The World’s Most Interesting (and Accessible) Library Collections

From the Magna Carta to Winnie the Pooh, what you can see at some of the world’s great libraries

Copenhagen Library
A stunning, modern wing of the Royal Library of Copenhagen, added in 1999. Ludovic Maisant/Corbis

Libraries have existed in some form for as long as books themselves. More than just repositories of printed material, libraries serve as protectors of history and curators of knowledge—not to mention beautiful spaces that inspire us. And while National Library Week (April 12–18) celebrates American libraries and librarians, it’s also a good excuse to spotlight the collections of amazing libraries around the world. The institutions below have some of the most exciting collections, exhibitions and history around—and most importantly, they’re not just hallowed halls accessible to only the most august of scholars, but spaces open for the public to explore and enjoy, with frequently fascinating objects on display.

The Royal Library of Copenhagen

Founded in 1648, the Royal Library of Copenhagen is the largest of the Nordic libraries. One of the most popular reasons to visit is to marvel at the stunning architecture of the Black Diamond, an impressive new wing added in 1999. Designed by Danish architects Schmidt, Hammer and Lassen, the Black Diamond is an imposing glass-and-black-marble construction intended to reflect the Copenhagen waterfront on which it stands.

As the Danish legal deposit library, the building contains at least one copy of every Danish book published, including the earliest Nordic book—the Dalby Book, an evangelical Christian tract printed in 1086. Other gems to explore include a large collection of ancient Icelandic books and pamphlets.

A permanent public exhibition, “Treasures in the Royal Library,” displays a Gutenberg Bible, Hans Christian Andersen’s diaries and the archives of the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard.

One of the best ways to access the library is to join the public tours held every Saturday at 3 p.m. The tours are conducted in English and Danish, and include both the old library building and the Black Diamond. Anyone (even non-nationals) can register to join the library and use the Reading Room West, where you can peruse items from the library’s collections.

Alexandria Library, Egypt

The new library of Alexandria aims to “recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship” of the world-renowned ancient library of Alexandria, destroyed by fire in antiquity.

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was completed in 2002 and stands close to the site of the old library, between the University of Alexandria and the seafront. The beautiful building was designed to resemble a rising sun, and fortunately, is fire-proof this time.

The epic scale of the new library includes room for eight million books (although that capacity has yet to be filled) and the largest reading room in the world, as well as four museums, a conference center, a planetarium and fifteen permanent exhibitions—including the “Impressions of Alexandria” exhibition, which contains drawings, maps and accounts of 15th to 19th century travelers’ first impressions of the great city.

The library contains collections in Arabic, French and English. One of the highlights is the Nobel collection, which houses the books of all the Nobel Laureates in Literature since 1901. There is also a dedicated children’s library with thousands of picture books, a computer lab and a story-telling corner. The Taha Hussein Library, established in honor of the blind Egyptian writer and scholar, has an extensive collection of braille and audiobooks.

Anyone wishing to visit the library can purchase a ticket allowing access to the collection, the accompanying exhibitions and museums.

New York Public Library, New York

The New York Public Library is a vast network of local libraries all over New York, but the go-to jewel in the crown is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Many visitors are drawn in by the architecture of the grand Beaux-Arts building, erected in 1911, but find themselves losing a few hours to the free exhibitions, expansive collection and, of course, the bookshop.

The collection’s strength lies in its breadth, encompassing books, periodicals, maps, archives, oral histories and a growing digital collection. Within its depths, readers can find a copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by Thomas Jefferson, the archives of Maya Angelou, two original first folio copies of William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies from 1623 and an extensive collection of historical Staten Island postcards.

Young (and old) visitors will delight in the Children’s Center, where books from around the world are housed alongside audiobooks and DVDs. The library is also home to the real Winnie the Pooh, the stuffed bear that belonged to A. A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, and inspired his much-loved stories.

The library hosts free guided tours and has a free exhibition program. Anyone who lives, works, attends school or pays property taxes in New York State can apply for a library card (different rules apply for researchers) and enjoy exploring the collection.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto

Part of the University of Toronto, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library was established in 1955 and aims to preserve and make accessible manuscripts of national and international importance.

The library holds some fascinating works relating to the creation of modern Canada, with accounts of the search for the Northwest Passage, emigration and colonization. There are also collections of papers from modern Canadian writers such as Margaret Attwood (including her juvenilia) and Dennis Lee.

The collection goes beyond Canada to embrace European and Caribbean literature, as well as philosophy and the history of medicine. The Hebraica and Judaica collection includes the tenth-century legal codex Halakhot pesukot—one of the earliest intact Hebrew codices.

The library also has a new mini-exhibition case that displays some of the many wonderful items in the collection. Each month the contents of the case change; recent mini exhibitions have included items from the Joseph Brabant Lewis Carroll Collection (including a 1907 edition of Alice in Wonderland beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham), discoverer of insulin Frederick G. Banting’s Nobel Prize medal, and a selection of book-binding tools.

Anyone can visit the collections, but to enter the reading rooms you must register for a library card, for which you need only identification and proof of address.

National Art Library, London

The National Art Library is part of London’s famous Victoria & Albert Museum, and is one of the world’s most extensive reference libraries of fine and decorative art. The library also specializes in the art and craft of the book.

Due to its location within a world-class museum, the general collection covers a wider range of objects than a traditional library—alongside the usual books, periodicals and manuscripts, users can find sculpture, photographs, prints, museum and exhibition catalogues, book bindings, artists’ notebooks, textiles and fashion (including countless videos of fashion shows).

Items in the general collection are available for the public to consult as long as they register for a free readers’ pass by producing identification. There is also a sizeable “special collection” that can be viewed with prior arrangement next to the Invigilation Desk (to make sure the rare or delicate items are treated accordingly).

Items in the special collection include the Codex Forster (a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks), Beatrix Potter’s archive, hand-illustrated books by Matisse and printed catalogues from the famous London department store Liberty & Co.

Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.

As the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress is well worth a visit. Established to serve the needs of Congress, it now includes the world’s largest collection of legal materials, and spans 36.8 million books in 470 languages (almost half the holdings are in languages other than English).

The Asian collection is particularly strong, with 2.8 million books and manuscripts in Chinese, Japanese and Korean—the largest holding of Asian works outside Asia.

There’s also an extensive collection of rare books, including the oldest printed book in America, The Bay Psalm Book (1640), a psalter printed just 20 years after the Pilgrims first arrived in Plymouth.

The library is an amazing resource for anyone interested in the history of America—the Manuscript Division preserves the papers of 23 presidents, while the Map Division allows researchers to explore the growth of urban America through its vast collection of fire-insurance maps. Another treasure is the Martin Waldseemüller 1507 world map, the first document in the world to use the word “America.”

The library holds free guided tours Monday–Saturday, allowing visitors to visit the reading rooms. There is also a full program of exhibitions and lectures, including ongoing exhibitions such as “Exploring the Early Americas” and the Library of Congress Bible Collection.

Sainte-Geneviève Library, Paris

The library of Sainte-Geneviève was named after, and holds the collection of, one of the oldest and largest abbeys in Paris. As a result, it has extensive theological holdings, including sermons, canon law, bibles and works by the Venerable Bede. The abbey itself was destroyed in 1807 when it was demolished to make way for Rue Clovis, but the collection was preserved, awaiting a new library.

Completed in 1851, the impressive new building in the Place Panthéon was designed by Henri Labrouste as a monument to knowledge . It is characterized by the use of iron as an integral part of the design, at the time a daring innovation and a facet later copied by Charles Follen McKim when designing the Boston Public Library.

Strengths of the collection include philosophy, medicine, science, law and a considerable collection of Nordic works. Highlights include two beautifully-illustrated 15th century copies of Saint Augustine's City of God, Marie Curie’s 1921 book Radiology and War, and engravings by the celebrated 17th century artist Jean Saint-Igny.

Those wishing to enter the reading rooms may apply for a one-day pass at the ticket desk and need only show a passport. The library also holds free guided tours by appointment, although visitors may need to brush up on their linguistic skills, since the tours are in French.

The British Library, London

The British Library in St. Pancras, London, is one of the world’s foremost research libraries, containing over 150 million items in most languages of the world.

Originally part of the British Museum, the library became a separate entity in 1973 when it moved to its current site—the largest public building constructed in Britain in the 20th century.

Alongside books and manuscripts, the library has an extensive collection of audio recordings, maps, stamps, patents, prints, periodicals and sheet music. It also hosts a number of exhibitions, the current one celebrating the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta.

Some of the many treasures of the library, often on show in the free Sir John Ritblat Gallery, include The Diamond Sutra (the world’s oldest dated printed book), Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Magna Carta and a first edition copy of The (London) Times from March 18, 1788.

The library is free to visit and throughout the space there are desks and WiFi hotspots for members of the public. Those wishing to use the reading rooms, however, must apply for a reader pass and demonstrate a genuine need to consult the collection.

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