Art + Culture

Take a Look, It’s in a Book: A Rainbow of Stunning Libraries Around the World

The best way to get a read on a city is to head to its library. From Amsterdam to Washington D.C., here are the world’s most beautiful places for peace, quiet, and long reads.

A version of this appeared in the March/April 2018 issue.

Utrecht, Netherlands
The Utrecht City Council originally established the Utrecht University Library in Saint John’s Church in 1584 as one of the first public libraries in the Netherlands. After the foundation of Utrecht University, this collection became the university library in 1636. In 1820, it moved from Saint John’s Church to the Wittevrouwenstraat complex, which still acts as the University Library’s city center location—though much of its collection moved to the Uithof campus in 2004.—Miranda Smith
101 Independence Ave SE, Washington, DC 20540, USA
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest federal institution in the United States. The library was destroyed by British troops just 14 years after its conception, and Congress used Thomas Jefferson’s collection of 6,487 volumes to replace it. Today, the collection of the Library of Congress—housed across three buildings—grows by approximately 12,000 items a day and is the second largest library in the world with 164 million items and 838 miles of shelves (that’s farther than the distance from Washington, D.C. to Chicago!). The library holds the world’s largest collection of comic books and one of only three remaining Gutenberg bibles. The Library of Congress offers daily guided tours to explore its historic collection and famous Beaux-Arts architecture.—Miranda Smith
ETH Zürich, Rämistrasse 101, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland
The University of Zurich’s law library was first built in 1909. Eighty years later, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was chosen to renovate the old building. He left the exterior mostly untouched, but for the interior he designed a stunning curved, wooden atrium capped by a glass dome. A mechanical solar shade in the cupola regulates the sunlight and heat allowed in the law library.—Miranda Smith
King John V of Portugal commissioned the Joanina Library in 1717. Baroque architect Gaspar Ferreira enlisted the best painters, guilders, cabinet-makers, and craftsmen to design the library’s three luxurious salons. The Joanina Library houses a collection of 250,000 books from the 15th through 19th century—some are even handwritten. But this library has more than just looks—its thick walls keep temperatures low enough to help preserve the historic texts within.
I’d like to believe that had my public library been as stunning as the Black Diamond in Copenhagen, I would have spent more time studying at the library and less time doing whatever one does when one is supposed to be doing their reading. But the reality is that I probably would have spent most of the time staring out at the water and at the handsome people who wander through its naturally lit halls. The Black Diamond is the newer annex to The Danish Royal Library. It gets its name from the black granite, tinted windows and trapezoidal design (isosceles I think; perhaps I would be more sure had I worked harder on that geometry homework). When you turn the corner, it peers out like a large warship: dark, massive, and slightly foreboding. But the people and bicycles scattered about near the library’s entrance bely the need for concern. At the library’s entrance there is a cafe perfect for you to steady yourself with coffee, pastries, and more people watching. The library holds an art exhibit, concerts, The National Museum of Photography, The Museum of Danish Cartoon Art, as well as its own collection. But the pièce de résistance is the atrium that overlooks the harbor. Take the escalator up a few floors and turn and seize the view. But don’t gasp too loudly: there are people probably trying to do their geometry homework.
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