20 of the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World

Libraries are some of humanity's most beautiful architectural accomplishments.

New York Public Library during a sunny day
Photo: Elisa.rolle [CC by SA-4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Libraries are special places. They are a wonderful example of a sharing model, as well as an essential part of many communities. But they are also the brick-and-mortar repositories of our collective knowledge, and as such, have long been afforded some of the best architecture money can buy. Beyond their often exquisite design — which is enhanced by an abundance of books — are the unique sanctuaries they offer, like cathedrals for readers. While nobody requires a magnificent space to enjoy a good book, the following libraries are nonetheless some of the most beautiful places in the world to revel in the splendors of the written word.

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Library of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Mang, Germany

Photo: tzuky333/Shutterstock

Dating back to the ninth century, the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Mang was a monastery. It was converted into a Baroque-style church in the early 1700s due to the Counter-Reformation movement that saw many Catholic churches convert to Protestantism throughout Europe. The library's original collection of books and manuscripts was removed in the early 1800s after the princes of Oettingen-Wallerstein took control of the abbey following the Napoleonic wars. Those books and manuscripts are now housed at the University of Augsburg.

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Tianjin Binhai Library, China

Photo: Ossip van Duivenbode/MVRDV

The Tianjin Binhai Library is much younger than most libraries in this list. Opened in October 2017, it resides in the cultural center of Binhai district in Tianjin, a coastal metropolis outside Beijing. Its most eye-catching feature is a large spherical auditorium in the center, surrounded by rows of bookshelves that — on top of holding 1.2 million books — "act as everything from stairs to seating," according to a press release from architecture firm MVRDV. The shelves' contours also flow along two glass facades that link the library to a park outside.

"The bookshelves are great spaces to sit and at the same time allow for access to the upper floors," says Winy Maas, co-founder of MVRDV, in a statement. "The angles and curves are meant to stimulate different uses of the space, such as reading, walking, meeting and discussing. Together they form the 'eye' of the building: to see and be seen."

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Haeinsa Temple, South Korea

Arian Zwegers/Flickr.

While you won't be able to check out "The Hunger Games" here, the Temple of Haeinsa on Mount Gaya was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its housing of the Tripitaka Koreana, the most complete collection of Buddhist texts in existence. Carved on more than 80,000 woodblocks during the 13th century, the text contains no known errors within its more than 52 million characters in 6,568 volumes. The buildings of the temple were constructed in the 15th century to store the Tripitaka and according to UNESCO, reveal "an astonishing mastery of the invention and implementation of the conservation techniques used to preserve these woodblocks.”

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Malatesta Library, Italy

Sailko/Wikimedia Commons.

The Malatesta Library in Cesena, Italy dates to before the invention of printing. Built in the 15th century, it is the oldest intact public library in the world. With a geometric design typical of the early Italian renaissance, the interior is unusual with its 58 pew-like desks, to which the library’s prized collection of 341 hand-printed codices are secured with their original iron chains. Rather than the books coming to the reader, the reader goes to the books. All told, there are more than 400,000 items, including 287 incunabula (pamphlets printed before 1501) and 3,200 16th-century editions, as well as the personal library of Pope Pius VII.

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Strahov Library, Czech Republic

Wikimedia Commons.

The Theological Hall (pictured here) in the library of Prague’s Strahov Monastery was established in 1679 and serves as a shining example of the exuberance and grandeur typical of Baroque design. The collection includes 18,000 books focused on theology, as well as plenty of important ornamental details like the carved wooden cartouches with images indicating book categories and the incredible ceiling frescoes painted in the 18th century by Siard Nosecký.

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Mafra National Palace Library, Portugal

Wikimedia Commons.

Nestled in Portugal's Mafra National Palace — a Baroque masterpiece built in the 18th century by order of King João V — is the incredible Rococo library. The spectacular space holds a collection of more than 35,000 leather-bound volumes ranging from the 14th to 19th centuries. Yet beyond its good looks and great books, the library stands out for another reason; a colony of bats is allowed to live in the library, which in turn results in natural pest control of book-damaging insects.

7
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Joanina Library, Portugal

Baroque interior of Coimbra University Library, Portugal
Baroque interior of Coimbra University Library, Portugal.

 PhR61 / Wikimedia Commons

Another Portuguese beauty patrolled by bats, the stunning 18th century Baroque Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra contains about 250,000 volumes, mostly works of medicine, geography, history, humanistic studies, science, civil and canon law, philosophy and theology. The bug-eating bats have been a part of the preservation plan for at least 200 years, and the caretakers cover the furniture nightly to protect it from guano.

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Trinity College Library, Ireland

Old library
meshaphoto / Getty Images

When completed in 1732, the library at Trinity College in Dublin had a flat plaster ceiling; but as its prodigious collection grew, expansions were required. In 1860, the roof was raised to allow construction of the present barrel-vaulted ceiling and upper bookcases. Thousands of rare and very early books and artifacts are housed here, including the "Book of Kells" and the Brian Boru harp, a medieval Gaelic harp from which the national symbol of Ireland was derived.

9
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Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Baroque library with painted ceiling

 Stuart Dee / Getty Images

Considered one of the most important monastic libraries in the world, this Baroque bonanza is home to manuscripts dating back to the 8th century. While the library is open to the public, any of its 160,000 books printed prior to 1900 can only be read in the reading room. In 1983, the library was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

10
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Codrington Library, England

Simon Q/Flickr.

The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed, of Oxford, was founded by Henry VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1438, but it wasn’t until 1710 that the school’s library received its most prominent donation: Christopher Codrington’s legacy of £10,000 to rebuild the structure and his personal collection of 12,000 volumes. The new library buildings were designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and were completed in 1752. The collection houses around 185,000 volumes, about a third of which were printed before 1800.

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Sainte-Genevieve Library, France

Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

The Sainte-Genevieve Library in the place du Pantheon, Paris, was designed by Henri Labrouste in 1843 and is striking for its novel use of an exposed structural iron frame – it was the first public building to ever do so – which forms a lacy ferrous exoskeleton that defines the spectacular room. The library inherited the collection of more than 2 million documents from the former Abbeye de Sainte-Genevieve, founded in the 6th century, and serves as the main research and reference library for the lucky students attending the Universites de Paris.

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George Peabody Library, United States

Matthew Petroff/Wikimedia Commons.

The George Peabody Library in Maryland dates to the founding of the Peabody Institute when philanthropist George Peabody dedicated the institute to the citizens of Baltimore in appreciation of their “kindness and hospitality.” Opened in 1878, this sublime library was designed by Edmund G. Lind in collaboration with the first provost, Dr. Nathaniel H. Morison. It is remarkable for its five tiers of ornamental cast-iron balconies, which rise dramatically like a wedding cake to the skylight 61 feet above the floor. The library contains more than 300,000 titles, most of which date from the 18th to early 20th centuries.

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Liepzig University Library, Germany

Liepzig University.

The University Library in Liepzig, Germany was started in 1542 by Rector Caspar Borner and held several thousand items; the current collection has some 5 million volumes, 5.2 million media units and 7,200 current periodicals in addition to a significant holding of special collections. In 1891, the library moved to its current building, an exquisite neo-Renaissance design. The building was nearly destroyed in World War II; it was finally returned to its former splendor when it reopened in 2002 after eight years of expansion and renovation.

14
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State Library of New South Wales, Australia

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The State Library of New South Wales (NSW) is the oldest library in Australia. In 1869, the NSW government purchased the 1926 Australian Subscription Library to form the Sydney Free Public Library, the first truly public library for the area; it then became the State Library. Perhaps the most famous part of the library is the Mitchell Wing (pictured here), which was completed in 1910. Named for David Scott Mitchell who bequeathed his books to the library, the collection includes the original journals of James Cook. The library now contains more than 5 million items, including 2 million books and more than 1 million photographs.

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New York Public Library, United States

Photo: soomness/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

New York City’s 1911 Beaux-Arts main branch library on Fifth Avenue may be one of the city’s most beautiful buildings and boasts a collection of 15 million items, including medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls and contemporary works. Among the many incredible rooms for individual collections and smaller libraries within the majestic interior, the Rose Main Reading Room (pictured here) stands out. The cavernous room is the length of two city blocks and is lit by chandeliers and lamps that grace the long oak tables. The ceiling, 52 feet above, is decorated with vibrant murals of the sky; a perfect place for getting lost in the clouds.

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Stockholm Public Library, Sweden

Wikimedia Commons.

Designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund in 1922 and completed in 1928, the Stockholm Public Library is one of the city's most notable structures and is replete with a majestic rotunda that provides a unique cylindrical hall. This monument to modern functional design is home to more than 2 million printed volumes and 2.4 million audiotapes, CDs and audio books.

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Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, United States

Wikimedia Commons.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University is one of the world's largest libraries devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft and the prolific modernist firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the striking building comprised of Vermont marble, granite, bronze and glass was completed in 1963. Among its many treasures, the Gutenberg Bible and Audubon's Birds of America are on permanent exhibition.

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Liyuan Library, China

Beautiful minimalist library in China

 Gu Xiaoguang / Getty Images

For all of the beauty offered by the ornate, over-the-top libraries, it’s hard not to love the quiet little sisters of the group. Case in point: the Liyuan Library located in the small village of Huairou two hours north of Beijing. Designed by Li Xiaodong, the glass exterior shell is clad with locally sourced sticks to better blend with the nature that surrounds it; inside, stepped cases, seats and platforms house books and provide areas for quiet contemplation.

19
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University of Aberdeen New Library, Scotland

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Although the University of Aberdeen was established in 1495, its new library is firmly rooted in the 21st century. The library’s minimalist exterior opens to reveal a spiraling atrium; a dynamic vortex that connects the building’s eight stories. The stunning modern design is the work of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects; it was commissioned to replace the former library in 1965. The space-age facility accommodates 14,000 students with 1,200 reading spaces, archives, historical collections and a room for rare books. The building was also designed to meet the highest sustainable standards and has been certified BREEAM Excellent.

20
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Tama Art University Library, Japan

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Designed by award-winning Japanese architect Ito Toyo, the Hachioji Library at the Tama Art University in Japan is an exquisite work of design. Completed in 2007, the building is constructed of reinforced concrete arches and glass, allowing the contours of the rolling outdoors to meld with the seductive space inside. The second floor of the library offers open access stacks holding more than 100,000 books; in all, the collection holds more than 77,000 Japanese books, 47,000 foreign books and 1,500 periodicals, with (no surprise) an emphasis on art, design and architecture.