenth century began to find artifacts, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that most were excavated and restored.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
This library within a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai is one of the world’s oldest still-functioning monasteries, opening in the fourth century AD. Besides containing an impressive archive in various languages, including Greek, Arabic, Latin, and Georgian, the library also has the Ashtiname of Muhammad. It’s an order of protection issued by Muhammad and given to the monks at the monastery, and the word “Ashtiname” is a Persian word meaning “book of peace.”
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, France
France has long been home to libraries, but the Bibliotheque Nationale had a unique role in the country’s history. Its original collections were housed at the Louvre in the fourteenth century before eventually moving to its own building in Paris in the sixteenth century. However, during the French Revolution, its collection increased exponentially as private libraries of aristocrats and clergy were raided and placed into the public collection. Initially owned by the Crown, the Revolution put the library into public ownership and, for the first time, made its extensive educational materials open to anyone.
Wenyuan Pavilion, Forbidden City, Beijing, China
This library was originally built during the Ming Dynasty as a private library for the emperor. However, late in the dynasty’s history, farmers revolted and destroyed many things, including the library. It was reconstructed during the Qing Dynasty with the intention of housing The Complete Works of Chinese Classics, the largest collection of books in Chinese history. Today it’s home to thousands of rare Chinese books and documents.
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Biblioteca Municipal Publica de Villanueva, Villaneuva, Colombia
Colombia has made enormous strides in bringing libraries to residents across the country. One of its recent additions is this public library, built in a largely agricultural area. It was designed by four college students who won a competition with their design. When construction began, rather than busing in workers from other areas, locals were offered training and provided jobs under close supervision — including former guerrillas, who were given the opportunity to reintegrate into society while working on the library.
National Library of Poland, Warsaw, Poland
This is a recent addition to the category of historic libraries, established in 1928, although it housed collections dating from the eighteenth century. It had only been available a few years before the Nazis occupying Poland largely destroyed its holdings. But since the end of WWII, the library staff worked tirelessly to rebuild a collection that not only is now the country’s largest archive but is also a symbol of peace and hope for the Polish people.
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