- Library of Congress
- Biblioteca Vasconcelos
- British Library
- Internet Archive
- Boston Public Library
- Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil
- Little Free Library
- Oslo Public Library
- Biblioteca Nacional de España
- Huntington Library
- State Library of New South Wales
- New York Public Library
- Bodleian Library
- Library and Archives Canada
- Jimmy Carter Library and Museum
- National Library of Australia
- John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
- Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart
- Seattle Central Library
- Folger Shakespeare Library
- National Library of Sweden
- Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina
- State Library Victoria
- Newberry Library
- Bibiotheque Nationale de France
- Further Reading
What separates the best libraries in the world from your average neighborhood public library?
In some cases it might be a spectacularly designed building, in others it might be the size of its book collection, its academic importance, history or status as a centre for culture…
Mindful of all these differing views on what makes a library fantastic, we’ve collected an eclectic list of the world’s largest, prettiest, most historic or otherwise impressive libraries.
So read on to discover the best libraries in the world, and what makes them great…
Billed as the largest in the world, the de facto national library of the US is a hugely impressive institution for more than just its size and holdings (of over 32 million catalogued reading materials!).
The giant research library is housed in three buildings in Washington’s Capitol Hill (all connected by underground passageways) and includes stunning features like the main reading room pictured above.
Most importantly, the Library promotes literacy and US literature through a multitude of projects, including appointing the Poet Laureate.
Location: Washington D.C., United States.
Mexico City’s Vasconcelos library (often referred to as a ‘mega library’) is one of the most impressive in the world, spanning more than 400,000 square feet.
As you can see, the design by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach is also rather breathtaking – a fitting tribute to namesake and former president Jose Vasconcelos.
Location: Mexico City, Mexico.
Second only to the Library of Congress in terms of number of items catalogued, the British Library holds more than an eye-watering 150 million items from all over the world.
Once part of the British Museum, it now is now located in a purpose built, Grade I listed building between Euston and St. Pancras railway stations.
When there, you can also look out for Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Newton, which sits in front of the library.
Location: London, England.
We’re cheating a little bit with this one – despite being headquartered in San Francisco, the Internet Archive is actually a digital library which aims to provide “universal access to all knowledge”.
As such, its database of digitized information is absolutely colossal – with everything from archived websites, books, movies, software… the list goes on and on.
Plus, it’s the only entry on this list that you can visit right now!
Location: Online/San Francisco, United States.
Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library is one of the largest in the U.S.
The vast majority of its items are held in Boston Central Library, which consists of the attached and interconnected McKim and Johnson buildings.
Housed within the grand Central Library are not only books, maps, DVDs and manuscripts (among other items), but also breathtaking murals by John Singer Sargent, and a courtyard complete with a fountain and beautiful arched pathways.
Location: Boston, United States.
Bibioteca Nacional do Brasil (aka, The National Library of Brazil) is the largest in Latin America.
As a result of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, many contents of Lisbon’s Royal Library were moved to Brazil, leading to the founding of the National Library in 1810.
If you’re a keen photographer, you’ll likely be impressed by the Teresa Cristina Maria photograph collection: over 21,000 photographs left by the Emperor Pedro II, which includes works by the first photographers in the world!
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Once again, we’re completely cheating with this one, but Little Free Library is such a commendable organisation that we feel compelled to include it!
This neighborhood book exchange allows participants to purchase a library box (or build and register their own) to allow passers by to take books to read or leave books for others.
More than just a novel idea though, the Little Free Library has over 50,000 registered locations across the globe – many of which are listed with GPS coordinates on a world map!
Oslo Public Library (in Norwegian, Deichmanske bibliotek) is the country’s largest library, and has over 20 branches throughout the city.
Founded in 1785, its services are available to everyone, and users can borrow and return books every day – even when it’s not staffed.
Once inside, you’ll be impressed by its murals, high ceilings, and any number of staircases – the latter leading to it often being called ‘house of stairs’!
Location: Oslo, Norway.
The National Library of Spain is one of the world’s largest (and best looking) libraries, and is the essential reference point for research into Spanish culture.
Housing over 26 million items in its collection – including many highly valuable manuscripts, drawings and photographs – the library’s Exhibition Room and Museum are also hubs for a variety of different cultural events.
Location: Madrid, Spain.
The Huntington forms part of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, a private research and educational centre – prize items include the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a world-class collection of the early editions of Shakespeare’s works.
Every year, some 1,700 scholars come from around the world to conduct humanities research using The Huntington’s collections, and approximately 150 research grants are awarded to scholars in the fields of history, literature, art, and the history of science.
Past scholars have included Nobel Laureate Richard Feyman, Oscar winner Katherine Hepburn, and astronomer Edwin Hubble.
Location: San Marino, United States.
The oldest library in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales began in the 19th century as a subscription library for colonials who were looking to read books.
Initially known as the Australian Subscription Library, it became the State Library of New South Wales in 1975.
Perhaps the most famous part of the library is the Mitchell Wing and its magnificent glassed-ceiling reading room, with walls covered by books and stained glass windows.
Location: Sydney, Australia.
Another of the world’s largest libraries, the NYPL is also probably the most instantly recognisable, having been featured in countless movies and television series.
As well as that famous main Manhattan branch, the library also has locations in The Bronx and Staten Island – together serving a population of over 3.5 million people!
Over a century old, with four research centers and dozens of neighborhood branches, the New York Public Library is a gatekeeper for a staggering amount of knowledge and resources.
Location: New York, United States.
Part of the huge group of libraries which serve the University of Oxford, the main Bodleian Library is one of Europe’s oldest, established back in 1602 (with its roots stretching back even further).
This historic research library is one of 6 ‘legal deposits’ of each book published in the UK, contributing greatly to its expansive collection of printed works.
A large amount of the Bodleian’s archives were recently made available online to the public too – providing an invaluable resource for research and study.
Location: Oxford, England.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is the third biggest library in the world, with millions of books, photographs, maps, moving images, works of art, and archival records that tell the fascinating history of Canada through its documentary heritage.
Its eclectic collection includes the country’s personnel records from the First World War, rare Hebraica and Judaica, Canada’s first feature film, the original Proclamation of Canada’s Constitution Act, one of the first Bibles printed in Canada, and Métis resistance leader Louis Riel’s last letter to his wife, before his hanging in 1885.
LAC also boasts a state-of-the-art preservation centre and a formidable presence online. Its website is one of the most popular sites in the Government of Canada.
Location: Ottawa, Canada.
One of 14 presidential libraries in the US, the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum is noteworthy for several reasons.
As well as the massive collection of archival documents relating to the unique Carter administration, the library also hosts special exhibits – including Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize and a full-scale replica of the Oval Office!
Not to mention the fact that the building, museum and surrounding grounds in Atlanta, Georgia are absolutely stunning…
Location: Atlanta, United States.
This impressive institution not only holds around 10 million physical items, but has also digitised selected works to make them more accessible – as of last year, around 250,000 items were available online.
When there, see if you can spot the librarians’ helper Isaac: a robot which works alongside the librarians, delivering books from the underground store to the reading rooms above.
Named after Isaac Newton, this unconventional assistant is ‘woken up’ when a book is requested, subsequently travelling to the location of the item and then delivering it to a dumbwaiter!
Location: Canberra, Australia.
Another presidential library, for a president who needs no introduction – the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston is unsurprisingly one of the most fascinating.
With a litany of exhibits, artifacts and archives both written and recorded, the sheer amount of interesting material stored here makes it well worth a visit.
And as an added bonus, the library is also home to a vast Ernest Hemingway Collection (thanks to correspondence between the widows of both men) making the Kennedy Library “the world’s principal center for research” on his life.
Location: Boston, United States.
The Stuttgart City Library is a public library like no other – a sleek, ultra-modern design marvel that you could quite happily get lost in.
Opened in 2011 to replace the pre-existing Central Library of Stuttgart, the new building is a jaw-dropping architectural feat, with a wide-ranging collection of books, DVDs, artwork and even a whole floor for music!
There are too many charming little quirks (like the way in which the whole place glows blue at night) to the building’s design to even count, making this an unrivaled venue for unwinding with a book – which you can do 24 hours a day.
Location: Stuttgart, Germany.
In 1998, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved a $196.4 million building program called “Libraries for All” to renew library facilities across the city.
Libraries for All resulted in the expansion and renovation of 22 existing branches of The Seattle Public Library, the formation of four new libraries in communities without library service, and the world-renowned Central Library.
This Central Library is the flagship library of Seattle’s public library system: a stunning 11-story tall structure of glass and steel whose architecture is as impressive as its innovative services and vast resources.
The iconic building features grand public spaces, cityscape views, an all-red meeting floor and 30 miles of books arranged in the only Books Spiral in the world.
Location: Seattle, United States.
Located on Capitol Hill, Folger Shakespeare Library has the honour of being home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.
The library’s founders, Henry and Emily Folger, together built the world’s largest personal collection of Shakespeare materials, and established the library in 1932 as a gift to the American people.
Now recognised as a world-class research centre, the Folger is also influential in the teaching of Shakespeare – producing publications and resources to support teachers and students of The Bard’s work.
Location: Washington D.C., United States.
The National Library of Sweden (‘Kungliga biblioteket’) not only preserves a huge range of books and recordings in Swedish, but also a large collection of foreign literature, as it is also a humanities research library.
Its origins can be traced back to the times of King Gustav Vasa in the 16th Century – sadly, nearly all of his original collection went up in flames in the great palace fire of 1697.
Thankfully however, the remaining collection grew rapidly through the following centuries, and now the library holds over 25 million items.
Location: Stockholm, Sweden.
Established in 1810, Argentina’s national library was originally known as the Public Library of Buenos Aires.
After Buenos Aires became capital of the Republic, the library then became the National Library. Its modern building, defined by its Brutalist style, was designed in 1961 but didn’t actually open until 1992.
Today the library is recognised as playing an integral part in the country’s history, instigating change in society through knowledge and learning.
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina.
State Library Victoria is, as the name suggests, the main library of the state of Victoria, located in Melbourne.
A particularly impressive feature of this already impressive library is the enormous octagon domed reading room, with its high glassed ceiling.
The library is currently undergoing an ambitious redevelopment plan, which aims to refurbish the heritage space and create new spaces for children and teenagers. Due for completion in 2020, the plan will no doubt make the State Library Victoria even bigger and better!
Location: Melbourne, Australia.
This independent research library, located in Chicago, preserves a wide range of special collections research materials relating to the civilizations of Europe and the Americas.
Founded in 1887, its establishment came from a provision in the will of Chicago businessman Walter L. Newberry, who bequeathed over 2 million dollars to fund the formation of a “free, public” library.
Anyone can visit free of charge, and can not only enjoy its collection of rare manuscripts, books, music and maps, but also free exhibitions and speaker events.
Location: Chicago, United States.
The roots of France’s national library date back to the Middle Ages, when Charles V installed a royal library in the Louvre in 1368.
During the French Revolution, the Royal Library become national property, and the Bibliotheque Nationale was born – eventually becoming the Bibiliotheque Nationale de France in 1994.
These days, the library contains 14 million books, and around 40 million items in total, over four main sites – François-Mitterrand, Richelieu, Arsenal, and Opéra.
Location: Paris, France.
Have we missed out any of your own favourite libraries? Let us know in the comments below!
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