By Nichole Bernier
I was at the library with my children recently, and my 10-year-old was struggling with an armload of books across the room. Trying to wrestle them into the return chute.
Before I could go help, a woman stepped in and took half of the books. She stood beside him taking turns dropping them into the bin, then chatted a moment longer.
He came back smiling. “She was so nice. She asked me what my favorite book was.”
My Theory About Libraries
I have a theory about libraries. I think they make people happy and thoughtful. Kind. Appreciative. You’re in the presence of so much, given free.
Maybe it’s too much sugar in my morning coffee, but I get a little world-peacey about them. There’s something special about a place that lets you walk out with a bunch of books in exchange for nothing more than a chunk of plastic that isn’t even backed by your local financial institution.
I know libraries aren’t really free, of course. They’re funded by our taxpayer dollars, along with tomahawk missiles and metermaids, but when budget-cutting season comes around, it seems like libraries are more expendible.
I love libraries in a way I’ll never love tomahawk missiles or metermaids. I love beautiful historical ones, and ones with modern innovation. Bright libraries with walls of windows, and dark-paneled-enclaves with armchairs. Tiny local branches you can walk to, and big special ones worth the drive. I love knowing that the books on the shelves stay put, regardless of whether a hard drive fails or battery dies, whether a title goes out of print or out of vogue.
What are the best, most beautiful libraries, all the world over? Well now, who’s to say? But this is my thoroughly biased list, a combination of nominations and research, with as many bytes as our blog allows. For a more scientific view, check out Library Journal’s star-rated national libraries. And please add your own in our comments section.
As a museum is a place for the muses who inspire art, so an athenæum is a place for Athena, the goddess of wisdom and intellectual pursuits. Founded in 1807, this one of the oldest independent libraries in the U.S., and most gorgeous. Sure, you have to pay to belong, but the first floor is free to everyone. (Membership: $115 for the sought-after younger generation, defined as “under 41,” $230 for others.)
A five-story curved glass wall. A 20,000-square-fo0t skylight. A roof garden. Spiraling fireplaces on four of the five floors, designed to resemble a column of fire.
The new glassy addition won a prestigious architectural award for the single most beautiful new building built in Boston in the past 10 years. The buzzing schedule includes 100 programs a month. The children’s area has bean bag chairs and gerbils and allows picnic lunches.
Geisel Library at UCSD
Subject of many urban legends, including: Is it sinking into the ground because architects didn’t account for weight of the books?
Children’s Library, Iwaki, Japan
Kids are allowed to pull down picture books willy-nilly, and sit wherever they want, reading.
Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, La Jolla
Flowers. Small spaces. Tranquility.
Pequot Public Library, Southport, CT
The 1889 neighborhood library has three working fireplaces, an historic auditorium, and a pet bunny in the children’s department.
Bibliteca Sandro Penna, Perugia, Italy
The most gorgeous of spheres. A perfect circle. George Michael would be jealous.
Knight Library, University of Oregon
Beautiful and inviting,” says a regular. “Has great energy, night and day.”
Suzzallo Library, University of Washington
People are clamoring to get married here. No wonder.
Wellfleet Public Library, Cape Cod
It’s a former candle factory. Whalebone ceiling, solar paneled roof. Bring the kids on a rainy Cape-summer-vacation day.
Law Library, University of Zurich
Built by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Better for people watching, or for working?
A glass elevator goes to the top.
The new 54,000-foot library with a Gold Standard environmental rating has 21 wireless access points, first-run movies, and private spaces for kids’ book clubs to meet. Among top 10 libraries for its size in US, as rated by Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings.
San Francisco Public Library, Presidio Branch
The Italian-Renaissance historical building reopened after a massive renovation in March with a family-friendly party including regional farmers who sent kids home with seeds.
Mattapan Public Library, Boston
The mayor’s inner-city collaboration aimed at helping Boston’s inner-city youth reach their full potential, coordinating learning and recreation throughout the day. Strong collections in urban fiction, popular music, teen fiction, anime, and manga.
Wellesley, MA Public Library
My little corner. Where it happens for me.