Why You Should Become a 'Library Tourist'

Public Domain. Hieu Vu Minh

This could become your new secret traveling mission.

A few weeks back I wrote about how you should set yourself a 'secret mission' when traveling in a foreign city. The idea is that, by pursuing something interests you, you'll escape the usual tourist traps and see more of a city's local side. For me, that's often food shops and market stalls. Others seek out supermarkets, pharmacies, music stores, and bakeshops.

Now I have another suggestion: Why not engage in library tourism? This fun idea comes via an article in The Daily Beast, titled, "We Took Our Young Children on a Library World Tour — And It Was Marvellous." Stuart Kells recounts his family's quest to visit several of the most prominent libraries in the world, including,

"In Switzerland: Zurich’s Bibliothek and the wonderful 18th-century Abbey Library of St. Gall. In London: the British Library and Lambeth Palace. At Oxford, the Bodleian. In the U.S., the Morgan, the Folger, the Houghton, the Smithsonian, plus the great public libraries of New York and Boston, and the 'head office' of them all: the Library of Congress."

With their two young daughters in tow, Kells and his wife traveled from Melbourne, Australia, to the U.S. and Europe to acquaint themselves with these stunning architectural masterpieces and focal points of culture.

While plane-hopping around the globe on a mission to view libraries might strike you as excessively privileged (Kells acknowledges that it was very much a 'first world' library tour), the core idea can be adapted to wherever you are. Make a point of visiting the library in whatever new city you're in, and get a feel for that library's role in the city's life.

There is a practical side to it, too. Libraries are free, quiet, relaxing, air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter. They offer a pleasant respite from the streets and sometimes a great view. Many North American libraries have good play centers for young children, when they need a break from touristing, and they're full of locals who can dispense valuable recommendations.

British Library entrance

© K Martinko -- Entrance to the British Library in London

Author Austin Kleon likes to explore libraries when he travels:

"Wherever I travel, I research the nearby libraries and try to pop into any I happen to come across while walking around. In Milan, I stumbled onto the Braidense National Library and saw an excellent exhibit of book art. Driving the California coast, I discovered that the public library in Encinitas has a view of the Pacific. This summer we’re planning a visit to the brand-new Eastham Public Library during a week on Cape Cod."

While kids may not be the most obvious companions for visiting libraries, Kells points out that it's wonderful for their educational development, not to mention the fact that it reinforces the importance of books in one's life:

"Children’s libraries sit at the intersection of two four-letter trends in culture and education: GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums), and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). By the end of our trip, [daughter] Thea had absorbed a thousand cultural and educational gifts. She is now a perceptive appraiser of libraries and museums — and of airports, hotels, Wi-Fi, and street food."

I love this idea and plan to make library visits more a part of my family's travels. (We're already dedicated library goers in our own town, but don't visit many others.) I encourage you to add libraries to your sightseeing list this summer and to share any favorites in the comments below so that others can check them out too.