Extraordinary Libraries

Our world is home to countless wonders. Mountains, seas, and everything in between. This includes architectural marvels as well, some of which are libraries. However, these libraries are revered not only for their appearance, but also for their collections.

The top ranked library according to thebestcolleges.org is the Library of Congress. It should be noted this website did not restrict its rankings to United States libraries. The LOC website states, “The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts in its collections… is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office.” Founded in 1800, it’s also the oldest library in the United States. After the British destroyed the original building where the library was housed in 1814, then retired President Jefferson assisted. Per the Library of Congress, he made an “offer to sell his comprehensive personal library of 6,487 books to “recommence” its own library.” Over the next several decades the library grew inside and out. An ever-expanding collection and new separate building established it firmly in the capital as necessary for the present and future.

The Bodleian Library is next in the rankings, but certainly not less beloved than the others. It supports the scholars of Oxford University, and has proudly done so for several hundred years. The entire system holds “more than 13 million printed items, over 80,000 e-journals and outstanding special collections including rare books and manuscripts, classical papyri, maps, music, art and printed ephemera.” It was officially founded in 1602, but had numerous start-ups before that. Per the website ,the “first purpose-built library was begun in approximately 1320 in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in a room which still exists… The building stood at the heart of Oxford’s ‘academic quarter’… By 1488, the room was superseded by the library known as Duke Humfrey’s, which constitutes the oldest part of the Bodleian.” Sir Thomas Bodley took on the task of reestablishing the library after it had been ransacked by the “Dean of Christ Church” in 1550. Since then it has grown in size and popularity. People traveled from the far corners of the world to marvel at the architectural beauty and ample knowledge filling its shelves.

The Beinecke Library at Yale University is renowned for its rare books and manuscripts collections. A video on the library’s website allows the public to view the architectural design of the building itself. It was “designed by Gordon Bunshaft of the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill… opened in October 1963. It was the gift of three Yale alumni—Edwin J. Beinecke, 1907; Frederick W. Beinecke, 1909S; Walter Beinecke, 1910—and their families.” Per the library website, over “200,000” visitors come through the doors annually to learn, study, and seek knowledge. The styling of the building is such that “The building’s design includes a six-story glass-enclosed tower of book stacks, holding approximately 180,000 volumes.” It’s made to be impressive, and its unique collection, including the Gutenberg Bible, is respected and admired by many.

The fifth ranked library is the Vatican Library owned and managed by the Catholic church. As one of the oldest libraries in the world, it houses works from the past several hundred years. Per their site “historical collections that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The Vatican library was formally established in the year 1475.” Since then it has been continuously added to its collections and been used by countless people. A project in 2012 involved the “Bodleian Library… The Vatican library in a combined effort to digitize millions of Vatican documents.” This joint effort is called the Polansky Foundation Digitization Project. An important undertaking which benefits everyone, and focused on three major groups of information types: “Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and incunabula, or 15th-century printed books… Chosen for their scholarly importance… include both religious and secular texts.” The project was completed in 2017, and digitized over 1.5 million pages worth of content.

These libraries have each impacted the world in significant and lasting ways. Enabling the masses to access information in unprecedented ways, which, a mere 75 years ago wouldn’t have been possible. There are numerous libraries which are important, but these 5 have changed and led the world of knowledge as we all know it for centuries.

By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS

Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.