It’s National Library Week! Earlier we shared eight ways to support your local library. Today we’re going global—whether you want to learn about sustainable architecture in Colombia or browse the world’s smallest books in Azerbaijan, we’ve found fifteen of the most unique libraries in the world.
- Al-Qarawiyyin University Library
Location: Fez, Morocco
Why you should visit: Founded in 859 a.d., al-Qarawiyyin is considered one of the oldest existing libraries in the world and is housed in one of the world’s oldest continually operating universities.
Notable items: Sirat Ibn Ishaq—a copy of the Quran that dates to 883 a.d.—was gifted to the university by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur Al-Dhahabi in 1602.
- Bibliotheca Wittockiana
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Why you should visit: Part-library and part-museum, the Bibliotheca Wittockiana is the private bookbinding collection of Michael Wittock, who opened it to the public in 1983. It is one of only a handful of museums dedicated to the history of bookbinding and book arts.
Notable items: Historical examples of expert bookbinding, from early hand-bound volumes to impressive forgeries.
- Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Location: New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Why you should visit: Located on the Yale University campus, Beinecke Library is one of the largest libraries in the world dedicated to rare books and manuscripts.
Notable items: Besides its collection of ancient papyrus, they also hold collections of letters and manuscripts from writers including Langston Hughes, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas.
- La Bibliotheque Louis Nucera
Location: Nice, France
Why you should visit: Upon its completion in 2002, this 26-meter high sculpture—La Tête Carrée, or “The Square Head”—houses seven stories of books.
Notable items: Although only locals can check out books, being inside the building itself—the world’s “first inhabited sculpture”—is perhaps its biggest draw.
- Baku Museum of Miniature Books
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Why you should visit: Built over the course of thirty years, this collection is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to miniature books, specializing in Eastern European and Eurasian literature.
Notable items: The three smallest books in the world—each measures 2mm x 2mm and can only be read with a magnifying glass.
- Denver Zine Library
Location: Denver, Colorado, USA
Why you should visit: The Denver Zine Library is one of the largest collections of self-published zines in North America. They also hold workshops on zine-making and host the annual Denver Zine Fest.
Notable items: More than 15,000 independent, alternative zines from around the world—and their catalog is searchable online.
- Chetham’s Library
Location: Long Millgate, United Kingdom
Why you should visit: Founded in 1653, this library is the oldest surviving free and public library in the United Kingdom.
Notable items: Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, first editions of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the first printed atlas of England and Wales.
- Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy
Location: Moscow, Russia
Why you should visit: Completed in 2008, this is one of the most prestigious museums devoted to the history of calligraphy.
Notable items: The first handwritten constitution of the Russian Federation.
- The Flannery O’Connor Book Trail
Location: Savannah to Milledgeville, Georgia, USA
Why you should visit: This is actually a collection of Little Free Libraries—each one designed by a different local artist—that leads from Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah to her farm in Milledgeville, spanning more than 150 miles total.
Notable items: You never know—the philosophy is “Take a book, leave a book.”
- Villanueva Public Library
Location: Casanare, Colombia
Why you should visit: Completed in 2006, this building is made from locally sourced stone and timber, all constructed and transported by local workers. The design was the winner of a national competition—the team of architects were all under twenty-seven years old.
Notable items: At its heart a community resource, the building holds more than books—it’s also a theater, community space, and resource for youth.
- Folger Shakespeare Library
Location: Washington, D.C., USA
Why you should visit: Surprisingly, this American research library holds the largest collection of William Shakespeare’s printed works.
Notable items: Eighty-two copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and thousands of his plays and production materials in over seventy languages.
- National Library of Sweden
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Why you should visit: This beautiful library has been collecting Swedish works since 1661 and houses around 18 million items.
Notable items: This library is home to the largest surviving European manuscript: The Codex Gigas, or “Devil’s Bible.” It weighs 165 pounds and is composed of 130 leaves of vellum.
- Haskell Free Library
Location: Stanstead, Canada & Derby Line, Vermont, USA
Why you should visit: Straddling the border of the United States and Canada, this library has been called “the only library in the United States with no books,” as most of the collection technically lies across the border in Quebec.
Notable items: More than 20,000 books in French and English, plus the adjacent historic Haskell Opera House—also divided in half by the border.
- Hereford Cathedral
Location: Hereford, United Kingdom
Why you should visit: This small library is housed within Hereford Cathedral, built in 1079. Home to 229 manuscripts, it’s the largest surviving “chained” library in the world—each book is shelved with the spine facing in and is linked to a small rod. You can take it out to look at but it cannot leave the shelf. (Clearly, this was before library cards were invented.)
Notable items: The Hereford Gospels, an illuminated manuscript from the eighth century.
- Brooklyn Art Library
Location: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Why you should visit: The Brooklyn Art Library is home to The Sketchbook Project, a crowd-funded collection of sketchbooks and one of the largest of its kind in the world—more than 34 thousand sketchbooks from 135 countries.
Notable items: Perhaps your own work? Find out more at their website.
by KM Bezner