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The World's Best Libraries

May 5, 2011 Books, Reading, Writing 29 Comments

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.


Boston Athenaeum:

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.)














Salt Lake City Public Library

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.














Cambridge Public Library

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.










Darien, CT Public Library

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. 



Currently there are "29 comments" on this Article:

  1. Erika Robuck says:

    What a lovely tribute to libraries–places that open up so many worlds for so many people.

    Viva la libraries!

  2. randysusanmeyers says:

    Love. Just love.

  3. One of my dream vacations is to travel the world visiting libraries such as these beauties – need to add that to my bucket list! These are absolutely gorgeous!

    Our small town has a [relatively] new library that is so wonderful, I could roam the aisles, grab a mountain-load of books and sit by the fireplace reading all the day long. But it almost didn’t get built – there was a huge debate that was supposedly financial but it was so obvious that the people who were opposed to building the library only wanted to use the space for their own greedy needs. Thank goodness we have enough citizens who care more about the growth of our children than about money, otherwise the library would not exist!

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  4. Jane Roper says:

    LOVED this piece! I, too, am a major library-lover. I would add the Iowa City Public Library to the list. It’s airy and spacious with lots of places to work (including little carrells with closed doors that you can use in 1 or 2 hour blocks) and tons of friendly staff.

    It was nice to see Southport’s Pequot library on this list: I grew up nearby, and as a child I gave (and watched) many a piano recital *and* took horrible 5th grade ballroom dancing classes (meant to teach manners and poise or something) in the large hall there.

    Could you calibrate your instruments to that circular library? George Michael. Tee hee.

  5. Andi Pearson says:

    Our little library in Golden CO has everything – periodicals (where I read the Yoga Journal), computers (where I see people job-hunting online), story hour for kids (where I take my granddaughter), and that wonderful techno-blessing of reserving a book online (I get an email saying it’s ready for pick up). But the best part is outside the building where I can sit by babbling Clear Creek, on a wooden bench, and read or just look at the sky with a book in my lap.

  6. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie says:

    There is nothing like a library. Great pics, Nichole!

  7. GAYLE LIN says:

    What an awesome article. I particularly like the photo of the Children’s Library in Japan, with the children on the stairs.

    I remember using a bookmobile that came to my neighborhood when I was a child in Virginia. At the time, it was as impressive to me and these magnificent libraries are to me now. Wherever two or more books are gathered together …..

    • So true, Gayle. “Libraries” come in all shapes and styles. Our town recycling dump has a special room, all shelves, used as a book swap area…. I go there weekly, and come home with dog-earned Don Quixote, Wallace Stegner, Marilynne Robinson… My kids ask to stop each time we drive by, and I find a few picture books to toss in the back of the car with them.

  8. The reference room of the old Starr Memorial Library at Middlebury College, complete with a mezzanine-level balcony wrapping around the room, with tiny desks tucked into nooks around the perimeter. Inspired me to break into the library one night (back in the day when it wasn’t open 24/7) with my boyfriend and spend the night there, sneaking out in the morning with our sleeping bags tucked into suspiciously large book bags.

    And even though it’s full of loonies–including The Guy With The Cape–I’ll add the Bodleian. Beautiful, antiquated, cumbersome, but beautiful. Oh, and the Radcliffe Camera (not a photography apparatus but a round room).

    Lovely post, Nichole.

  9. Nichole, It is exciting and inspiring to see these photos of libraries and to imagine myself and others spending time in these spaces. The photos you selected and your appreciative words tell a captivating story.
    A book with additional fine library photos that you and your readers might value knowing about is:
    Library: The Drama Within Photographs by Diane Asseo Grilliches, essay by Daniel J. Boorsin University of New Mexico Press in association with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C

    The photographer is a friend of mine and in creating her book she took many photos of library interiors in the greater New England area including Newton, Wellfleet and Watertown (the Perkins Library of Braille books for the Blind), Norfolk (prison library). The photos are also from all over the country (California, Alabama, New York) and all over the World, (Paris, Jerusalem, Bosnia and Herzogovina in Sarajevo …a library now destroyed).

    Thanks again for your evocative thoughts and photos.

    Eleanor Rubin

  10. Amanda Zarle says:


    What a great piece. Reminded me of a few of my favorite libraries

    Library of Congress

    and the Fisher Fine Arts Library at Penn

    Thanks again for the great post.


  11. Linda White says:

    Loved this! Thanks for bringing little libraries to light, that are just as beautiful because of what they offer. I absolutely love libraries, and I am lucky to live in a place that values them. We have the James J. Hill Reference Library (where people actually do get married!) attached to the beautiful century-old St. Paul Central Library. And our 5-year-old Minneapolis Central Library, with one of the nicest (and biggest) children’s rooms I’ve ever seen.
    I love libraries so much, that when my branch opened its new building, I went to the Grand Opening, even though my in-laws were visiting from Texas. I brought them with! My father-in-law loved it.
    My favorite library quote is from an article about immigrants coming to the library for the first time – “And all this is free?”

  12. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Beautiful. Love this. I spent a few hours at the Cambridge public library this morning, and couldn’t help but bring my laptop over to show the pictures to one of the librarians…

  13. Wbb says:

    Trinity College (Dublin)’s Old Library (,_Dublin) and Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library ( could be added to your wonderful list….

  14. joey know says:

    You know, I can’t think of one ‘bad’ library I’ve ever visited. They’re all good places when you need a place to go, you know.

  15. Hi Nichole,

    What a treat this magnificent list was on this rainy, cold afternoon – steaming hot tea for this book lover’s soul.

    I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library and its gorgeous main reading room, where my husband and I spent lots of time flirting and even occasionally studying during our undergraduate days. These days, though, I spend my library time at our small Midwestern town’s woefully underfunded public library that is nevertheless staffed by a remarkable team of devoted women who are helping my kids fall in love with books.

  16. Bobbe Anderson says:

    I have to say that one of my favorite libraries is my very own hometown one, the Ames Free Library, one of this year’s Gates Foundation;s winners of the Best littlle Library in the US grant. It’s a place that I love to go any time.

  17. Colin says:

    Churches for thinking people.

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Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (Crown/Random House, June 2012), which was a finalist for the 2012 New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, Nichole was previously on staff as an editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she received the school's annual award for long-form literary journalism, and has written for publications including Psychology Today, Elle, Boston Magazine, Salon, The Millions, and Post Road Literary Magazine. Nichole lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children, and can be found online at and on Twitter @nicholebernier. Read Full