The World’s Libraries — beautiful buildings for all to enjoy

Libraries have been around since antiquity. Their emergence marks the end of prehistory and the dawn of history.

The Sumerians stored records of commercial transactions and inventories in Cuneiform script on clay tablets, some dating as far back as 2600 BCE.

Tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Credit Fae
Tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Credit Fae

Over 30,000 tablets were found in Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, containing stories about creation, and omens about the moon and sun. And we thought tablets were a relatively recent innovation!

Written books first appeared in Classical Greece in the 5th century BCE. By the end of the 6th century BCE, the great libraries of the world were in Alexandria, Egypt, and Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire.

The Great Library of Alexandria.
The Great Library of Alexandria.

While most Greek libraries were private, the Romans built public libraries, with successive emperors striving to outshine their forebears.

Gaius Asinius Pollio, lieutenant under Julius Caesar, built the first public library in Rome—the Anla Libertatis. Works of Greek and Latin were kept separately, and he adorned it with statues of the most celebrated heroes.

Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, and Trajan would build more libraries along the same lines. Trajan’s Ulpian Library was 50 ft high, reaching to 70 ft at the peak.

And so began a tradition of building libraries as grand monuments to learning.

Many libraries are beautiful works of art in and of themselves.

Join us as we travel inside some of the world’s greatest libraries.

Main Hall at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. Image credit innoxiuss.
Main Hall at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. Image credit innoxiuss.

Is there anything so delicious as the first exploration of a great library – alone – unwatched?
—Richard Jefferies.

Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.
—Lady Bird Johnson.

Melk Benedictine Abbey Library, Austria.
Melk Benedictine Abbey Library, Austria.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero.

National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England.
National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England.

I go into my library and all history unrolls before me.
—Alexander Smith.

Strahov Library showing Baroque Cabinets, Prague, Czech Republic. Image credit Jorge Royan.
Strahov Library showing Baroque Cabinets, Prague, Czech Republic. Image credit Jorge Royan.

A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.
—Henry Ward Beecher.

The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester, England. Image credit Mdbeckwith.
The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester, England. Image credit Mdbeckwith.

The library is the temple of learning, and learning has liberated more people than all the wars in history.
—Carl T. Rowan.

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library, Vatican City, Italy. Image credit russavia.
The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library, Vatican City, Italy. Image credit russavia.

Everything you need for better future and success has already been written. And guess what? All you have to do is go to the library.
—Henri Frederic Amiel.

Interior of Harper Memorial Library at University of Chicago. Image credit Rick Seidel.
Interior of Harper Memorial Library at University of Chicago. Image credit Rick Seidel.

A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas – a place where history comes to life.
—Norman Cousins.

Interior of Hornby Library part of Liverpool Central library, England. Image credit Liverpool Libraries.
Interior of Hornby Library part of Liverpool Central library, England. Image credit Liverpool Libraries.

London has fine museums, the British Library is one of the greatest library institutions in the world… It’s got everything you want, really.
—David Attenborough.

The British Museum Reading Room, London, England. Image credit Diliff.
The British Museum Reading Room, London, England. Image credit Diliff.

One of the most constant and sustaining truths of my life has been this: I love the library.
—Deb Caletti.

Grand Study Hall, New York Public Library. Image credit Alex Proimos.
Grand Study Hall, New York Public Library. Image credit Alex Proimos.

I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.
—Ray Bradbury.

Interior of the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a public library in Pittsburgh. The main library opened in 1895 and was funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Interior of the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a public library in Pittsburgh. The main library opened in 1895 and was funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

I was born an only child in Vienna, Austria. My father found hours to sit by me by the library fire and tell fairy stories.
—Hedy Lamarr.

State Hall of the Austrian National Library, Austria. Image credit Richard Hopkins.
State Hall of the Austrian National Library, Austria. Image credit Richard Hopkins.

I’m really a library man, or second-hand book man.
—John le Carre.

Reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, France. Image credit Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Reading room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, France. Image credit Marie-Lan Nguyen.

I spent many hours ensconced in the local library, reading – nay, devouring – book after book after book. Books were my soul’s delight.
—Nikki Grimes.

Reading Room at McKim Building, Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Image credit Brian Johnson.
Reading Room at McKim Building, Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Image credit Brian Johnson.

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
—Isaac Asimov.

Interior of the George Peabody Library in Baltimore. Image credit Matthew Petroff.
Interior of the George Peabody Library in Baltimore. Image credit Matthew Petroff.

I’ve got a vendetta to destroy the Net, to make everyone go to the library. I love the organic thing of pen and paper, ink on canvas. I love going down to the library, the feel and smell of books.
—Joseph Fiennes.

Library of the National Assembly, located in the Palais Bourbon, Paris, France. Image credit NonOmnisMoriar.
Library of the National Assembly, located in the Palais Bourbon, Paris, France. Image credit NonOmnisMoriar.

An original idea. That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them.
—Stephen Fry.

The interior of St John's College, Cambridge, England. Image credit CharlieRCD.
The interior of St John’s College, Cambridge, England. Image credit CharlieRCD.

I remember going to a monastery library when I was very young and being surrounded by ancient books. I fell in love.
—Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

Admont Abbey Library, Austria. Image credit Jorge Royan.
Admont Abbey Library, Austria. Image credit Jorge Royan.

The often palatial libraries of the past are wonderful environments to read, study, or just gaze in awe at such magnificent interiors.

Can modern libraries continue to provide enjoyable spaces for study and pleasure? You decide.

Vancouver Public Library's central branch, Vancouver, Canada. Image credit Darren Stone.
Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, Vancouver, Canada. Image credit Darren Stone.

If we can put a man on the moon and sequence the human genome, we should be able to devise something close to a universal digital public library.
—Peter Singer.

Seattle Public Library, Main Branch, Reading Room. Seattle, Washington, USA. Image credit Eric Hunt.
Seattle Public Library, Main Branch, Reading Room. Seattle, Washington, USA. Image credit Eric Hunt.

There is that romanticized idea of what a bookstore can be, what a library can be, what a shop can be. And to me, they are that. These are places that open doors into other worlds if only you’re open to them.
—Ruth Reichl.

Main hallway of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Utah. Image Bobjgalindo.
Main hallway of the Salt Lake City Public Library, Utah. Image Bobjgalindo.

The public library system of the United States is worth preserving.
—Henry Rollins.

Indianapolis public library, Indianapolis, USA. Image credit Serge Melki.
Indianapolis public library, Indianapolis, USA. Image credit Serge Melki.


David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.