18 of the World’s Most Striking Libraries, Illustrated

From Mexico to Norway, India, and the United States

September 11, 2018  By Jane Mount

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Opened in 1963

The building has no windows, in order to keep direct sunlight from harming the rare books, but the very thin marble walls let low light in during the day. At night the building glows from the interior lighting within. The collection inside includes a Gutenberg Bible from 1454 (one of only 48 known copies) and the mysterious medieval Voynich manuscript, which is filled with indecipherable text, strange diagrams, and illustrations of bizarre plants.

The Rampur Raza Library
Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India
Opened in 1904

Nawab Faizullah Khan began collecting items for the library in 1774, and later nawabs (governors) continued to do so. It’s now one of the largest collections of Indo-Islamic cultural materials in the world, including 17,000 manuscripts, 60,000 printed books, calligraphy specimens, miniature paintings, astronomical instruments, and rare coins. The building was originally part of a palace, but is now run by the Indian government.

Biblioteca Central, Universidad Nacional Autónoma De México (Central Library, National Autonomous University of Mexico)
Mexico City, Mexico
Designed by Gustavo Saavedra and Juan Martínez de Velasco
Opened in 1956

The giant mosaic murals were created by architect and artist Juan O’Gorman and tell the full history of Mexico. To create the mosaic, O’Gorman worked with a geologist to collect stones in 150 different natural colors from all around Mexico.

Vennesla Bibliotek Og Kulturhus (Vennesla Library and Culture House)
Vennesla, Norway
Designed by Helen & Hard Architects
Opened in 2011

Twenty-seven wooden ribs form the framework of the building, which includes a library, a café, and a meeting area. Above, the ribs form the roof support and house the lighting, and below they transform into shelving and comfortable seating areas. The ribs overhead make you think of being inside a whale, but it’s a very warm and cozy whale.


Gookleejoongahng Dosokwan (National Library of Korea, Sejong)
Sejong City, South Korea
Designed by Samoo Architects & Engineers
Opened in 2013

With the shape of the building, the architects wanted to evoke a page of a book being turned over. There are many books inside, and a café overlooking an excellent view of a lake. Sejong City is a new capital city, opened in 2012 to be the home of most South Korean government facilities and agencies, moving them out of Seoul.

Det Kongelige Bibliotek (The Royal Library)
Copenhagen, Denmark
Designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen
Opened in 1999

The exterior is made of polished black granite, and because of that and its angular shape, everyone calls it den Sorte Diamant (the Black Diamond). It sits right on the waterfront. This is the view from the water.

Geisel Library, University of California San Diego
San Diego, California, USA
Designed by William L. Pereira Associates
Opened in 1970

This Brutalist building was originally called the Central Library, but renamed in 1995 after Audrey and Theodore Geisel. Theodore Geisel is better known as Dr. Seuss. The library’s collection includes 8,500 drawings, manuscripts, photos, and other Dr. Seuss memorabilia.

Informations-, Kommunikations-Und Medienzentrum, Brandenburgische Technische Universität (Information, Communications, and Media Center, Brandenburg University of Technology)
Cottbus, Germany
Designed by Herzog & de Meuron
Opened in 2004

The library is very colorful inside, with rooms in various shades and a bright pink-and-green spiral staircase. It’s covered in text excerpts and alphabets in many languages, but they overlap so much that they aren’t very legible.

Kanazawa Umimirai Library
Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
Designed by Kazumi Kudo and Hiroshi Horiba of Coelacanth K&H Architects
Opened in 2011

All those little dots are holes! They’re filled with translucent glass to let in the perfect amount of natural light, encouraging people to hang out and read, not just check out a book and go.

The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Oxford University
Oxford, UK
Designed by James Gibbs
Opened in 1749

This was originally a science library but now houses English, history, and theology books on Oxford University reading lists, plus a lot of room for reading them.

Seattle Central Library
Seattle, Washington, USA
Designed by Joshua Prince-Ramus and Rem Koolhaas of OMA and LMN Architects
Opened in 2004

As with many public buildings, there was a competition among architects for this project. OMA and LMN’s winning design acknowledges that, while lending books is very important, libraries have several other functions and need various spaces, particularly social ones. They divided the functional spaces into vertical sections, stacked on each other like a messy pile of books, and covered it all with a glass skin. The library can hold 1.5 million books, and over two million people visited it in its first year open

Biblioteca Sandro Penna (The Sandro Penna Library)
Perugia, Italy
Designed by Studio Italo Rota
Opened in 2004

It glows at night and is named after a poet from Perugia.

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, The New York Public Library
Manhattan, New York, USA
Designed by Carrère & Hastings
Opened in 1911

This is perhaps the most famous library in the world, right in the heart of New York City. It’s an excellent example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The design was based on a quick sketch by the first library director, Dr. John Shaw Billings. Inside there are more than 15 million books and other items, and the beautiful Rose Main Reading Room. The lions in front are not officially named but are commonly called Patience (at the south side of the stairs) and Fortitude (at the north).

The Surrey City Centre Library
Surrey, British Columbia, Canada
Designed by Revery Architecture (formerly Bing Thom Architects)
Opened in 2011

The library is meant to house books, of course, but the priority was creating “a space for reading, studying, and above all, gathering as a community,” according to the architects. This part looks like the prow of a ship.

Library of Parliament
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Designed by Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones
Opened in 1876

This library is the research hub for Canada’s Parliament and houses over 600,000 historical texts and other items. A picture of it appears on the back of the Canadian 10-dollar bill.

Liyuan Library
Liyuan, China
Designed by Li Xiaodong
Opened in 2011

This is a small library in a small village just outside Beijing. The glass exterior is covered with a steel framework, filled in with sticks. Yes, those are sticks, from trees! The architect was inspired by piles of similar sticks locals keep outside their houses for firewood.

Atlanta Fulton Public Library
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Designed by Marcel Breuer
Opened in 1980

This library was modernist architect Marcel Breuer’s last work and is similar to his Whitney Museum building (now the Met Breuer) in New York. This is the main branch of the public library system in Atlanta, where I grew up. I spent many hours here researching for high school term papers.

Peckham Library
London, UK
Designed by Alsop & Störmer
Opened in 2000

Brightly colored glass covers the back of the building, letting in tinted light, and copper panels cover the rest.


Excerpted from Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount. Used with permission of Chronicle Books. Text and images copyright © 2018 by Jane Mount.

Jane Mount
Jane Mount
Jane Mount is an illustrator, designer, writer, and thingmaker, and she particularly makes things for people who love books. She is the founder of Ideal Bookshelf (idealbookshelf.com); the author and illustrator of Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany ; and the illustrator and co-author, with Jamise Harper, of Bibliophile: Diverse Spines. She lives in a log cabin on Maui, Hawai’i, with her husband, three weird cats, and a speckled dog. She really loves books.

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