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The architecture of libraries

Tianjin Binhai Library

In this piece, I focus on libraries, looking comprehensively albeit not exhaustively at a broad range and selection of atheneums around the world; each of which may serve a particular social or academic purpose for a specific time and context. Or they could just be a visually inspiring, beautiful, or stunning environment in which to find or read your book.

I love libraries. They are much more than mere repositories for books. Depending on scale, location, and specific charter, they may be symbols of culture and wealth, cathedrals of knowledge, provide the opportunity for social activity or be just a delightful haven facilitating the quiet act of reading and personal learning.

Libraries can be places for escape, inquiry, and discovery. For children, they can be magical places staffed by trained and creative librarians who devote their time not just organising books into a manner for easy access and retrieval but who also promote reading, plan quizzes, book hunts, competitions, and author visits.

I recall with much fondness my own experience, as an 8-year-old in a Catholic all-boys primary school. Along with a few other schoolmates, I was hauled off to the neighbourhood Queenstown Public Library by my schoolteachers Mrs Nathan and Mrs Leong to participate in a nursery rhyme costume competition. They forced me into a silly dress (and shoes borrowed from my sister) to play “My Pretty Maid’; to be serenaded and propositioned, “Where are you going to?” by my dashing German exchange schoolmate, Gunther.

In bygone times, in certain parts of England, to ask a maid if you could go ‘milking with her’ was tantamount to a marriage proposal. This rhyme appears to be a cleaned-up version of an old Tudor song about a milkmaid and a man with dishonourable intentions towards her.

“Where are you going to, my pretty maid?”   “I’m going a-milking, sir,” she said.

“May I go with you, my pretty maid?”  “You’re kindly welcome, sir,” she said.

“Say, will you marry me, my pretty maid?”   “Yes, if you please, kind sir,” she said.

“What is your father, my pretty maid?”   “My father’s a farmer, sir,” she said.

“What is your fortune, my pretty maid?”   “My face is my fortune, sir,” she said.

“Then I can’t marry you, my pretty maid.”   “Nobody asked you sir,” she said.

Where are you going to, my pretty maid?
Other schoolmates in library nursery rhymes costume competition

For a young impressionable boy, it was a totally immersive learning experience, never mind there were no cows or milking to be seen in my immediate sphere of existence. I was unwittingly and subtly introduced to—through having to act out some ‘innocent’ innuendo and ‘traditional’ limericks—the social concepts of courtship, relationship dynamics, consent, acquiescence, and gender politics!

History and evolution of a social institution

Is it possible to have a civilized society without a library? The library, as a building housing a collection of books and literary resources, dates to ancient Mesopotamia, coinciding, more or less, with the advent of the written word. It is impossible to think of the value of a library by solely considering their fundamental purpose: to offer infinite access to knowledge to anyone at no cost. As the location of countless community and academic resources and places of cultural discourse and social engagement, the draw of these institutions is inherent. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The only thing you absolutely have to know is where the library is.”

Over the centuries, the architecture of libraries has undergone several evolutions, often depending on their use, the architectural trends of the time, and the technology available to build them.

Classification of books; visibility of knowledge

A significant aspect of organising library content is the classification system. Books and other resources are usually ordered according to one of three types of classification methods:

  • universal (English language) scheme, eg. the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), Library of Congress Classification (LCC) or Colon Classification (CC)
  • specific classification scheme, eg. Iconclass (for art), British Catalogue of Music Classification or Dickinson classification (for music), or the NLM Classification (for medicine)
  • national scheme, eg. Sweden’s own classification system SAB (Sveriges Allmänna Biblioteksförening), the Japanese NDC, German RVK, Russian BBK, Chinese Liu’s Classification or CLC, Korean KDC, etc.

I remember the thrill and privilege of the specially arranged field trip to the stunningly old British Museum Reading Room during my MSc course at UCL in London in 1996. This was before the British Library was relocated to its new premises at St Pancras, and just before construction of the British Museum’s new Great Court surrounding it had commenced. The cavernous circular space with its spectacular dome above was laid out in a way here, it was explained to us, that presented a fine example of spatial organisation, representing the hierarchy of visible knowledge. Each category of knowledge (captured by library classification and physically manifest in tomes on shelves) was on display within the large room and each classification had its symbolic and rightful place in this universal space.

Adding to my awe at the impact of the space was the realisation that I was in the same historic, hallowed, and iconic place that had been frequented by the likes of Karl Marx, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Pankhurst, Bram Stoker, Joseph Conrad, Lenin and George Orwell. These social luminaries were all at some point in time readers granted membership to use the space for their research and writing.

Beautiful, inspiring environments for reading

The construction, restoration and renovation of libraries are significant to architects as well as the public, with design firms eagerly vying over prestigious and significant commissions.

Some libraries have a firmly aesthetic appeal. All around the world we find libraries that are hundreds of years old, adorned in gilded finishes, elaborate decoration, architectural craftsmanship and captivating frescoes and artwork. Others are strikingly modern, with sleek lines and a futuristic nod. In either case they capture the spirit of wonder and the pursuit of learning that is both necessary to design a one-of-a-kind space and often found in the patrons who visit it. 

While many of the centuries-old libraries that have been preserved are still admired today for either their elaborate decorative efforts or awe-inspiring spatial qualities that reinforce, celebrate, and match the cultural value of the books and inherent literary knowledge they hold, modern libraries may do this differently. Today, the focus of expression may be more about the ease of social accessibility, sustainability, functional flexibility (to address inevitable growth requirements), naturalism (as seen in some recent Asian examples) while still trying to please and inspire aesthetically.

Purpose and patronage of libraries

The purpose of libraries has evolved over time, corresponding with changing socio-political trends and circumstances. While public libraries of today, at least in modern democratic populations, are now seen as a vehicle for the creation of opportunities for learning, supporting literacy and education, and to help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society, this has not always been so.

Before the advent of such socialist ideals, the earliest libraries were dependent on the patronage of royal or church which was perhaps more focused on the preservation of culture, heritage, and knowledge, especially of religious material and artifacts which motivated the need for printing and the wider circulation of the written word. Knowledge was power and societies that valued, sponsored and built libraries knew this; emerging from the Middle Ages into Scholasticismthe Renaissance, the Reformationthe Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and eventually the development of liberal democracy

These days state and national libraries have also become concerned with the process of copyright. And libraries are keenly aware of the need to maintain the balance between protecting the rights of authors and safeguarding the wider public interest. 

As such, elaborate and richly decorated private libraries—which were more about preserving the wealth of knowledge for the elite—has given way to more egalitarian social objectives of making it accessible to all. While the richly decorative and ornate libraries of the past, often limited to the privileged, may have its sentimental appeal, there’s something even richer and more intrinsically beautiful seeing a light-filled modern environment that is open to all and provides social opportunity and access to a potentially better life through the knowledge these contemporary libraries contain.

Digital transformation of the library typology

Where libraries may have once been silent sanctuaries for the housing and consumption of books, their contemporary interpretations—thanks to new technology and trailblazing design—are far from quiet. Step inside the world’s most recent and modern libraries and you’ll find dynamic tools and spaces, including amphitheatres for talks and discussions, interactive learning exhibits, podcast recording studios and game development labs. The introduction of robotic book-retrieval systems has made way for communal spaces punctuated with art, turning the library into a social sphere.

According to Pew Research Centre analysis of US library attendance undertaken in 2015, millennials use libraries more than any other generation. As a result, services and spaces have evolved to appeal to digitally native generations. One tradition has remained though: The art of making the library an architectural centrepiece. In the spirit of historic examples such as Dublin’s Trinity College Library or London’s British Museum Reading Room, today’s institutions are often designed to inspire. While historians consider the 17th century to be “the golden age of libraries,” these contemporary projects suggest a biblio-renaissance is well underway.

Towards libraries of the future

In my own city of Sydney in New South Wales, the recently completed and excellent examples of the Marrickville Library and Pavilion, Green Square Library, Exchange at Darling Square in Chinatown, Surry Hills Library and Parramatta Square Library are assuring indications that libraries are still seen as valuable social infrastructure with its valid place in any urban community. It is heartening to see these institutions as well worth investing in by state and local government, with briefs and design commissions that have produced commendable and award-winning architectural outcomes.

The current social media trajectory and the digitisation of books, with e-books and audiobooks, and ever-evolving audio-visual formats now becoming a part of the mix of library content, hasn’t diluted importance of libraries from a space and social synchronicity perspective. Rather than kill off the need for libraries it has ensured that libraries continue to thrive and evolve as a highly relevant and important social institution.

Featuring some libraries in detail

Here’s a look at some significant libraries, both ancient and new. You can take a virtual tour of these libraries via the videos included with each one. The list is organised by continents, namely: 

  • Australasia
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Middle East
  • North America
  • South America

You can also search libraries according to category of architectural style listed on the side-bar on the right.

Australasia

Australia - Barr Smith Library @ Uni of Adelaide

  • Completed: 1932                         
  • Designer: Woods, Bagot and Laybourne Smith
  • Architectural style: Georgian Revivalist

In 1927, the last heir to a prominent philanthropic Australian family offered £20,000 to the University of Adelaide for a new library, on the condition that it be named after his father, Robert Barr Smith. The red brick library was completed in 1932, complete with two friezes commemorating the donations of the Barr Smiths. Since the collection expanded quite quickly, addition after addition had to be added. These days, the library holds over two million volumes and now spans over almost 21,000 m2.

Australia - Exchange @ Darling Square, Sydney, NSW

  • Completed: 2019       
  • Designer: Kengo Kuma & Associates
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Housed in a spiralling bird’s nest, The Exchange Darling Square features a new library spread out over two levels. The state-of-the-art library offers free Wi-Fi, public use computers, study spaces, meeting rooms, couches to sit and read and even a dedicated children’s area making it one of the best Sydney community libraries. If all that studying and reading gets your tummy grumbling, check out the restaurant area on the ground level and the many other eateries around it.

Australia - Green Square Library, NSW

  • Completed: 2018       
  • Designer: Studio Hollenstein
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Green Square Library and Plaza is an urban living room located at the heart of Australia’s largest urban renewal area and includes a 3,000 sqm library and an 8,000sqm plaza. The commission was won through an anonymous global design competition with the scheme unanimously selected by the jury, which included Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt.

The competition brief called for two distinct components — a public plaza and a library. The unique design response fuses these elements together by placing the library largely underground and maximising the public open space at ground level. This arrangement allows the community to gather outdoors and enjoy the pleasant Sydney climate, whilst providing a light-filled, community haven below with 42 large skylights delivering light to the space below and where visitors can retreat from the noise of the city.

Key volumes protrude from the underground library puncturing the public realm at plaza level bringing light, air, and access to the space below. The legible geometries of a triangle, circle, square and trapezium are placed strategically as a field of social instruments within the plaza. The design is intentionally informal and programmatically sustainable, providing a shared territory for multiple uses—suitable for the evolving role of the library and an expanding population. The building includes brightly coloured meeting rooms, a computer lab, a music room for practice and performance, double height reading room, children’s area, and outdoor amphitheatre for events.

The library and plaza achieve a 5-star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia. Its sustainability features include a central wastewater system and a low energy displacement ventilation system within the library bookshelves. In response to its location within the water table, the underground library utilises a 3-layer waterproofing system.

Australia - Marrickville Library & Pavilion, NSW

  • Completed: 2020       
  • Designer: BVN Architecture (Bligh Voller Nield)
  • Architectural style: Modernist, Heritage Adaptive Re-use

If you’re looking for a Library with modern and spacious design, ample seating areas and a place to enjoy a coffee then you must check out Marrickville Library and Pavilion in a Sydney suburb. The well-stocked shelves are sure to have your favourites and new releases that you can enjoy in a quiet space. From the moment you walk up to this immaculately designed space, you’ll find a warming sense of community. There is beauty wood toned which flows throughout the space, inviting you in for refuge from the concrete jungle outside. Throw in the fact tht it has an on-site cafe and it’s no wonder many would spend a few weekends here during winter.

An oversized folding roof is a kind of exclamation point on the busy Marrickville Rd, in Sydney’s inner west. It’s a beacon of change, for what used to be a humble little library. Set back from the street by a lush sunken lawn, the floating roof canopy sits atop huge timber columns, providing shelter, connection, and a dramatic welcome. It’s eye-catching and proud. And it’s gained iconic status already, amongst the community.

Inside, Marrickville Library is a mecca for book lovers. It’s also a leisure space, workplace, family zone and study nook. A hub for many different people in many ways. Enter, and immediately you’re basking in sunlight. Double and triple-height spaces create a vast open foyer with warm wood tones. There are skylights for extra illumination, and a large timber auditorium stair with comfortable, cushioned seating. Sculptural open-air verandas, a suspended bridge and connective spaces reveal activity everywhere.

The brief called for a style that would entice people for study, work and events as much as for library services. We brought our insights from workplace and school design to create a space that met deeper needs: bringing people out of their homes, giving them opportunities for connection and independence, then surrounding them with natural light, fresh air and warm colours.

Marrickville Library includes the adaptive re-use of the 1897 Marrickville Hospital. Paying tribute to this legacy many of the original features were retained and restored, including timber windows and balustrades, terrazzo flooring, and ceiling beams.

Marrickville Library is uncompromising on sustainability. The bricks of demolished buildings on the site were recycled for reuse in the retaining walls and forecourt paving. We incorporated natural and mixed-mode ventilation and rainwater tanks. Solar gain was reduced with overhangs and sun shading, used recycled timber and low maintenance planting. The result: a sensitive heritage adaptation, an environmentally friendly contemporary design and a 25% reduction in ongoing energy use.

Australia - Parramatta Square Library, NSW

  • Completed: 2023       
  • Designer: Design Inc, Lacoste & Stevenson, with Manuelle Gautrand Architecture
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Parramatta Square library, aka PHIVE is one of the newest libraries in Sydney and a fantastic hub for book lovers in Western Sydney. The library made a big splash when it opened in April 2022, courtesy of its enormous floor space. The six-storey building houses not only a state-of-the-art library but also cultural heritage spaces, exhibition areas, cafes, live performances, and creative spaces plus more.

The building is sculpturesque in design, with more than 549 unique tessellated panels in five native flora-inspired colours gracing the building’s façade. The roof sits on a series of stacked, fragmented crystalline blocks designed to follow the sun and provide natural light throughout. Giant louvres respond to weather conditions and automatically open to fill the building with fresh air. It is a truly smart building. The design delivers permeability through the building with the use of voids, linking stairs and transparent materials, to create a welcoming, open and expressive building. 

Australia - State Library of New South Wales

  • Completed: 1845, Mitchell Wing in 1910
  • Designer: Walter Liberty Vernon
  • Architectural style: Academic Neo-Classical

The oldest library in all of Australia, the NSW State Library started as the Australian Subscription Library in 1826, before the current building was completed. The most famous, and most stunning, part of the library is the Mitchell Wing, which was completed in 1910. The wing was named for David Scott Mitchell who had a fantastic collection of older books, including original journals of James Cook. The library now houses over 5 million items, including 2 million books and 1.1 million photographs.

While the outside of the State Library is quite contemporary, the inside is ornate, classic, and very beautiful. The library is of particular interest to anyone who wants to learn more about Australian heritage and history. It’s home to a large selection of books by indigenous authors, since the library has collections focusing on pre-European settlement.

Australia - State Library of South Australia

  • Completed: 1884       
  • Designer: E J Woods
  • Architectural style: French Renaissance

The State Library of South Australia dedicates its work to preserving the stories of the Kaurna people in the Adelaide plains and South Australia. Blending both contemporary flair and Victorian charm, the library is comprised of three buildings: the modern Catherine Helen Spence Wing, the historic Mortlock Wing, and the studious Institute Building.

The State Library of South Australia is not as large as some of the other Australian State libraries, but it does have the distinction of having the largest collection dating from pre-European times in its South Australiana collection. This collection is mostly contained within the Mortlock Wing, the oldest and most gorgeous part of the library. Opened in 1884, the building known as the Mortlock Wing originally held 23,000 books and employed three librarians. Since then, the collection has expanded so much that two massive buildings had to be added to the library, although this wing remains the most visually impressive. The building is French Renaissance in style with a mansard roof. The walls are constructed of brick with Sydney freestone facings with decorations in the darker shade of Manoora stone.

The interior has two galleries, the first supported by masonry columns, and the second by cast iron brackets. The balconies feature wrought iron balustrading ornamented with gold while the glass-domed roof allows the chamber to be lit with natural light. Two of the original gas “sunburner” lamps survive in the office space located on the second floor at the southern end. The 19th-century Mortlock Chamber has been nicknamed the “Harry Potter Room” due to its resemblance to the fictional grand library in Hogwarts.

Restoration of the building occurred in 1985 as a Jubilee 150 project by Danvers Architects, consultant architect to the South Australian Department of Housing and Construction.

Australia - Surry Hills Library, NSW

  • Completed: 2009       
  • Designer: FJMT (Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp – Matthew Todd, Mark Brandon)
  • Architectural style: Modernist

This project is prominently located in the heart of Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney whose community is characterised by a diversity of age, income and cultural backgrounds. The architectural context is also diverse: residential apartments, terrace housing, shops and commercial/industrial premises vary in scale though their architectural style is predominantly Victorian. The site is very constrained, measuring just 25 by 28 metres and bound on three edges by roads: Crown Street, the main street of Surry Hills, to the east and two residential streets to the south and west.

The project’s brief was developed in close consultation with the very active local community. The key approach that emerged from these discussions was that the community wanted a facility that everyone could share. Rather than only a library or a community centre or childcare centre, it became clear that it was important to have all these facilities together in one building, in one place. In this way the building became a truly shared place where the whole community could meet and use in different ways. Important, too, was for the building to represent and reflect the community’s values.

In response a new type of public building was developed. It is not a singular typology, for which there are many precedents, but a hybrid public building that is many different things in one: a library/resource centre, community centre and childcare centre all integrated into one modest building and accessible by all.

Transparency became an architectural theme at many levels, allowing an inviting and welcoming building that is accessible and open to public view. At the same time, it was important that the building was not merely ‘transparent’, or only expose what is accommodated within, but that it represented and embodied the values of the community. Accessibility, openness, transparency, and sustainability were key values, as was a general sense of aspiration.

Australia - Victorian Parliamentary Library

  • Completed: 1861      
  • Designer: Peter Kerr and John George Knight
  • Architectural style: Roman Revivalist

The Victorian Parliament House was built in stages, starting in 1855, and the library was one of the first things completed after the Legislative Assembly and Council. While construction continued all the way through 1929, the building’s Roman Revival design is fluent and smooth, so the whole thing seems like one single entity rather than a series of extra wings tagged on throughout the years.

The three connected rooms of the parliamentary library hold more than 50,000 books, and reports. Upstairs, the Deakin Gallery displays just part of Parliament’s extensive historical collection.

Australia - Victorian State Library, Melbourne

  • Completed: 1856, domed reading room in 1913, revamp 2019
  • Designer: James Reed (subsequently Bates, Peebles & Smart), Architectus with Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (revamp)
  • Architectural style: Neo-classical, Modernist (extension)

This library was first opened with a mere collection of 3,800 books, and the famous domed reading room was subsequently opened in 1913. While the dome’s skylights were covered with copper sheets in 1959 due to water leakage, they have since been renovated, allowing beautiful natural light to fill the reading room once again. This library is not only massive – containing over 2 million books – it also has some fantastic rarities, including the diaries of the city’s founders, folios of Captain James Cook, and the armour of famed outlaw Ned Kelly.

One of the first free public libraries in the world, the State Library of Victoria has remained dedicated to being a place for discovery and education since 1854. Inside the Neoclassical library several books and artifacts detailing the history of the Victoria region and its culture. The regal La Trobe Reading Room alone houses nearly 32,000 books across its octagonal walls.

At the heart of Vision 2020 program, completed in 2019, was the refurbishment of the library’s incomparable heritage spaces, the creation of innovative new spaces for children and teenagers, and the reinvention of our services as we embrace new technologies and promote digital literacy and creativity for all Victorians. The program has ensured that the library continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of our vibrant, diverse community of the people of Victoria, today and into the future.

Asia

Bhutan - National Library of Bhutan, Thimpu

  • Completed: 1984       
  • Designer: Unknown 
  • Architectural style: Traditional Bhutanese

The National Library of Bhutan is also technically a Buddhist temple, and the structure is intended to integrate the three aspects of Buddha and his teachings: the physical represented by statues and paintings, the speech represented by books and printing blocks, and the heart represented by the eight small bowls found on the shrine on the first floor. The library is home to about 6100 Tibetan and Bhutanese books, manuscripts, and xylographs, and about 9000 printing boards and wood printing blocks. While the collection isn’t massive, it is one of the largest collections of Buddhist literature in the world.

China – Mulan Weicheng Library & Visitors Centre, Hebei

  • Completed: 2017       
  • Designer: Zhang Hai’ao (HDD)
  • Architectural style: Organic Modernist

Mulan Weicheng is in the northeast of Hebei province, connected to inner Mongolia grassland, which is one of the most beautiful landscapes on the earth. The ancient Chinese emperors used to hold autumn hunting festivals there through the history.

The architects’ main goal was to blend the building into this vast nature seamlessly. The goal was achieved in three different ways. The first was to be inspired by local architecture. The second was to use local material including old stone, used wooden beams and rattan. Together with surrounding micro landscape, the building could fit into the vast nature.

The architect Zhang Hai’ao thinks the relationship between architecture and symbolism was so overwhelmed along the human history. The most difficult part of the project was to create eternal relationship between grassland and the building. Many elements were taken from the traditional yurt building, for example: the pattern and the facade.

Two big circles create the main living room, extending the traditional yurt layout. While the extended boxes become the semi-public space. This kind of layout makes the yurt fit the modern lifestyle. In terms of facade designing, by creating wooden frames in different thickness, the flower shaped roof could be made. The interior space is derived from the traditional yurt interior by using framing in different direction.

The main core of the building is the double circled lobby, also serving as a local library. The second floor provides the area for kids. The design concept of the main lobby is based on the yurt interior. In the future, it will also be the central library for the region. Local children could come here to read and play.

China – Liyuan Library, Huairu

  • Completed: 2018       
  • Designer: Li Xiaodong Atelier
  • Architectural style: Eco-friendly Modernist

The Liyuan library designed by Li Xiaodong Atelier is a modest addition to the small village of Huairou on the outskirts of Beijing, just under a two hours’ drive from busy Beijing urban life.

On the one hand it forms a modern programmatic complement to the village by adding a small library and reading space within a setting of quiet contemplation. It also uses architecture to enhance the appreciation of the surrounding natural landscape. Rather than adding a new building inside the village centre, this site was chosen in the nearby mountains, which is a pleasant five-minute walk from the village centre.

Because of the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding nature, the buildings intervention is modest in its outward expression. The building blends into the landscape through the delicate choice of materials and the careful placement of the building volume. Especially the choice of material is crucial in blending with the regional characteristics. After analysing the local material characteristics in the village, large amounts of locally sourced wooden sticks were found piled around each house. The villagers gather these sticks all year round to fuel their cooking stoves. This ordinary material was selected to be used in an extraordinary way, cladding the building in a familiar texture, but in a way that is strikingly sensitive.

The inside of the building has a very expressive character; its interior is spatially diverse by using steps and small level changes to create distinct places. It frames views towards the surrounding landscape and acts as an embracing shelter. The building is fully glazed to allow for daylight into the interior space. The wooden sticks temper the bright light and spread it evenly throughout the space to provide for a perfect reading ambiance.

China - National Library of China, Beijing

  • Completed: 1987 (old buildings),    
  • Designer: KSP Jurgen Engel Architekten
  • Architectural style: Traditional Chinese, Modernist

If you’re looking for info on China’s ancient history, the National Library of China’s old buildings might be a good place to start. They serve as the home to a vast array of historical and ancient books and manuscripts—even inscribed tortoise shells. And though the buildings themselves are designed in a traditional Chinese style, they were only completed in 1987.

Founded in 1909 by the government of the Qing dynasty, the National Library of China has amassed an astronomical collection of over 37 million items including the largest array of Chinese literature in the world. Students, researchers, and book lovers from across the country flood the three different structures of the library. The newest addition, the North Area, is divide into two levels: the lower holding the geometric reading room and reference library signifying the old, and the upper, housing the digital library representing the future and evolving technology.

China - Tianjin Binhai Library, Tianjin

  • Completed: 2017       
  • Designer: Dutch architectural firm MVRDV
  • Architectural style: Modernist

It’s no surprise that images of the Tianjin Binhai Library went viral when the building opened its doors in 2017 to receive over 10,000 visitors per day. The futuristic library features an atrium with floor-to-ceiling shelving that appears to house an endless number of books. It makes visiting the Tianjin Binhai Library feel as though you are traveling through a sea of books, with a spherical auditorium at the centre of this library. The five-story space has the capacity to fit over a million books, but the only stores 200,000 volumes. 

There’s a catch though: Not all the books are real. Inaccessible shelves have been filled with aluminium plates digitally printed with book images. Regardless of this controversial detail, the building’s social media popularity has turned the project into Tianjin’s number one tourist attraction and a testament to the important role of design in library attendance.

China - Tianyi Pavilion Library, Ningbo City

  • Completed: 1561       
  • Designer: Unknown
  • Architectural style: Traditional Chinese

If you’re looking for real traditional Chinese architecture, you’ll need to leave Beijing and head over to Ningbo City—home to the oldest private library in Asia. Built in 1560 by a retired imperial minister, Tianyi Pavilion Library is the third oldest private library in the world. As you might expect, the collection is rather impressive: 300,000 ancient books, including several woodcut and handwritten titles.

China - Zhongshuge Bookstore, Dujiangyan, Chengdu

  • Completed: 2019      
  • Designer: X+Living Architectural Design (Shanghai) Co.
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Not quite a library, this Chengdu bookstore will seem like it is playing tricks on your mind as you step inside its labyrinth of mirrors, black interiors and – of course – thousands of books. Mirrored ceilings and zigzag staircases help form the perplexing interiors of this bookstore in south-west China.

China - Zhongshuge Bookstore, Yangzhou

  • Completed: 2016      
  • Designer: X+Living Architectural Design (Shanghai) Co.
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Once one of China’s most prosperous cities, Yangzhou has a long history of wealth both material and cultural. The artists, poets, and scholars who have called Yangzhou home have found their inspiration in the ancient gardens, temples, and public pavilions, set against a picturesque landscape of lakes and canals alongside the Yangtze River as it flows down to Shanghai. Now the postcard-perfect locale has also inspired a bookstore, Zhongshuge, by X + Living Architectural Design (Shanghai) Co.

Known for combining arresting displays with plenty of room to peruse, Zhongshuge, named after the owner’s daughter, is a hugely successful chain. That’s thanks, in general, to the enduring popularity of print in a country that is also whole-heartedly embracing the Internet and, more specifically, to interiors that are more library than commercial space. X + Living had already completed five of Zhongshuge’s stores when the firm was entrusted to design the Yangzhou location. X + Living design director Li Xiang says she was allowed a free hand in developing the shop’s concept, due to the trust that the owner placed in her talent: “He didn’t have too many demands, as he respects my philosophy.”

Number six is in the low-rise riverside Zhenyuan shopping and dining district. “The complex is a landmark, with architecture that conforms to the historic buildings in the surrounding areas,” Li says. “Zhongshuge’s design takes these environments into account. Their solution was to extract Yangzhou’s cultural symbols as well as elements from the complex, then convey them as much as possible through contemporary means.” The result is a microcosm of Yangzhou. 

India - David Sassoon Library, Mumbai

  • Completed: 1870       
  • Designer: J Campbell and G E Gosling
  • Architectural style: Gothic Revivalist, Venetian Gothic

The David Sassoon Library is one of only 145 monuments protected by India’s government, and the oldest library in Mumbai. One of its most famous features is the beautiful garden in the back—a rare sight in the commercial area in which it is located. The library and reading room were originally intended to be an entire institute dedicated to mechanics, science, and technology, but funding ran short. The Sassoon Mechanic’s Institute was renamed the David Sasson Library and Reading Room after its primary donor.

India - Raza Library, Rampur

  • Completed: 1870       
  • Designer: J Campbell and G E Gosling
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The Raza Library in Rampur was once part of a palace. While many of the royal family’s other properties have been left to crumble, the library is still protected by the Indian government—another one of the country’s few protected monuments. The royal family started gathering works for the library way back in 1774. Included in their collection are 17,000 rare manuscripts, 205 hand-written palm leaves and 5000 miniature paintings.

As an archive of Indo-Islamic cultural heritage, the halls of Raza Library are full of books, paintings, historical documents, and manuscripts of significant national importance. The library was established by Nawab Faizullah Khan in 1774, the institution is now run by the central government. Housed in a fort named Hamid Manzil, the building was designed in a style known as Indo-Saracenic. This aesthetic combines elements of Islamic, Hindu, and Victorian Gothic and was mainly use by British architects in India during the 19th century.

The grand building that houses the collection was originally built in 1904 as a mansion for Nawab Hamid Ali Khan, but it was converted into a library in the 1950s. The palace-like library houses an incredible collection of Indian and Asian works, including manuscripts, historical documents, Islamic calligraphy, and even an original parchment manuscript of the Quran.

Japan - Hachioji Library @ Tama Art University, Tokyo

  • Completed: 2007       
  • Designer: Toyo Ito & Associates
  • Architectural style: Minimalist, Modernist, Brutalist

With an open floor plan and concrete colonnades, this brutalist-inspired building exudes cool minimalism. Designed by Pritzker Prize–winning firm Toyo Ito & Associates, the head of the university, Hidemi Kondo, says the space plays an important role for students. Not only is it a place for research and education, but also a source of inspiration for the artists.

Minimalist yet breathtaking, the concrete arches of the Tama Art University Library in Tokyo echo ancient, vaulted spaces such as wine cellars and storied libraries. The architect’s intent for the sleek structure was for the curved details to seamlessly flow with the slopping outside landscapes. The first floor features an open gallery space for various art exhibitions with nearly 100,000 books making up the second-floor stacks.

Japan - Kanazawa Umimirai Library

  • Completed: 2011       
  • Designer: Kazumi Kudo and Hiroshi Horiba
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Kanazawa Umimirai Library is a contemporary public library located in Kanazawa city, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. Its surface creates a decorative grid made of some 6000 small circular blocks of glass which puncture the concrete surface of the building in a triangular array.

Japan - Nakajima Library, Akita International University

  • Completed: 2010       
  • Designer: Mitsuru Senda
  • Architectural style: Eco-friendly, Modernist

This library, which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, never sleeps and always welcomes the students. It is the realization of the university’s desire to provide a place where students can study at any time.

The building has a complex structure with a unique design that combines wood and steel-enforced concrete in a semi-circular “book colosseum” theme. It uses plenty of Akita cedar trees grown in the prefecture, and while its umbrella-roof that makes use of traditional techniques exudes an overwhelming presence, at the same time users are given a sense of peace of mind and tranquility from the beautiful cedar all around.

Japan - Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

  • Completed: 2010       
  • Designer: Sou Fujimoto Architects
  • Architectural style: Modernist

In addition to chairs and tables, there’s one piece of furniture you’re guaranteed to see in nearly every library—a bookshelf. But for the library at Musashino Art University, the architect took that idea to the extreme, building full-height walls “comprising enormous bookcases. Enclosed within the building’s glass façade, the otherwise ordinary storage units create a compelling architectural statement when used in multiples.

Although there’s plenty of room for storage, most of the bookshelves remain empty. A surprising twist for a library, it represents Fujimoto’s knowing nod to the growing importance of digital information. In this library, the stacks are populated with people.

Japan - Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest, Osaka

  • Completed: 2019       
  • Designer: Tadao Ando
  • Architectural style: Modernist

After a long and fruitful career, Tadao Ando decided that it was time for him to make an altruistic contribution to Osaka, the city where he was raised and developed as an architect. Ando wanted to pay tribute to the children of Osaka, the next generation of Japan, through a building based on two essential concepts: the idea of growth associated to childhood, and the belief that books are nutrition for the developing mind. By creating a children’s library, both concepts are fused to create a place for knowledge: a truly ‘free’ architecture to read and enjoy books.

With the understanding that Ando would take care of the construction costs, the city government agreed to cede a site adjacent to Nakanoshima Park, located on an island that harbors some of the city’s cultural institutions. The library is an arc shape that is connected with Dojima River, along the rear facade, through a large terrace covered by a concrete canopy. A triple-story atrium with full-height bookshelves characterizes the interior, and each of the unique architectural elements including the stairs, bridges, and passageways are composed like a three-dimensional labyrinth of Escher.

Japan - Nakanoshima Libary, Osaka

  • Completed: 1904       
  • Designer: Noguchi Magoichi and Hidaka Yutaka
  • Architectural style: Neo-Baroque

This library might not be something one would immediately associate with Japan, but the 1904 Nakanoshima Library fits in quite well in Osaka, as the area has quite a few other stone-walled buildings with similar architecture. This building, complete with a copper roof dome, is one of the more stunning.

North Korea - Grand People’s Study House

  • Completed: 1982       
  • Designer: Unknown
  • Architectural style: Traditional Korean

The Study House was completed 1982 in honour of Kim Il-Sung’s 70th birthday and features an amazing 600 rooms with capacity for 30 million books. Of course, being housed in North Korea, foreign publications are only available with special permission, so it will probably be a while before all the shelves are full.

People’s Study House is one of the most famous buildings in Pyongyang. North Korea’s central library is located at Kim Il-Sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang. It was built in a traditional Korean style over a period of 21 months and was opened as the “centre for the project of intellectualising the whole of society and a sanctuary of learning for the entire people.”

Singapore - National Library of Singapore

  • Completed: 2005       
  • Designer: Ken Yeang (T. R. Hamzah & Yeang)
  • Architectural style: Eco-friendly, High-tech Modernist

Following the demolition of the old and iconic National Library at Stamford Road in 2004 (a controversial move to make way for a new road tunnel), a new National Library building was developed via a design competition at a new site on Victoria Road. The new 16-storey complex houses mainly the collections of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, with the Central Public Library occupying the first of three basement floors. Designed by competition winner, ecologically conscious architect Ken Yeang, the building is replete with environment-friendly architectural features and has garnered many accolades both at home and abroad.

An architectural highlight of the building is the incorporation of environment-friendly technologies such as intelligent sensors that help reduce energy consumption. For instance, rain sensors reduce the amount of water channelled to the irrigation systems for the indoor gardens during rainy days, while light sensors dim or switch off indoor lights when there is sufficient sunlight entering the building. Motion sensors are also installed within escalators and toilet taps so that they switch on only when being used. Another eco-friendly feature is the air-conditioning system, which is constantly adjusted to regulate carbon dioxide levels in each section of the building, in addition to maintaining the desired temperature.

Unfortunately, whatever progressive, forward-looking, technology driven agenda for this institution was subsequently overshadowed by the backwardness of a small-minded censorship episode that ensued in 2014. This came in the form of a bigoted public complaint about the library holding two children’s books, namely ‘And Tango Makes Three’ and ‘The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption’, which were perceived to be promoting homosexuality and not in line with the condoned ‘pro-family’ national values. In response to divided public response to this complaint, the National Library Board proceeded to not just remove the objectionable books from the shelf but to pulp them.

It was heartening to see a reading event, effectively a peaceful protest, occurring at the library when an event ‘Let’s Read Together’ was organised by two mothers against the small-minded censorship by the institution. A compromise was eventually reached, and the matter resolved by the then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts. He decided not to pulp the books but to instead place them in the adult section, thereby leaving the decision for what books children should read in the hands of parents who could borrow the books for their children should they wish. What a relief that good sense prevailed then, but to think that this regressive, intolerant anti-social move could have preceded the current DeSantis’ Florida conservative culture wars debacle—which has effectively revived religiously and hate-driven censorship in modern times—is nothing less than alarming!

South Korea - Haeinsa Monastery, Mount Gaya

  • Completed: 802       
  • Designer: Unknown
  • Architectural style: Korean Vernacular

The Haeinsa Monastery isn’t what we think of as a library, but since the Middle Ages it has housed the Tripitaka Koreana, “the most complete and accurate corpus of Buddhist doctrinal texts in the world,” according to UNESCO. The Haesina is a repository for the woodblocks used to print pages before the invention of the printing press. The woodblocks are stored on shelves much like bookshelves and the building is one of the largest wooden storage facilities in the world.

South Korea - National Library of Korea, Sejong City

  • Completed: 2013       
  • Designer: Samoo Architects & Engineers
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The National Library of Korea is in the Seocho District of Seoul, South Korea. The library was established in 1945 and houses over 10 million volumes, including over 1,134,000 foreign books and some of the National Treasures of South Korea.

The new National Library of Sejong City was designed with the motif of a book page being turned over, a simple geometry of a gently curved paper forms the basis of the design and creates a unique outline that is easily recognizable as one of the landmark buildings of the city. As one of the strategies in designing the building, the library was also planned to become an Emotional Library, a place where analogue and digital formats converge for the convenience of the users and to maximize the possibilities of the library.

South Korea - Starfield Library @ COEX Mall, Gangnam, Seoul

  • Completed: 2017       
  • Designer: Gensler
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Sitting inside the world’s largest underground shopping mall, the Starfield Library houses nearly 50,000 books and magazines spanning genres. Lights from the two-story athenaeum cause the space to glow throughout the day and welcome in visitors to relax on the plush sofas. Each month, the library hosts a range of events from author lectures to art exhibitions.

One might mistake this modern space for a bookstore because it’s located within a shopping mall, but the architectural marvel is very much a public library. The airy, double-story space is filled with giant, wraparound bookcases and impressive rotating artworks, such as holiday displays or stacks of books painted to create charming illustrations. There’s ample seating, iPads, and more than 50,000 books to keep you busy in this mind-blowing library.  

Taiwan - Beitou Library

  • Completed: 2015       
  • Designer: Kuo Ying-chao
  • Architectural style: Eco-friendly, Organic Modernist

While this attractive building might not be the most beautiful one in this selection, it may be one of the more eco-friendly ones. The slanted roof collects moisture from humidity and rain, and then recycles it for the restrooms and gardens. The Beitou Library has also been fitted with solar panels and deep-set and latticed windows to reduce energy use.

Reading just got a lot greener with the ecological design of the Beitou Public Library. The slanted roof of the two-story wooden facility captures rainwater which is stored to use within the structure’s lavatory; the large French-style ushers in natural light, reducing electricity consumption. Complete with balconies overlooking native flora, the Beitou Public Library feels as though you’ve stepped into a literary treehouse.

Taiwan’s first green library, this building’s sloping turf roof preserves rainwater which is recycled back into the library’s operations, as well as features photovoltaic cells which capture solar energy. But when you’re there you’ll be forgiven for forgetting its eco-friendly bona fides in favour of its light-filled, airy levels containing an impressive selection of newspapers and periodicals, Chinese-language books, and special collections. The glass-and-wood respite with idyllic surrounding greenery looks like a book-lover utopia as much as it feels like one.

Middle East

Egypt - Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria

  • Completed: 2002       
  • Designer: Snøhetta
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The original Library of Alexandria housed the largest collection of books and manuscripts of its time and was regarded as the capital of knowledge before it was destroyed in a fire nearly 2,000 years ago.

The original Library of Alexandria, established in the third century BC, was one of the ancient world’s most important centres of knowledge until it was destroyed in the third century AD. It housed the largest collection of books and manuscripts of its time and was regarded as the capital of knowledge before it was destroyed in a fire nearly 2,00 years ago. Julius Caesar might have burned down the famous, ancient library of Alexandria, but these days, Egypt is paying homage to that great monument of antiquity.

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was to be built with the hope of recapturing the spirit and scholarship of the ancient world’s largest and most comprehensive library. The circular, granite building may not look like the original library (based on historical descriptions), but it is certainly beautiful — it’s covered in carvings from local artists and surrounded by a clear, blue reflecting pool.

The project marked the arrival of Snøhetta, a previously unknown Norwegian architecture firm that beat out more than 1,400 competitors for the design commission (and went on to design many other high-profile buildings, among them the National September 11 Museum pavilion in New York). The enormous lopsided building, which tilts toward the Mediterranean Sea, holds a range of specialized libraries, four museums, a planetarium, a virtual-reality environment, academic research centres, art galleries, and a conference centre.

The new institution includes a library room with room for eight million books, four museums, four art galleries, a planetarium, and a manuscript-restoration laboratory. Etches of 120 different scripts cover the grey Aswan granite walls as a tribute to the evolution of human language.

Qatar - National Library, Doha

  • Completed: 2017       
  • Designer: OMA
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The wow factor of the Qatar National Library begins at its entrance, which immediately brings visitors to the centre of a 44,130 m2 space designed by Dutch firm OMA. With over a million books from the Doha’s National Library, Public Library, and University Library, the library’s collections are best perused via the “people mover” (a cross between an elevator and an escalator).

Since opening in 2017, the library’s programming has focused on bridging the past and present through concerts and an exposition of historical archives in six-meter-deep glass vitrines, symbolizing an excavation site. “From the main library in the plaza, you can look down and see all the books from the Heritage Collection”, says Vincent Kersten, Senior Architect at OMA. “It’s not only a storage but also an exhibition.”

Europe

Austria - Admont Abbey Library

  • Completed: 1776       
  • Designer: Joseph Hueber
  • Architectural style: Baroque

The Admont Abbey Library is the largest monastery library in the world. The ceiling is adorned with frescoes depicting the stages of human knowledge up until the Divine Revelation. The entire design reflects the ideals and values of the Enlightenment.

Attached to one of the oldest and largest monasteries remaining in Styria (a state in Austria), the Admont Abbey Library exhibits striking Baroque-style artisanship and holds an impressive 70,000 volume collection. The hall is drenched in gold and white hues with seven cupolas and elaborate lime-wood carvings throughout. The jaw-dropping ceiling frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte depict different phases of human knowledge and play off Joseph Stammel’s sculptural series “Four Last Things.”

Austria - Austrian National Library, Vienna

  • Completed: 1723       
  • Designer: Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and his son Johann Emanuel
  • Architectural style: Baroque

Austria’s largest library is in Hofburg Palace in Vienna and houses over 7.4 million items in its collections. The library was completed in 1723 and features sculptures by Lorenzo Mattielli and Peter Strudel and frescoes by Daniel Gran.

The former court library to the House of Habsburg, this Baroque treasure hosts over 7 million objects dating back as far as the 4th century. The Austrian National Library found its permanent home in the Hofburg Palace in 1735 after the space was constructed by architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and his son Johann Emanuel. A work of art all on its own, the State Hall of the library stretches nearly 80 meters with a vibrant ceiling fresco by painter Daniel Gran and a collection of four Venetian globes.

Austria - Kremsmünster Abbey Library

  • Completed: 1680-1689       
  • Designer: Carlo Antonio Carlone
  • Architectural style: Baroque

This magnificent Benedictine monastery library is one of the great libraries of Austria and contains about 160,000 volumes, besides 1,700 manuscripts and nearly 2,000 incunabula (ie. books, pamphlets or broadsheets that were printed in the earlier stages of printing in Europe). The library interiors feature elaborate ornamentation and distinctive ceiling frescoes.

The most valuable book held by the library is the “Codex Millenarius”, a Gospel Book written around 800 in Mondsee Abbey. Facsimiles of this codex may be found in the libraries of several universities throughout the world.

Austria - Melk Monastery Library

  • Completed: 1736       
  • Designer: Jakob Prandtauer
  • Architectural style: Baroque

This abbey and its library include a world-famous collection of musical manuscripts and features stunning frescoes by artist Paul Troger.

Austria - St. Florian Monastery Library

  • Completed: 1747       
  • Designer: Johann Gotthard Hayberger
  • Architectural style: Baroque

A succession of monasteries has stood on the grounds since 819, but the current building, a masterwork of Baroque architecture, was completed in the 18th century. Its basilica and art gallery are both celebrated destinations on their own, but it’s the monastery’s library that is perhaps the most transporting environment of all. The library’s interior is a masterwork of Baroque architecture with elaborate carved-wood bookcases and balustrades with gilded details. A ceiling fresco by Bartolomeo Altomonte, completed in 1747, presents allegorical subjects who watch over the great room from the clouds.

The library comprises about 130,000 items, including many manuscripts. The gallery contains numerous works of the 16th and 17th centuries, but also some late medieval works of the Danube School, particularly by Albrecht Altdorfer. As an aside, the St. Florian Monastery was home to Anton Bruckner, where he received his early education as a choirboy and later returned as teacher and organist.

Czechia - Strahov Monastery Library, Prague

  • Completed: 1679       
  • Designer: Giovanni Dominik Ors
  • Architectural style: Baroque

The oldest part of the Library of Strahov Monastery, the Baroque Theological Hall, was established between 1671 and 1674, making the establishment one of the oldest historical libraries in the world. It is regarded as one of the best-preserved historical libraries with its thousands of books dating all the way back to the 16th century. Otherworldly frescoes by Siard Nosecký and Anton Maulbertsch decorate the ceilings as gilded and carved bookshelves house the library’s tomes. The Philosophers’ Hall features a rarity cabinet filled with different animals, minerals, and mock fruits.

This impressive library collection contains over 200,000 volumes, including just about every important title printed in central Europe by the end of the 18th century. And as if the gorgeous décor and impressive book collection weren’t impressive enough on their own, the library also has a favourite feature of many geeks – two secret passageways hidden by bookshelves and opened with fake books.

This beautiful library features an ornate, stucco ceiling of Biblical artwork. On top of being home to several thousand volumes of books, it’s also a splendid art gallery that is certainly a must-see for anyone visiting Prague.

Czechia - Klementinum National Library, Prague

  • Completed: 1722       
  • Designer: Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer
  • Architectural style: Baroque

The series of buildings that make up this National Library owe their inception to an 11th century chapel dedicated to Saint Clement (hence the name). The National Library itself was founded in 1781 and has served as a copyright library since 1782. The collection now includes historical examples of Czech literature, special materials relating to Tycho Brahe, and a unique collection of Mozart’s personal effects.

With its ornate ceiling frescoes by Jan Hiebl and rich gold-and-mahogany spiral pillars, it’s no wonder why the Klementinum is touted as “the Baroque pearl of Prague.” The library first opened in 1722 as a part of a Jesuit university but now serves as the National Library of Czechia, housing over 20,00 volumes of foreign theological literature. A portrait of Emperor Joseph II sits at the head of the hall to commemorate his work in preserving books from abolished monastic libraries, many of which remain in the hall today.

With elaborate ceiling frescoes and spiralling wood columns topped by gilded capitals, there is no mistaking the aptly named Baroque Library’s grand ambitions. Containing a selection of unusual, oversized globes, it offers a reminder of its former patrons’ quest for worldly knowledge.

Denmark - Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen

  • Completed: Black Diamond extension 1999, old library 1648       
  • Designer: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The Danish Royal Library is the national library of Denmark, founded in 1648 by King Frederik III. The library holds all works printed in Denmark since the 17th century and nearly every Danish book ever written, dating back to the first Danish book printed in 1482. The Danish Royal Library is the largest library among the Nordic countries. Many significant works, including the correspondence of Hans Christian Anderson and historical maps of the Polar Region, are held here. Holdings also include the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, named for Icelandic scholar Arnas Magnæan, who dedicated much of his life collecting manuscripts from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden until his death in 1730.

The modern extension doubled the size of Copenhagen’s original Royal Library when it was completed in 1999. Clad in polished black granite, the structure is nicknamed the Black Diamond. But it isn’t just a dark box—the building’s monolithic form is bisected by an atrium of clear glass, which offers a dramatic sense of transparency. The central atrium opens the library up to the city and water, softening the edifice’s powerful stature. Most of the public functions are located here at the core of the building, which is intended to serve as a public gathering space, while deeper interior spaces offer more insulated rooms for study.

Finland - Helsinki Central Library Oodi, Helsinki

  • Completed: 2018       
  • Designer: ALA (Juho Grönholm, Antii Nousjoki & Samuli Woolston, lead)
  • Architectural style: Modernist

For a cultural institution defined by silence, in a country known for its love of the same, the new Helsinki Central Library, which opens this week, has been the talk of the town. The 185,774-square-foot, Finnish spruce timber–clad library, called Oodi (“ode” in Finnish) is the work of local architect firm ALA, led by Juho Grönholm, Antti Nousjoki, and Samuli Woolston, who were chosen following an anonymous competition. Some of Oodi’s famous neighbours include Finlandia Hall, Alvaar Aalto’s magnificent iceberg-inspired Concert Hall, and Finnish Parliament.

Finland is known for its vibrant library culture, but ALA’s design upset any traditional library model, most noticeably by relegating reading space and bookshelves to the top floor, which sits under an undulating roof (it also resembles an iceberg, creating a visual rhyme with Finlandia Hall). The library’s other two levels seem to meld into each other through a series of curving zero-threshold spaces that start in the outdoor plaza. They are spaces designed just for the public to hang out in in the heart of the city, “a civic living room.” That’s a dominant theme of the library’s design, following a mandate to promote democratic equality (other themes—active citizenship and freedom of expression—are answered by Oodi’s proximity also to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and the Parliament. The Living Room area also includes a theatre, a “Makers Space” equipped with 3-D printers, a children’s play area, and a recording studio. (At one point the architects considered a sauna as well.)

Art by Finnish artists Jani Ruscica and Otto Karvonen was commissioned for the building. With only a third of the library’s space devoted to books (a relatively meagre 100,000 volumes are on the shelves at a given time), Oodi is allowed to embrace emerging technology—including book-sorting robots—to create new opportunities to access books. The library’s 3.4 million other volumes are available, for example, through a much larger, cutting-edge distribution system. It’s an exciting, new space, miles away from the old idea of libraries as dark, immovable, and quiet temples. Antti Nousjoki, one of ALA’s three partners, says, “Oodi is a large public forum of thought and action operating under the library organization, but with a range of reach and functionality well beyond a traditional book depository.”

France - Biblioteque Nationale de France

  • Completed:1868, Extension 1994
  • Designer: Dominique Perrault (new building)
  • Architectural style:

The National Library of France has expanded greatly since new buildings were added to house the collection in 1988. Even so, the old buildings on the Rue de Richelieu are still in use and are utterly gorgeous as well. These buildings were completed in 1868, and by 1896 the library was the largest book repository in the world, although that record has since been taken from it.

Founded by Charles V. Despite in 1368, the first collection of the France’s national library was housed within a special room in the Louvre. Today, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France spans over four locations across Paris and houses over 10 million titles ranging from arts to law to philosophy. The institution displays countless exhibits and works of art including King Louis XIV’s colossal globes, which formerly lived at Versailles until the French Revolution.

In 1989, then-President of France François Mitterrand announced an international design competition for a new library that would be a part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The bid was awarded to Dominique Perrault for his monumental design incorporating four glass towers shaped like open books on the four corners of a huge esplanade. Perrault’s design was modern and minimalist, which garnered him much criticism from the French, though many have grown to admire the library’s design. The reading rooms are sunken below and arranged around a garden courtyard containing full-size trees.

France - Bibliothèque de la Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine, Paris

  • Completed: 1879, renovated 2004-2007
  • Designer: Unknown
  • Architectural style: Romanesque

The library at the Cite de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris is a must visit for any architecture lover. Not only because of the stunning location in a Romanesque sistine, but also because its entire collection is dedicated to works about architecture, urbanism, and landscaping. The library also houses the largest collection of preserved Romanesque wall paintings in France.

France - Bibliotheque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne, Paris

  • Completed: 1783       
  • Designer: Henri-Paul Nénot
  • Architectural style: Beaux-Arts

This centuries-old library is part of the famous Sorbonne at the University of Paris. Originally built in the 18th century, it’s now one of the largest libraries in Paris, with two million volumes on various subjects, especially history, geography, philosophy, and French literature. The Saint-Jacques Reading Room is a particularly beautiful part of the library, with rich wood walls and mint green and cream colours.

France - Domaine de Chantilly Reading Room, Oise

  • Completed:       
  • Designer: Honoré Daumet
  • Architectural style: Renaissance

The reading room is a modern library, remarkably well integrated into the ancient structure of the Petit Château, built during the Renaissance. The metal structure with two levels is typical of library architecture in the second half of the 19th century. It houses a collection started by the Duke of Aumale in 1848.

France - Sainte-Geneviève Library, Paris

  • Completed: 1850       
  • Designer: Henri Labrouste
  • Architectural style: Neo-Gothic

The Sainte-Geneviève Library is located adjacent to the Pantheon on Paris’s famed Left Bank. Although built in the mid-19th century, it holds materials much older than that—the library inherited the collections of the ancient Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève, which was founded in the 6th century. Architecturally, the library is best known for its exposed iron structure. The barrel vaults of the reading room are supported by lacy iron arches, which are held aloft by a central row of slender iron columns. Surrounded by windows, the room feels bright and inviting rather than heavy or oppressive.

Germany - Cottbus Technical University Library

  • Completed: 2004       
  • Designer: Herzog & de Meuron
  • Architectural style: Modernist

The University Library was built in the city of Cottbus, Brandenburg state, Germany, in the eastern part of the BTU campus between the University and the city.

The amoeboid form denies entry easy reading. Located on an artificial hill, the library seems impenetrable fortress. However, the milky white facade is mixed with clouds. The building occupies an ambiguous terrain between monumentality and invisibility. Dispensing with certain areas of land in the floors above the lobby and administrative area, or each part of the building, gave considerable freedom in designing spatial sequences within the building.

Externally, the library appears as a curved glass building with no edges or corners, resembling a giant amoeba design. Unusual shape without front or rear and four protrusions of different sizes.

The glass library building is located opposite the main entrance of campus. From this point of view, the library appears as an impressive body anchored in the park. As one approaches the building from the city centre or from the north, it looks completely different, slenderer, almost like a separate tower. In fact, the building looks different from all avenues of focus, however, is still one continuous, flowing as a whole. Although it appears to be organic and explicitly self-referential, its design is also derived from the expressed will provide the site a distinctive new survey quality within its urban context.

Germany - Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel

  • Completed: 1886       
  • Designer: 
  • Architectural style: Neo-Renaissance

The Herzog August Library is not just a repository of books, but a treasure trove of knowledge and history. Located in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, this renowned library holds a special place in the world of academia and cultural heritage. Its rich collection comprises over a million volumes, covering various fields of study including theology, philosophy, history, literature, and much more.

Hermann Korb’s original round building, Bibliotheksrotunde, was replaced in 1886 by the present more conventional building.

Germany - Philological Library, Berlin

  • Completed: 2005       
  • Designer: Norman Foster (Foster + Partners)
  • Architectural style: Modernist

Nicknamed the ‘Berlin brain’ for its cranial form, the Philological Library on the campus of the Free University of Berlin has been applauded for its eco-intelligent structure since opening. British architect Norman Foster spent years researching and experimenting with how buildings can employ active and passive technologies to increase energy efficiency.

As a result, the building’s naturally ventilated, bubble-like enclosure consists of three parts. The external shell features aluminium and glazed panels that regulate the internal temperature. The supporting steel frame, formed from radial geometries, separates the inner and outer layers. And lastly, a translucent inner membrane filters daylight, allowing just the right amount of ambient light to shine through and create a perfect studying environment.

Germany - Stuttgart City Library