Before the advent of computers, libraries were the preeminent aggregators of human knowledge and art. Besides that of the church, no other building occupies such an exalted station in the opinion of civilized peoples. Libraries attract the curious, humble the studious, challenge the most acute, and foster a rare but welcoming tranquility. The library remains a place where we physically connect with the summation of mankind’s knowledge under one roof. However, some select libraries of the world go beyond the merely necessary functions of a library – namely that of providing access to knowledge, be it rare or common, by stretching our imaginations, curiosity, and appreciation through raw appeal to the senses. Such structures possess artistic, architectural, and historical values beyond merely housing books. These libraries rival the great cathedrals of the world to aim toward a literary heaven on earth. Here are just ten such great libraries.
1. The Joanine Library, Coimbra, Portugal
The Joanine Library (Biblioteca Joanina) is a stunning Baroque library that was founded in 1717 by King John V at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. The library is considered one of the most beautiful libraries in Europe, with its intricate carvings, ornate decorations, and gold leaf accents. The library houses more than 200,000 works, including rare books and manuscripts in fields such as theology, philosophy, law, medicine, and natural sciences, mostly dating from the 1500s through the 1700s. The library also features a beautiful reading room that is decorated with frescoes on the ceilings and walls. One quirky fact about the Joanine Library is that it is only one of two libraries in the world where insects, which pose a threat to the delicate paper in old books, are controlled by a domestic population of live bats.
2. Admont Abbey Library, Admont, Austria
Another library in the Baroque style, the Admont Abbey Library is the largest monastic library in the world and located in the Austrian Admont Abbey, founded in 1074. The library’s architecture is breathtaking, displaying intricate carvings, gilded accents, and a stunning ceiling fresco that depicts the stages of human knowledge. The library’s collection includes over 200,000 volumes, including rare manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1501), early printed works, and a famous collection of scientific works. Visitors can also admire the library’s impressive natural history collection, which includes fossils and minerals.
3. Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland
The Trinity College Library in Dublin is one of the most famous libraries in the world and the only one on this list I have had the fortune to visit. The library is home to the Book of Kells, a famous illuminated manuscript from the 9th century. The library’s Long Room is more than 200 feet long and contains over 200,000 volumes, including rare manuscripts, maps, and prints. The room features beautiful wood paneling and a stunning barrel-vaulted ceiling. Visitors can also admire the library’s impressive collection of early printed works, including a first edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
4. Strahov Monastery Library, Prague, Czech Republic
The Strahov Monastery was founded in the 12th-century in Prague and is one of the oldest in the Czech Republic. A new library, called the Theological Hall and built in the Baroque style, was added in the 1600s. A century later, a second library now called the Philosophical Hall, was built in the Classical style. The library’s collection includes over 200,000 volumes, including theological and philosophical works, with thousands of first prints and manuscripts. The library’s Theological Hall is adorned with beautiful frescoes and features two globes with diameters exceeding six feet. Visitors can also see the library’s “Cabinet of Curiosities”, which includes rare and unusual objects such as a stuffed crocodile and a human skeleton.
5. Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, France
The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève standing today was built in the mid 1800s after its revival in the 16th century. However, the history of the library, its collection of books, and the abbey it served date as far back as the 6th century and the reign of the Frankish King Clovis I. Now locateded in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the library features a beautiful reading room with an arched glass ceiling and wrought iron balconies. The collection includes over two million volumes, including rare manuscripts, maps, and prints. The library is known for its stunning architecture, which includes a rotunda with a painted ceiling and columns with gilded capitals.
6. Wiblingen Monastery Library, Ulm, Germany
The Wiblingen Monastery Library is an artistic masterpiece built in 1744 as part of the Wiblingen Abbey, founded in 1093 when two counts offered the land to a group of monks in what is today Ulm, Germany. The library’s vibrant color scheme and intricately painted ceiling frescoes are breathtaking. The library’s collection includes over 170,000 volumes, including rare books and manuscripts from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The abbey has since gone through many changes of ownership, first belonging to the monks, then to various invading armies and small states, and finally to divided use amongst the Catholic Church, the University of Ulm, and several retirement homes.
7. Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room is located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and is home to one of the largest collections of Portuguese literature in the world. Ranked as the fourth most beautiful library in the world by Time magazine, the library’s architecture is stunning, with ornate columns, stained glass windows, and a beautiful reading room with a painted ceiling. The status of Pedro Álvares Cabral, Luís de Camões, Infante D. Henrique and Vasco da Gama decorate the façade of stone imported from Lisbon. The collection includes over 350,000 volumes, including rare books and manuscripts primarily from Portugal and Brazil. The library’s aim, professed by its 43 Portuguese immigrant founders in 1847, was to bring the Portuguese culture to what was then the Empire of Brazil.
8. The Royal Library of El Escorial, Madrid, Spain
The Royal Library of El Escorial is located in the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial near Madrid, Spain. The library was founded by King Philip II of Spain in the late 16th century and has a collection of over 40,000 volumes, including rare manuscripts and incunabula. The library’s impressive collection includes works on a variety of subjects such as theology, philosophy, history, and science. The library’s architecture is stunning, with ornate wooden bookshelves, a painted ceiling, and beautiful frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts. The library, designed by prominent architects of the day Juan de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, was the first known library in continental Europe to break from a medieval design and served as inspiration for the later Vatican Library. The architects and King Phillip II designed the library to represent metaphysical truths, such as the idea knowledge (represented by the library itself) links the spiritual (the monastery) to the physical (the seminary). Even the ordering of the book subjects symbolizes a logical progression from the profane (near the entrance) to the theological (near the library’s entrance to the basilica).
9. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Though not possessing the beauty nor history of the other libraries highlighted here, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses one of the largest rare book and manuscript collections in the world. Located at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and founded in 1963, the library’s collection includes over one million volumes, including rare books, manuscripts, and archives from a variety of fields such as literature, history, and art. Most impressively, the library houses two volumes of only a handful of Gutenberg Bibles in the world. The many invaluable books are housed in a six-story glass tower inside a unique exterior made of translucent marble panels that allow natural light to filter into the reading room.
10. The Clementinum National Library, Prague, Czech Republic
The Clementinum National Library in Prague, Czech Republic holds over three million volumes, making it one of the largest libraries in Europe. Founded on the remains of a Dominican monastery dating to the 13th century, Jesuit monks built a boarding school called the Clementinum in 1556. Later the library would fall under state ownership under the Habsburg, German, and Czech states. The library’s Baroque architecture is stunning, with a beautiful hall that features intricate ceiling frescoes, ornate bookshelves, and spiral wooden columns. Visitors can also see the library’s astronomical tower, which features an observation deck with stunning views of Prague.
These ten libraries are a testament to the enduring power of knowledge and the pursuit of learning. From ancient to modern, from vast to intimate, these libraries are gateways to worlds of imagination, repositories of wisdom, and havens for seekers of knowledge.