The ingeniously simple concept for the library at Tokyo’s Musashino Art University speaks volumes: it’s made entirely of wood bookshelves, with a glass exterior. Inside, architect Sou Fujimoto’s spiral-shaped design naturally spurs the visitor onward and features light-filled, comfortable corners for reading and easy access to volumes. It’s a reminder that even in the digital age, libraries can be inviting public spaces—and that their beauty extends beyond the gilded, frescoed libraries of old. In Vancouver, architect Moshe Safdie’s Central Library plays with tradition, rising like a modern-day Colosseum. Bridge walkways connect to study areas from a skylit concourse filled with shops and cafés.
Libraries often act as such cultural gathering places, whether enshrining masterpieces or hosting present-day events. Visitors turn up at the museum-like Marciana Library in Venice to admire works by Renaissance artists like Titian and Tintoretto. In Stuttgart, Germany, meanwhile, the library’s exterior lights up by night, and you can join locals for readings in the mod all-white interior or for drinks on the roof terrace.
If you prefer your library to look like something out of Harry Potter, set your sights on the medieval reading room at Oxford University’s Bodleian library. Kings and Nobel Prize winners have studied beneath its intricate wood-paneled ceiling. The collection includes beautiful rare maps, a Shakespeare First Folio, and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
Clementinum National Library, Czech Republic – The series of buildings that make up this National Library owe their inception to an 11th century chapel dedicated to Saint Clement (hence the name). The National Library itself was founded in 1781, constructed in a Baroque style, and has served as a copyright library since 1782. The collection now includes historical examples of Czech literature, special materials relating to Tycho Brahe, and a unique collection of Mozart’s personal effects.
The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark – Known as the Black Diamond, this neo-Modernist building was built in 1999 as an addition to the Royal Library’s original complex. Its striking steel, glass, and black granite structure contains a concert hall, a popular café, and exhibition spaces. The Black Diamond treats visitors to spectacular harbor views and a ceiling fresco by one of Denmark’s most famous artists, Per Kirkeby. Guided tours are available on Saturdays.
George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore – The Peabody Stack Room’s five-tier soaring atrium has wrought-iron balconies and columns so graceful that Nathaniel H. Morison, its first provost, called it a “cathedral of books.” It’s one of America’s most beautiful college libraries, with a setting so gorgeous that weddings and special events are often held here. Bibliophiles come not only for the design but to browse 18th- and 19th-century volumes of archaeology as well as British and American history and literature.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. – When the original library burned down in 1814, Thomas Jefferson seeded a new one with his own much broader collection of books. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands guard in mosaic form above the main reading room, and scrolls, books, and torches pop up throughout the Library of Congress. Highlights include the main reading room, the Gutenberg Bible (one of 42 left in the world), and free classical concerts. Open Monday to Saturday.
Central Library of Vancouver, Canada – Architect Moshe Safdie’s creation resembles a modern-day Colosseum. You enter the Central Library through a huge skylit concourse, which contains shops and cafés and acts as an urban gathering point. Bridges inside the library connect to reading and study areas in the outer walls. Plans are under way to reclaim two of the building’s top floors from other tenants in order to expand the rooftop garden and make it accessible to the public. Open seven days a week.
Musashino Art University Museum and Library, Tokyo – Presenting the most library-like library ever: Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the Art University’s 26,900-square-foot space to be constructed from light-wood bookshelves walled in with glass. Even the stairs have built-in shelves, though they’re currently empty. Compared by Fujimoto to “a forest of books,” the building stands as a powerful visual testament to the bound book’s enduring power. The museum and library are open to visitors; hours vary.
New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) – A grand hall lit by massive windows and imposing chandeliers, the Rose Main Reading Room stretches approximately two city blocks. It’s a required stop for visitors, who can also peek at murals by New York artist Richard Haas in the Periodicals Room. Free one-hour tours of the library are available 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day except Sunday; rotating exhibitions have included an original Bill of Rights and “Why Children’s Books Matter.”
Marciana Library, Venice – The Renaissance-era Marciana is one of the earliest surviving libraries in Italy; construction began in 1537 and continued for more than 50 years. Works by Venetian artists like Alessandro Vittoria, Titian, and Tintoretto adorn the walls and ceilings. The library counts more than 750,000 books, 13,000 manuscripts, and 24,000 prints in its collection, many of which were the result of a 1603 law that required printers to donate one copy of every book published to the library. English-language tours are available on request.
Trinity College Library, Ireland – Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, with two story dark wooden arches, this is also the largest library in all of Ireland. It serves as the country’s copyright library, where a copy of all new books and periodicals must be sent when they apply for copyright protection. The library is also home to the famous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript created by Celtic monks around the year 800.
The Library of El Escorial, Spain – This library is located in the Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the historical residence of the king of Spain. Phillip II was responsible for adding the library and most of the books originally held within. The vaulted ceilings were painted with gorgeous frescoes, each representing one of the seven liberal arts: rhetoric, dialectic, music, grammar, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. These days, the library is a World Heritage Site, and it holds more than 40,000 volumes.
Stuttgart City Library, Germany – From the outside, the nine-story building can appear as a monolithic cube. But at sunset the façade’s glass bricks take on a glow, and after dark they are illuminated with blue lights. Inside, the dramatic all-white interior has a five-story reading room shaped as an upside-down pyramid, plus meeting rooms, a café, and a rooftop terrace. The arresting building was designed to become the city’s cultural heart. Patrons are welcome to settle in with a book or turn up after hours for the “Library for Insomniacs,” which keeps a small selection of material available all night long.
Library of Birmingham, England – Birmingham’s new library, composed of a stack of four rectangular blocks (offset to create terraces), makes an ultramodern first impression. The façade nods to the city’s jewelry quarter with a pattern of 5,357 metal rings. One of its treasures is the more traditional wood-paneled Shakespeare Memorial Room. Originally built in 1882, it was painstakingly reassembled on the top floor to house the library’s Shakespeare collection, which includes copies of the Bard’s first editions. The Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai was on hand to officially open the library in September 2013. Open daily.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt – Alexandria’s original library was destroyed by fire or battle more than 1,600 years ago. Today’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina seeks to recapture the original’s spirit of public learning. Opened in 2002, the massive disc-shaped building has a huge reading room that tilts toward the sea while the façade is covered in letters and characters from more than a hundred different languages. The building also contains a planetarium, four museums, academic research centers, and a multimedia presentation of Egypt’s heritage. Open Sunday to Thursday.
Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England – Duke Humfrey’s medieval reading room stood in for the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter movies. And the wood-paneled room—with its low, ornately worked ceiling and somber lighting—looks like the perfect place to brush up on ancient spells. Before it was made famous on the big screen, generations of scholars including kings, Nobel Prize winners, and British prime ministers studied here. Access to the reading rooms as well as the Radcliffe Camera and the Divinity School are by guided tour only.
Handelingenkamer, Netherlands – The library of the Dutch Parliament contains every record of parliamentary hearings and discussions. Because it was built before electric lighting made the storage of books a lot safer, the building was constructed with a massive leaded glass dome in the ceiling to allow in light and minimize the need for candles and gas lamps inside the library.
Seattle Public Library’s Central Library – The philosophy of architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN was to let the interior function dictate the exterior’s design. The result is a futuristic glass façade and a unique book spiral: bibliophiles browse the library’s nonfiction collection by following the gently inclined floor as it spirals up four stories. Ample daylight, inviting spaces to read and work, hundreds of computers, and bold interior design elements make this a decidedly 21st-century library. Open daily.
Austrian National Library, Vienna – Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands guard over this commanding baroque library, dating from 1723. The sumptuous interior is fit for royalty—which makes sense, as this was the palace library until 1920, when it became a possession of the state. It may take you time to focus on the books, given the frescoes and gilt adorning the main hall. Don’t miss the Globe Museum: it includes terrestrial and celestial globes made before 1850. Open seven days.
Mortlock Wing State Library, Adelaide, Australia – When this two-story library opened in 1884, officials were pleased by its majesty, yet felt it was missing something—a timepiece. The Dent and Sons clock still holds pride of place at the end of the reading room, high up on the wrought-iron and gold ornamented balcony. (A staff member winds it once a week.) One feature that’s been replicated in more modern libraries is the glass roof; its dome lets in natural light and enhances the warmth of the beautiful room. Open daily.
Beitou Library, Taiwan – With its rooftop gardens, park setting, and airy, sunlit interior, the Beitou Branch feels like an oasis in the midst of skyscraper-filled Taipei. The eco-friendly library, which has won numerous awards since its 2006 opening, features water reclamation, solar panels, and natural ventilation. It’s a green space that is also gorgeous and invites visitors to curl up with a book on open-air balconies. Open seven days a week.
José Vasconcelos Library, Mexico – Nicknamed the “megalibrary” by the Mexican press, this giant library takes up a whopping 409,000 square feet, making it large enough to dwarf the painted gray whale skeleton displayed inside the main hallway. Outside of the library is an impressive botanical garden that protects the building from the loud city streets, providing a moat for this castle of knowledge. Inside, over 500,000 books are displayed on glass shelves hanging from the five stories of the building. The end result is as striking as it is stunning.