Libraries are some of the absolute best places on the planet. They are centers of learning, knowledge, and cultural, and they even let you borrow books for free! What could be better than that? Not much! People everywhere love their libraries, and this has lead to the creation of some truly stunning libraries all around the world that everyone, bibliophile and non-bibliophile alike, should be sure to visit on their next vacation trip.
Library of El Escorial (Spain)
First up is a regular on lists of gorgeous and stunning libraries. Located in the historic residence of the King of Spain in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the library of El Escorial was constructed way back when in 1592. Planned by Spanish architect (and mathematician, and geometrician) Juan de Herrera, the library’s great hall is fifty four meters long, nine meters wide, and ten meters high with gorgeous wooden shelves and marble floors. The vaulted ceilings are decorated with frescoes painted by Pellegrino Tibaldi and depict the seven liberal arts: rhetoric, dialectic, music, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
King Philip II, who conceived of El Escorial as a whole, donated his entire personal book collection in order to create the library, as well as acquiring other works from around Spain and foreign countries in order to add to the library’s shelves. Many of those books can still be found the library’s 40,000 volume collection today.
Trinity College Library Dublin (Ireland)
The largest library in Ireland, Trinity College Library Dublin is the library of both Trinity College and the University of Dublin. It is also a “copyright library,” and is the only Irish library to have the rights to receive material published in the Republic of Ireland free of charge. Several buildings make up the library, with the most famous being the original “Old” library, which was designed by famous Irish architect and politician Thomas Burgh. The Old library was constructed between 1712 and 1733, and features a 65 meter long main chamber called the Long Room, which today has two story wooden arches thanks to an expansion project done in the 1850s to include an upper gallery.
The Old library houses approximately 200,000 of Trinity College Library Dublin’s oldest books. The most famous of these ancient volumes include the Book of Durrow and the Book of Howth, and is the permanent home of the Book of Kells, which is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book created by Celtic monks around 800 A.D. The library also houses the Brian Boru harp, one of three medieval Gaelic harps to have survived antiquity.
Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch (Canada)
One of my personal favorites, the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library system is located in the Library Square, a one square block project that also includes the Federal Office tower and several retail and service facilities. Constructed in 1995 and designed by Moshe Safdie and DA Architects, the Library Square’s exterior consciously resembles the Colosseum ruins in Rome. Inside the complex, the library’s nine-story rectangular box contains your usual bookshelves and library services. A free-standing elliptical colonnaded wall surrounds the main building, which features reading and study areas; an additional wall forms concourse enclosed in a glass facade, which serves as the entrance foyer to the library.
The library is home to 1.3 million volumes. Additional features to the Library Square include shops, restaurants, office buildings, and a rooftop garden designed by Vancouver landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. Unfortunately, the garden isn’t accessible to the public, but at least it adds a nice organic ambiance to the square!
University of Aberdeen New Library (Scotland)
Now this one is just plain cool. Designed by Denmark’s Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects and opened last September, the University of Aberdeen New Library is 15,500 square meters and cost a whopping 57 million pounds. It was built to replace the outgrown Queen Mother Library, which was built in 1965. Irregular, bold vertical stripes mark the building’s boxy exterior, which are formed by insulated panels and high-performance glass and give the building its modern 21st century look while simultaneously maximizing its natural light, resulting in energy savings.
The interior of the library features an 8-story spiraling central atrium, which gives the building a spacious, airy feel to it. Juxtaposed with this highly modern look, the library contains a huge collection of old books, many of which date back to the 13th century due to the fact that the University of Aberdeen was first established in 1495. The library has over one million books in total.
Clementinum National Library (Czech Republic)
The Clementinum (spelled Klementinum in Czech) was founded in 1232 and is the largest and most historic building complexes in Prague’s Old Town. Originally the site of a chapel dedicated to Saint Clement (hence the name Clementinum), one of the buildings within the complex is the Baroque Library Hall, which is the home of the Czech National Library. Founded in 1781 and constructed in the Baroque style, the building features elaborate ceiling frescoes and spiraled wooden columns topped with gilded capitals. Another noteworthy feature of the library is its collection of oversized globes.
The library has served as a copyright library since 1782, and its collection includes notable titles in Czech literature, a collection of Mozartiana, and material relating to Comenius and Tycho Brahe. Even though the Clementinum complex is the second largest complex in Prague after the Prague Castle, the National Library is making plans to create a new building near the Prague center in order to accommodate expansion. The final project has yet to be decided on, however.
George Peabody Library (U.S.)
College and university campuses are home to some of the most stunning libraries in the world, and John Hopkins University is no exception. Constructed in 1878 and designed by Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind, the library’s neo-Grec interior is five floors filled 300,000 books. Cast-iron balconies look down upon a central atrium that contains reading desks for visitors usage along with a gorgeous black and white marble floor. The atrium is lit during the day by a ceiling latticed skylight, 61 feet above the floor.
The library’s main collection reflects 19th century scholarly interests, and is especially strong in areas like American history, biography, and literature, history of science, religion, and British art, among others. The collections are available to the public, in keeping with George Peabody’s goal of creating a library that could be used freely by anyone who wanted to use it.
Biblioteca EPM (Colombia)
Definitely one of the more interesting-looking buildings on this list, the Biblioteca EPM was designed specifically to look like an upside down pyramid. Completed in 2005, the library has a 107,000 square foot interior with a very modern feel to it, particularly due to the harsh, angled walls. Outside is a “forest” of white columns that has become of the library’s most striking features. The library contains a variate collection of engineering books for public access, due to the fact that EPM is a residential public utilities company.
National Library of Belarus (Belarus)
Another example of compelling modern architecture, the National Library of Belarus’ new building in Minsk was designed by architects Mihail Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko and completed in 2006. The main building is shaped in a rhombicuboctahedron (say that three times fast) and is seventy-two meters high. It has twenty-two floors and features a 500-seat conference hall. The entire building can house approximately 2,000 readers.
The library houses about 8 million items of various media, and has the largest collection of Belarusian printed materials and the third largest collection of Russian books. The library is quite popular, and is visited by over 2,00 people every day.
Abbey Library of St. Gall (Switzerland)
This stunning library is one of my all-time favorites. The library was founded by Saint Othmar, the founder of the Abbey of St. Gall, in the 8th century, and is one of the earliest and most important monastic libraries in the entire world. The library’s main hall was designed by Austrian architect Peter Thumb and done in a Rococo style. It is hailed by many as one of the most perfect libraries in the world, and was made a World Heritage Site in 1983.
In addition to being gorgeous, the Abbey Library of St. Gall is also home to the oldest library collection in Switzerland. It contains approximately 2,100 manuscripts that date back to the 8th through 15th centuries, along with 1,650 incunabula (works that were printed, not handwritten, before 1501), the manuscript B of the Nibelungenlied, and many other old printed books. The library’s total collection amounts to nearly 160,000 books.
Bibliothèque nationale de France (France)
Last but most certainly not least, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris is one of the most venerable library institutions in the world. Originally founded at the Louvre Palace by Charles V in 1368, the library continued to grow throughout the centuries and by 1896 it was the largest repository of books in the world. Its location jumped around until finally in 1868 it was moved to a group of newly constructed buildings on the Rue de Richelieu. Designed by Henri Labrouste, the Site Richelieu library is arguably most famous for its Oval Room, pictured above, which was added to the original buildings by Jean-Louis Pascal after Labrouste’s death in 1875.
Due to the ever-expanding volume of the bibliothèque’s collection, additional buildings were added in 1988. The buildings at the Site Richelieu are still operational, however, and should definitely be added to touristing bibliophiles’ itineraries.