Words Dolores O’Donoghue
More than just storage spaces for books, libraries have always been important institutions for enriching minds and passing on wisdom. They also provide a facility where we learn new words, think new thoughts and explore new ideas.
While all libraries play an important role in our academic and cultural lives, some are also treasure troves of unique and imaginative architecture, adorned with beautiful frescoed ceilings or splendid skylights. Here, we feature a selection of the world’s most striking libraries.
Trinity College Library
The library contains over six million printed volumes with extensive collections of journals, manuscripts, maps and music. It is home to the Book of Kells, Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s finest surviving medieval illuminated manuscript, documenting the four gospels. The main chamber of the Old Library, the majestic Long Room, designed by Irish architect and engineer Thomas Burgh, was built between 1712 and 1732 and contains 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. The distinctive barrel-vaulted oak ceiling was added in 1860 when the original flat ceiling was raised to add a second level of shelving. The room, which is 65 metres in length, is lined with marble busts of authors, philosophers and college benefactors.
Other treasures include an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic that was posted on the wall of the General Post Office during the Easter Rising. The Trinity College harp, also known as the Brian Boru harp, dates back to the 14th or 15th century and is one of the three oldest surviving Gaelic harps.
Admont Abbey Library
Admont Abbey was founded in 1074 by the Benedictine Order. The library hall, built in 1776, is the largest monastic library in the world. It holds some 70,000 volumes, while the Abbey in total owns nearly 200,000 books. The most valuable among these are 1,400 manuscripts, some of which date back to the 8th century, and 530 incunabula (books printed before 1500). Baroque architect Joseph Hueber was responsible for the design. The ceiling has seven cupolas with frescoes by Bartolomeo Altomonte, representing the different phases of human knowledge leading up to the Divine Revelation. Joseph Stammel’s ‘Four Last Things’, a group of four striking over-sized figures, represent Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. The bookcases are painted in white with delicate gold decorations, and natural light is provided by forty-eight windows.
During the economic crises of the 1930s, the Abbey was only able to survive by selling off various items of its valuable art treasures. The monks were evicted by the Nazis in 1939 but fortunately returned at the end of the Second World War in 1945.
Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This institution was established in 1837 and construction of the current headquarters took place between 1880 and 1887 under the direction of Portuguese architect Rafael da Silva e Castro. This massive library contains more than 350,000 works of Portuguese literature, including rare books from centuries past; the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal.
The building’s Neo-Manueline design evokes a Gothic-Renaissance influence that was popular at the time. The richly decorated interior is most impressive, numerous wooden bookshelves with detailed carvings, huge pillars and elegant arches filling every wall. The ceiling of the Reading Room has a beautiful wrought-iron chandelier and a breathtaking skylight. A focal point is the Altar of the Homeland, commemorating the Portuguese discoveries, which is made of silver, ivory and marble.
Strahov Monastery Library
Prague, Czech Republic
Founded in 1143, Strahov is one of the oldest Premonstratensian monasteries in the world and has survived fires, plundering and wars. The library is divided into two magnificent halls. The first one to be built (between 1671 and 1679), the Theological Hall, was designed in the Baroque style by the Italian architect Giovanni Domenico Orsi. Fifty years later the ceilings were decorated with frescoes by the Premonstratensian monk and painter Siard Nosecký, depicting the theme of ‘True Wisdom’. One inscription reads, ‘INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI’ – the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.
The Philosophical Hall is neoclassical in design and was completed in 1797. The interior dimensions were designed to fit around the carved and gilded walnut shelving that was rescued from another monastery. An exquisite ceiling fresco by Viennese painter Anton Maulbertsch bears the theme ‘Mankind’s Quest for True Wisdom’ and depicts science and religion, their mutual impact on each other and how they have evolved over centuries.
Over 18,000 volumes are stored in the Theological Hall, and the northern wall is composed entirely of Bibles or Bible parts in various languages. The Philosophical Hall has over 42,000 ancient philosophical texts.
George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Known as Baltimore’s ‘Cathedral of Books’, the library was designed by Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind. It opened its doors in 1878 and underwent a one-million-dollar renovation and refurbishment between 2002 and 2004. The visually stunning Greek Revival-style library features a sixty-one-foot- high atrium covered by a latticed skylight of frosted glass above a black and white slab marble floor. Bookshelves are surrounded by classical columns embellished with gold leaf and tiers of intricate cast-iron balconies.
The library’s collection of over 300,000 volumes dates back to the founding of the Peabody Institute in 1857. When Peabody – a banker, merchant and philanthropist – created the library, it was ‘to be maintained for the free use of all persons who desire to consult it’. Although it is the research library of Johns Hopkins University, the facility is open to the general public, as was his intention.
- ‘The world’s most beautiful libraries’ is published in Anthology Volume 13. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
- Browse more in interiors.
- If you enjoyed this feature, why not enter our creative writing competition.
- If you were inspired by this feature, we’d love it if you would share it!