The grandest libraries in the world
There's nowhere like a library to inspire great writing — and to celebrate the fact that the globe's borders are open once again, here’s the Forthwrite guide to some of the best storied spaces. Ssh...
The New York Public Library
A few years ago in a time that seems a long ago and far away, I was in New York for work and found myself with an hour to spare. If I ever have a spare hour in NYC, there are many things I love doing: lighting a candle for my dad in one of the city’s Catholic churches (Dad may have been a lapsed Catholic, but he loved NY avidly); finding a dive bar and playing songs on the duke box (the earlier in the day, the better); eating out solo and reading a book; visiting The Frick Collection. But in this instance, I was on 41st, so I headed to the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Most of what I knew of the library came from its starring role when NY spectacularly drowned in The Day After Tomorrow. The library has been in more movies than most A-listers, with credits including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 42nd Street, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man, Sex and the City… But there’s more to the library than its film roles. Or even borrowing books.
Walk up the steps, past the stone lions and enter one of the world’s shrines to the printed word — a place any bookworm will immediately feel at home. The sense of familiarity is one of the best things about visiting a foreign library. Visit any library the world over and there’s the same peaceful murmurings (rustles, taps, coughs, echoing voices), the same hallowed sense of learning, the same calm of being around other readers and that delicious distinctive smell of old books.
The Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room is one of the most beautiful rooms: and a great place to start. Named after the founder of Reader’s Digest, it stores issues of more than 200 current magazines and periodicals. Then there’s the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal map division, home to one of the largest map collections in the world: 400,000 sheet maps, 22,000 books and atlases dating back to the 1500s. And the Rose Main Reading Room: nearly the length of a football field, this vast space has massive windows and grand chandeliers, and could be the best place in the world to enjoy a good book. And the book to read here? Probably Ezra Jack Keats' 1962 classic The Snowy Day, which has been checked out more times than any other book in the history of the library.
New Central Library, Canada
Calgary Public Library is one of the most used library systems in North America with half of its residents holding library cards: this fact alone makes me want to move to there. Hence, it’s only fitting that Calgary's Central Library should be spectacular.
It opened its doors three years ago — and remains one the world’s most futuristic libraries, featuring in the New York Times’ 52 Places to Travel. At the uppermost level of the library is the Great Reading Room, conceived as a jewel box tucked within the library, which provides a space for inspiration. And, since the site was designed to accommodate a working railway line, this is the only library in the world to have a train running through it.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Bibliothèque Nationale de France is one of Paris’s greatest built wonders. Walk inside the austere stone facade and prepare to be wonder-struck. The 1867 library’s main hall, the Labrouste reading room, is flooded with space and light thanks to an otherworldly series of domed skylights, supported by tall, thin cast iron columns. Its rounded stone arches are filled with books and landscape murals, and even its 400-odd wood desks, with their bulbous green glass lamps, take your breath away.
And there’s an even larger reading room in the complex — the Salle Ovale, designed in the late 19th century by Jean Louis Pascal.
La Ciudadela, Mexico
Previously a military headquarters, a prison, a school and a weapons factory, built at the end of the 18th century, La Ciudadela was converted into a library in 1946. In its latest carnation, hundreds of wooden boxes hang from the walls, the ceilings and sit under its glass floor.
When the Argentinian poet, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote that he always imagined paradise “will be a kind of library” — he possibly had the Klementinum in mind (the library featured in his short story, The Secret Miracle). A vast complex of beautiful baroque and rococo halls, the building is now mostly occupied by the Czech National Library and is home to 20,000 rare books. Bibliophiles can tour of the baroque Library Hall, the Meridian Hall, the Astronomical Tower and the Chapel of Mirrors. Back when it was voted the world’s most beautiful library in 2015, the Prague Post quipped, “Any number one ranking in a category that doesn’t involve stag parties is welcome.”
Tianjin Binhai Public Library, China
When the The Tianjin Binhai Library opened four years ago, people were queuing down the street to enter. This being China, construction took just three years from the first sketch to the opening — and the curved seating and shelves make it feel as though you are floating across a sea of books. There is an element of smoke and mirrors: although it has capacity for over a million books, the majority in the main room are only printed images of book spines dispersed amongst the collection to create the illusion of fully stock shelves.
But if you have no immediate plans that will allow you to be among the stacks of some foreign library, the virtual tours collected by Atlas Obscura offer some of the delights we’ve all been missing. (And if I've missed your favourite library, I'd love to hear about it below.)
From readers to writers
We started our agency, Forthwrite, to help people fall in love with words again. If you remember how much you used to enjoy writing and can’t understand why it’s become such a chore, come to us.