Book guardian, art museum, architectural wonder, community center—a library is all of these things and more. The first library was established more than 1,000 years ago, and they’ve been a cornerstone of human culture ever since.
Ancient or modern, we love libraries as much as we love bookstores. So if you’re ever near one of these, make sure to spend some time getting lost in the stacks.
In 1802, President Jefferson appointed two Librarians of Congress to oversee the 5,000 reference books lawmakers used for governing. By 1897, the Italian Renaissance-style building was complete, and the U.S. could boast the largest library in the world. The resplendent Main Reading Room is surrounded by 24 marble and bronze statues of historical and literary figures, 48 state seals rendered in stained glass, and a dome with a mural titled Human Understanding. The LOC isn’t just for Congress though! If you’re at least 16 years old, you can get a library card and access the 70,000+ titles available to the public in the Main Reading Room.
101 Independence Ave. SE, Thomas Jefferson Building, LJ 100, Washington, D.C.
Steel, concrete, and glass are married to vast botanical gardens in one of Mexico City’s most beautiful nods to modernism. Transparent walls and light-filled stacks make the Vasconcelos Library feel like a maze lined with books. It’s centerpiece? A life-size skeleton of a whale, which is dwarfed by the expanse of the gleaming stacks above.
Eje 1 Norte Mosqueta S/N, Colonia Buenavista, 06350 Ciudad de México
This sixth-century Greek Orthodox monastery on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt is said to be built near the site of the Burning Bush at the foot of Mount Horeb. Its texts can be traced back to the 380s, when manuscripts were stored in the north wall of the cloister. By 1951, a modern library was built to protect its delicate treasures, including the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest surviving New Testament.
Saint Catherine Residential Settlements, South Sinai Governorate, Egypt
Opened in 1926, the exterior of the Central Library is a monument to the art-deco style of its day. Inside, a high rotunda features the famed Zodiac Chandelier. Four 40-foot murals along the entrance walls retell California’s discovery, missions, founding, and Americanization. In 1986, the Central Library fell victim to arson, losing a staggering 1.1 million books (chronicled in Susan Orlean’s recent bestseller, The Library Book). Fortunately, LAPL rebuilt and even reopened with a new wing in 1993.
630 W. 5th Street, Los Angeles, CA
Trinity University was established in Dublin, Ireland in 1592, and its library has drawn adoration ever since. The Old Library is where you’ll find the Long Room where its oldest texts are stored, including its most ancient—The Book of Kells—and a rare copy of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland
No trip to NYC is complete without a visit to Patience and Fortitude, the iconic lions guarding the entrance to the New York Public Library. The Beaux-Arts landmark opened in 1911, and at the time it was the largest marble building in the U.S. The Rose Main Reading Room is almost as large as a football field, sits more than 600 people, and features a charming book delivery system via pneumatic tube.
476 5th Ave, New York, NY
Along the famed Piazza San Marco, this national library is a gleaming homage to Renaissance architecture. Although it was built in the 1500s, the library didn’t become an official library of the Republic until 1603. In addition to being adorned with murals and sculptures throughout, the library also features a separate monuments museum.
Piazza San Marco, 7, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
In 1963, Yale University opened a library that honors the ancient and the modern. The contemporary glass cube exterior is proportioned on the golden ratio, a mathematical formula studied since the days of ancient Greece. To protect its priceless books from light damage, windows were replaced with translucent Vermont marble, creating a calm and shadowy atmosphere. Their most popular exhibit: The Gutenberg Bible.
121 Wall St, New Haven, CT
The Raza Library collection grew courtesy of a string of Nawabs (Governors) of the Rampur State over the centuries. The library was conceived in the late 1700s by the state’s founding father, Nawab Faizullah Khan, who established the library with his personal collection. In 1904, Nawab Hamid Ali Khan built an incredible Indo-European mansion, and in 1957 the Raza Library was relocated to its final home in Khan’s palace. The Raza houses manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Hindi.
Hamid Manzil Qila Rampur (U.P)-244901, India
The Great Library of ancient Alexandria existed from approximately 280 BC to 275 AD, but crumbled under years of war, fire, and neglect. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in 2002, features four full museums, an arts center, and remains devoted to a single mission: “to recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina.”
Al Azaritah WA Ash Shatebi, Qism Bab Sharqi, Alexandria Governorate 21526, Egypt
The National Library in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is grand and beautiful, but Rio’s Royal Portuguese Reading Room will simply take your breath away. Dating back to 1887, rising stacks of books are housed in intricately carved wood shelves, creating a wall of Gothic-Renaissance beauty.
Luís de Camões, 30 – Centro, Rio de Janeiro – RJ, 20051-020, Brazil
Leave it to a university of technology to build one of the world’s most beautiful underground libraries. Designed within the landscape instead of atop, the grass roof makes the building energy efficient. Inside, you’re greeted with a four-story wall of books and open spaces, which receive plenty of light through the cone rising out of its center.
Building 21, Prometheusplein 1, 2628 ZC Delft, Netherlands
Nestled on the slopes of Mount Gayasan in South Korea, the Haeinsa Temple houses 80,000 elaborately carved wooden blocks collectively called the Tripitaka Koreana. It’s a well-preserved, ancient account of Buddhist Korea defending itself against Mongol invasions. The tripitaka date back to 1237, but the temple wasn’t constructed until the 15th century.
122 Haeinsa-gil, Gaya-myeon, Hapcheon-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea
On the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the Peabody is a sanctuary of learning. It opened its doors in 1878, revealing a magnificent main hall. Look up, and you’ll see five stories of ornate cast-iron balconies behind which rows of stacks hold more than 300,000 books.
17 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD
The world’s oldest operating university and its library are still open to the public. Established in 859 by a Muslim woman named Fatima al-Fihri, the university can claim among its graduates, historical figures like Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Al-Qarawiyyin’s prized possession: a copy of the Qur’an from the ninth century, written on camel skin in Kufic script. The buildings were restored to their former glory in 2016 to ensure that ancient texts survive another 1,000 years.
Abi Hassan Elmarini Street, Kasr Chrarda, Fes, Morocco