Visit the Libraries of the World
11 libraries that will make you want to pack your bags and dust off your passport
There are many reasons to travel — to visit historic sites, museums, international sporting events, food tours, nature havens — but there’s another good reason to travel: Libraries. All over the world, there are libraries that attract visitors from across the globe, whether it’s for the beauty of the library’s architecture, its historical significance, or its special collections, among other reasons. Here are just a few libraries well worth traveling for, and know this is a short list. Note: Before making any travel plans, check with each library to see what pandemic restrictions are. Beyond the pandemic, some materials require appointments to view.
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While the British Library’s building took some harsh criticism when it first opened (members of Parliament called it “one of the ugliest buildings in the world”), in more recent years it was designated as a top-ranked building on the country’s Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest and has become one of Britain’s top 20 tourist destinations. If you like 1970s architecture, you can admire the exterior. If not, hurry inside to check out an array of treasures including the Magna Carta, an extensive rare stamp collection, recorded productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, letters and archives from Florence Nightingale, James Cook, and Robert Falcon Scott.
While many libraries on this list were built decades, even centuries ago and have a romantic aura about them, Seattle’s Central Library is vibrantly modern and striking. The soaring glass and steel structure is vivid but also welcoming, and it was widely acclaimed in architecture circles when it was completed in 2004. The 11-story building also has an innovative “books spiral,” designed to display the nonfiction collection without breaking up the Dewey Decimal System, cleverly constructed as four floors connected by gentle ramps.
Vancouver’s Central Library, like Seattle’s, is worth visiting for the architecture alone. But unlike Seattle’s, Vancouver’s library pays homage to the past: The nine-story building takes up a city block and is surrounded by an elliptical, colonnaded wall that resembles the Roman Colosseum. The colonnaded area contains reading and study areas, or places for book-loving visitors to sit and sigh contentedly. In nicer weather, check out the rooftop garden.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt
The original Library of Alexandria was built in the 3rd century BC, reported to have been an architectural wonder containing thousands of scrolls. It no longer exists, but nearby is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, repository of the types of archives the famed library contained. There, visitors can learn about Arab folk art, Egyptian history past and present, medieval astronomy and scientific instruments, and Arabic calligraphy exhibitions, among others. Don’t skip the planetarium.
Library of El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain
The library is part of a much larger complex that is home to the King of Spain, among other things. Built in the 16th century by King Phillip II, it was norm-breaking in its time for its mission to contain not just books and manuscripts of philosophy and theology, but aspects of scientific learning, including astronomical, and maps of the known world — something that would previously have been decried as heresy. The Royal Library is full ceiling frescoes depicting what was known as the seven arts: Grammar, rhetoric, dialectics, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The Library of Congress is a giant repository of all things American, with more than 171 million items across three buildings. It has the largest rare book collection in North America and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music, and sound recordings. There’s a Gutenberg Bible (one of three perfect copies on vellum in the world), the first book printed in the U.S., extensive original manuscripts from composers in American musical theater, and millions upon millions of historic prints and photographs. You would like info on some aspect of America? Better get to D.C.
Liyuan Library, Beijing
It takes some effort to reach Liyuan Library, which, while in Beijing, is two hours from Beijing’s center and involves traveling on a winding mountain road. It’s the only manmade structure in the area, and it was designed to entice both locals and tourists while maintaining a connection with the surrounding natural area. So the building, while made of steel and glass, also incorporates sticks harvested locally to side the building, which also blocks intense solar light but allows indirect natural light into the building. This one is truly a destination outing.
Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
This library ticks a lot of boxes for many visitors. The building itself was commissioned by finance mogul John Pierpont Morgan to hold his beyond-extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts, and art. no expense was spared; the building has bronze bookshelves, marble surfaces, and mosaic panels, many of which have been recently restored. But the collections themselves are equally splendid, if not more so: Medieval manuscripts, original Rembrandt and Rubens sketches, Mozart’s handwritten music, Thoreau’s Walden Pond journal, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol manuscript, letters from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and a Gutenberg Bible — and that’s just a short list.
Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This gorgeous library was founded by three homesick Portuguese immigrants who wanted to continue reading Portuguese works. Today it has more than 350,000 works for visitors to peruse. But the building itself is worth a visit, with its enormous open floor plan of open shelves and ornate woodwork. Book lovers will feel they’ve arrived in heaven.
The stunning and historic Book of Kells, dating from the 9th century, is on display at this renowned library, the largest in Ireland. Besides the Book of Kells, Trinity is home to more than 20,000 collections of manuscripts and archives dating as far back as the 13th century BC. The library’s Long Room Hub (often used in movies) is home to an extensive collection of works in the Irish language, work on the scientific analysis of the Book of Kells, and an ongoing project digitizing and indexing the 1641 Depositions. The college itself was established in 1592, and the campus alone is well worth a visit.
Yusuhara Town Library, Kochi, Japan
The name of the library means “library above the clouds” in Japanese — a fitting name, given its location in a small mountain town. Opened in 2018, the library has an airy interior and a striking ceiling with criss-cross beams creating complex light and shadow patterns. Unlike many contemporary libraries that rely on steel or glass, this library has polished cedar surfaces. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes at the entrance, as they would be expected to in a Japanese home. A small café provides a comfortable spot for resting and, of course, reading.