Libraries are those unique cultural institutions that combine art, history and innovation to create a space for people of all ages and backgrounds to indulge in the pursuit of knowledge and exploration of literature. For book lovers, there are few things that compare to wandering amid stacks of a historically or culturally significant building and finding a rare volume of their favorite author or an ancient text pertinent to human history. Luckily, the major libraries of the world that house such exquisite collections work hard to keep them preserved and accessible to the public, and out of the hundreds of worldwide options, we’ve narrowed down the 15 institutions all literature lovers must visit at least once in their lives.
15. Royal Grammar School Chained Library, Guildford, England
The headmaster’s study in Guilford’s Royal Grammar School is home to one extremely unique feature—an original chained library. The custom of chaining books originated with the idea of providing public access to valuable and important texts by affixing them to shelving in public places, an idea that eventually became the predecessor for the modern library system. This particular one in Guildford, England is one of the last remaining chained libraries in the world and houses a collection with works dating back to the 15th century, and most notably, two early editions of Newton’s Principia.
14. Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria
As the country’s largest library, the Austrian National Library is found within Hofburg Palace in Vienna and houses upwards of 7.4 million items. The acquisition of holdings dates back to the Middle Ages, with the permanent home at the Hofburg Palace constructed in the early 18th century, and now containing the largest collection of contemporary literature and research materials in Austria, as well as several unique collections, archives and museums. The most notable of these is the collection of Maps, one of the most comprehensive in the world, which today includes 295,000 maps, 45,000 geographic-topographic views, 700 globes and over 80,000 atlases and books of a technical nature. Also impressive is the library’s holding of manuscripts and rare books, a collection comprised of over 500,000 printed materials organized into incunabula (pre-1500s), works from the 16th to 19th centuries and items of rare, valuable and bibliophilic importance.
13. Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, Toronto, Canada
This library houses the University of Toronto’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the acquisition of which started in 1955 under the direction of Chief Librarian Robert H. Blackburn (largely sourced from the University’s main library). The department didn’t have a permanent home until 1973 when Thomas Fisher’s descendants donated their personal collections of Shakespeare and various 20th century writers, accentuating the growing collection’s need for a designated space. The building is now home to Canada’s largest publicly accessible selection of rare books and manuscripts, consisting of over 700,000 volumes including several medieval manuscripts and a set of Pyne’s Royal Residences which was presented to the University by Queen Victoria.
12. Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland
Located at the University of Dublin, the Trinity College Library holds Ireland’s largest collection of literature and is home to one of the country’s biggest attractions—the incomparable Long Room. Built between 1712 and 1732, the Long Room measures over 65 meters in length and contains the institution’s 200,000 item collection of rare and early edition manuscripts and novels, including the world-famous Book of Kells and one of the last surviving copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Also interesting to see are the marble busts of famous writers and philosophers that adorn the room, the highlight of which seems to be the one of Jonathan Swift created by Louis Francois Roubiliac.
11. Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Brazil’s Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura, known in English as the Royal Portuguese Reading Room, must be visited as much for its unbelievably stunning interior as for its extensive literary collection. Housing the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of Portugal itself, the library was built from 1880 to 1887 in the Neo-Manueline style (Portuguese answer to Neo-Gothic architecture) designed by lead architect Rafael da Silva e Castro. Today, the library houses over 350,000 rare volumes spread over three levels, topped with a wrought iron chandelier and stained-glass skylight, making it a must see for anyone who appreciates both literature and 19th century architecture.
10. Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Connecticut, United States
Currently closed for renovation (it will reopen in September 2016) the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University houses one of the world’s largest rare book and manuscript collections. Completed in 1963, the building’s geometric architecture and innovative translucent marble “windows” allow a unique method of filtered lighting to illuminate the interior of the building while protecting its precious contents—thousands of rare manuscripts, papyri and early edition novels. The library is also home to various other literary collections acquired by the University, as well as several temporary and permanent exhibits; amid these treasured displays you can find an early printing of the Gutenberg Bible and Audubon’s Birds of America.
9. St. Catherine’s Monastery Library, South Sinai, Egypt
This Greek Orthodox Monastery, officially known as The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, and unofficially as Santa Katarina, is the oldest inhabited monastery in the world with origins predating the Middle Ages. Though it is worth the visit just to admire and stand in a structure that has witnessed 17 centuries of history, exploring the monastery’s cultural inheritance is a truly unique experience. Housing an extensive collection of Christian art, the site is also home to a library of over 16,000 ancient texts, including hand-written manuscripts on papyrus and scrolls, early printed books and an archive of ancient documents. While the majority of the works found here are written in Greek and are religious in nature, the library also houses a number of educational works such as lexicons, medical texts and travel accounts. Most notable holdings include several pages of the Codex Sinaiticus (4th century manuscript of the Holy Scriptures) and especially of interest for classical literature lovers, first editions of Homer, Plato and the Comedies of Aristophanes.
8. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC, United States
Planned, funded and brought into being by Henry and Emily Folger, the Folger Shakespeare Library currently holds the world’s largest collection of William Shakespeare’s work, and is a must see for anyone who is a fan of Renaissance literature. Up until the building’s opening in 1932, the Folgers worked tirelessly to provide the American people with the best possible selection of the poet’s works, and personally took on all of the responsibilities involved with bringing their dream to life, including acquisitions, location scouting and structural planning. Today, the couple’s gift continues to expand, and now (in addition to the Shakespeare) houses an impressive collection of other Renaissance books, manuscripts and art, as well as being home to a world class research facility and numerous public outreach programs.
7. Alexandria Library, Alexandria, Egypt
Opened in 2002, this new Bibliotheca Alexandrina on Egypt’s northern coast is committed to replicating the ancient versions legacy as a universal center for culture and learning. While this was originally regarded by many as an impossible task, the library has managed it, becoming a hub in Alexandria not only for literature, but for performances, art, and special events. A stunning example of modern architecture, the library complex consists of a main reading room (which has the capacity to shelve eight million volumes) and four smaller libraries—a children’s library, youth’s library, multimedia library and braille library. Also on the premises are a planetarium and several museums that exhibit everything from ancient artefacts to antiquarian texts, including a copy of the only known scroll that remains from the city’s ancient library.
6. National Library of St. Mark’s, Venice, Italy
This beautiful library in Venice’s Piazza San Marco was constructed in the mid 1500’s after Cardinal Bessarion 1468 literary donation demanded a designated library building. The two level structure, officially called the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana was designed by Jacopo Sansovino and features Doric-style arches on the ground floor and Ionic friezes and sculptures on the second, as well as decorative artworks by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, among other. The library is also among the oldest in the country and houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of classical literature and historic works. With holdings that comprise upwards of a million total items, among the library’s most treasured pieces are two manuscripts of the Iliad (5th and 6th century) and opera scores and sonatas by Francesco Cavalli and Domenico Scarlatti, respectively.
5. Russian State Library, Moscow, Russia
With a history dating back to 1862, The Russian State Library is the country’s national library and houses the 5th largest literary collection in the world, containing over 17.5 million books. The institution also holds a renowned collection of maps, as well an extensive amount of specialized items such as journals, sheet music, sound recordings and dissertations. While obviously home to the largest selection of Russian literature in the world, the library also houses foreign works represented in over 247 languages, which comprise approximately 30 percent of the building’s 43 million item collection. The building itself is also an interesting site, with construction more or less completed by 1945, it is a perfect example of Soviet Neo-Classical architecture and offers an insightful contrast to other libraries of this magnitude.
4. New York Public Library, New York City, United States
Not only is the New York Public Library a city landmark and popular tourist attraction, it is also an extremely important part of the worldwide literary family. With a collection of over 53 million items, the library is the 4th largest in the world, drawing around 18 million annual visitors. Originally founded in 1895, today’s main branch at Bryant Park was opened in 1911 with over one million volumes consolidated from the Astor and Lenox Libraries. The institution has since expanded to include 88 neighborhood branches and four resource centers, servicing approximately 17 million people and offering over 67,000 free programs yearly. Visitors to the main branch, located in Manhattan`s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, can admire the beauty of the building’s Beaux-Arts architecture and interiors and explore the collections in the General Research, Manuscripts and Archives, History and Genealogy and Rare Books Divisions (among others). This building is also home to some of the country’s most significant historic documents, including Columbus’s letter about the New World (1943) and George Washington’s original Farewell Address.
3. Vatican Library, Vatican City
Among the many culturally significant things to see in Vatican City, the Vatican Library is no exception. Officially established in 1448 (though acquisition began much earlier) in the Vatican Palace, the current collection tops 1.1 million items and includes ancient manuscripts, codices, classical Greek and Latin texts, and perhaps the most impressive selection of incunabula (text printed in Europe prior to 1501) in the world. Though holding a vast amount of religious texts, the library’s holdings are actually extremely diverse in scope, with notable pieces ranging from the oldest known Bible (Codex Vaticanus) to letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn.
2. Library of Congress, Washington DC, United States
Established in 1800, with the doors of the current building opening to the public in 1897, The Library of Congress in Washington DC is the 2nd largest library in the world, housing upwards of 158 million items. Now a national monument, the building is one of the world’s foremost research centers home to 36 million printed materials in over 460 languages as well as over 69 million manuscripts. It is also here that you will find the world’s largest selection of films, sound recordings, sheet music and maps, in addition to the most extensive holdings of rare books on the continent. Along with this amazing collection of literature, the building itself is also worth the tour, showcasing magnificent Beaux-Arts architecture with interiors and reading rooms featuring fine art, marble halls, carved hardwood, and of course, the incomparable central stained-glass dome.
1. The British Library, London, England
This jaw-dropping institution contains an astounding 625 km of shelving to house its 170 million+ item collection which includes over 300,000 original manuscripts (both ancient and contemporary) and 60 million patents. With figures such as these, it is no wonder that the British Library is the largest in the world, and attract over 16,000 daily visitors. The main building, located in St. Pancras in London, is England’s largest public building constructed in the 20th century and consists of over 112,000 square meters spread over 14 floors. Along with the unparalleled collection of books, maps, newspapers and musical scores, the library is home to one of the world’s most comprehensive selections of literary treasures, including the Magna Carta, The Times first edition and the audio recording of Mandela’s Rivonia trial speech.