So many libraries, so little time! As writers and readers, we here at Electric Literature know there’s nothing quite like stepping into a space that has been specifically designed to invoke and perpetuate a love of reading. With book-banning efforts escalating across the country and funding for these important public institutions often not regarded as a priority, libraries of all ages, languages, and architectures deserve some extra love and admiration. Below is a list of several of the world’s most stunningly beautiful libraries, from Seoul to Melbourne to Rio de Janeiro, to add to your bucket list.
We also encourage the EL community to support your local libraries, which are equally awesome and won’t require a pricey plane ticket to access!
Abbey Library of Saint Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland
Founded in the year 612, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall is the third oldest library in the world. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1983, the library currently houses around 160,000 volumes. Back in the day, Benedictine monks used the library to work on manuscripts by firelight. Now, visitors can walk through the space and admire the beautiful, medieval architecture, but they must wear fuzzy slippers provided by the library in order to preserve the original wooden floor. Mandated library slippers? No resistance here.
Admont Abbey Library in Admont, Austria
Built in 1776 and designed by the architect Joseph Hueber, the Admont Abbey Library is the largest monastery library in the world. Hueber, committed to the Enlightenment period, wanted the library to reflect the expansion of human knowledge, stating, “Like the mind, the rooms should also be filled with light.” The ceiling is painted with exquisite frescoes depicting the stages of human knowledge up to the Divine Revolution. The library is often cited as the inspiration behind the enviable library that the Beast gifts to Belle in Beauty and the Beast. If you want to live out your Disney Princess fantasy and twirl among breathtaking bookshelves, you can do so here!
The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France
Located in Paris and established in 1461, this stunning and studious-looking library is the repository of all that is published in France. The library is home to hundreds of thousands of books as well as incredible cultural artifacts, including Charlamagne’s ivory chess pieces, the first globe to use the word “America,” and Mozart’s handwritten score of “Don Giovanni.” After undergoing twelve years of renovations totaling approximately $256 million, the national library is reopened to book lovers and history lovers alike.
Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City, Mexico
Located in the downtown Buenavista neighborhood of Mexico City, the Biblioteca Vasconcelos was established in May 2006 and is named after the philosopher and former president of the National Library of Mexico, José Vasconcelos. The library celebrates contemporary architecture with its primary materials of steel and concrete, and its hanging stacks and catwalks. The space also holds the giant art sculpture “Matrix Móvil” by plastics artist Gabriel Orozco. The sculpture displays the real skeleton of a gray whale, bearing graphite designs on the bones. Suspended from the ceiling, the sculpture has become an iconic part of the library’s identity.
Byeolmadang Library in in Gangnam-gu Seoul, South Korea
Located inside the Starfield COEX Mall in Gangnam-gu Seoul, South Korea, the Byeolmadang Library is massive, awe-inspiring, and will look great on your Instagram story. The two-story library is sprawling and spacious, featuring towering walls of books and a ratating glass art installation. The space is also commonly used for major events, including talk shows, visiting authors, and even concerts.
Deichman Bjorvika in Oslo, Norway
Opened in June 2020, the Deichman Bjorvika library is the new and beloved public library of Oslo. Made up of six floors that include literature collections, reading and study spaces, stages, and cinema halls, this library is home to over 450,000 types of media, both print and digital. Each floor of the library has a different atmosphere and offering, with the first floor featuring a cafe and restaurant for those who want to spend the day reading or working while having a hot coffee or bite to eat. The second floor is home to children’s literature, and the third floor features music, film, and comics, and also allows visitors the opportunity to rent out 3D printers, podcast studios, and DJ stations. In short, this library is cool as hell.
Klementinum National Library in Prague, Czech Republic
Located in the heart of Prague’s Old Town, the Klementinum National Library dates back to the 11th Century and is the largest library in the Czech Republic, housing around six million documents. The library’s name comes from the boarding school that monks of the Jesuit Order opened in 1556. Founded in 1837, the library houses a Mozart Memorial that is now a centerpiece of the library’s Music Department. Klementinum also hosts regular classical music concerts put on by the symphony orchestra, such as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, which will be performed this February.
The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, New York
What started as a personal library for collector and cultural benefactor Pierpont Morgan is now a popular and treasured public institution in the heart of Manhattan. Built between 1902 and 1906, the library is majestic yet intimate. The library features three-story inlaid walnut bookshelves and, we kid you not, two staircases concealed behind bookcases. A variety of rare books and artifacts are on display, including writing by Henry David Thoreau and Johann Gutenberg. The library also has a number of rotating exhibitions, making each visit a unique experience.
Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
First off, let’s take a moment to admire the name of this library. Cabinet of Reading? How very official and mysterious! Located in the center of Rio de Janeiro, this stunning library was established in 1837 when a group of forty-three Portuguese emigrants gathered at the house of Dr. António José Coelho Lousada and decided to create a library to expand knowledge and instill a taste for reading among their social circle. In 1900, the library became a public institution and remains open to visitors today.
Sarasvati Mahal Library in in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Founded in the 16th century, the Saraswathi Mahal Library is one of the oldest libraries in Asia. The name “Saraswathi” comes from the Goddess of Wisdom and Learning. The majority of the collection is written in Tamil and Sanskrit, and all materials are preserved via microfilm, with library officials encouraging attempts to publish rare pieces from the Medieval collection. The library is free and open to the public!
Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
The first thing you’re likely to notice about the Seattle Central Library is its unusual appearance. Coming in at eleven stories tall, the glass and steel building was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus to ensure that the building’s architecture served the needs of a library space, rather than forcing the library to cohere to a more generic structure. The architectural gambit has certainly paid dividends to Seattle locals and visitors alike, as the library includes a “Book Spiral” that continuously exhibits the entire nonfiction collection, a massive, 50-foot “living room” reading area, and, of course, its unforgettable exterior.
Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart in Stuttgart, Germany
Taking inspiration from such disparate sources as Noah’s Ark and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart was designed to be a calming, meditative monolith at the heart of Stuttgart, Germany. The cubic structure is encased by a glass block façade, and the library features a bistro, cafe, and rooftop terrace that provides visitors with a breathtaking, all-encompassing view of the Stuttgart Valley. The future is now, and it rules.
State Library Victoria in Melbourne, Australia
Founded in 1854, the State Library Victoria is not only Australia’s oldest and busiest library, but also one of the first free libraries in the entire world. The library is home to several permanent exhibitions and art galleries, as well as a number of massive and luxurious reading rooms, including a huge collection of Victorian newspapers, a wide-ranging assemblage of reading materials exploring the performing arts, and La Trobe Reading Room and Dome Gallery, commonly referred to as the Dome Gallery. Built to accommodate over a million books and hundreds of readers, the Dome Gallery was the largest in the world when it first opened in 1913, and it’s still a pretty remarkable place to post up with a book.
The Library of Strahov in Prague, the Czech Republic
Completed in 1679 inside Prague’s Theological Hall as an addition to the long-standing Strahov Monastery, the Library of Strahov features beautiful stucco ceiling decorations as well as artwork and paintings from the 1700s. Home to approximately 2,000 volumes, the Library of Strahov is one of “the best preserved historical libraries,” and is a dream come true for book lovers and history enthusiasts alike.
Tianjin Binhai Library in Tianjin, China
Boasting over 1.2 million books, China’s Tianjin Binhai Library has been nicknamed “The Eye” in honor of the large, spherical auditorium at the center of the building, which, when viewed through an opening at the top of the structure, bears a striking resemblance to an iris. The futuristic, five-story building first opened in 2017 and features rows upon rows of bookshelves that line the walls from the floor to the ceiling. You’ll forgive us if we can’t help eyeing this spot!