Book Love

14 of the Most Spectacular Libraries in the USA

Ah, the library—a place of wonder, endless knowledge, and discovery. No matter what size, they can lead to big ideas (even the little ones!). We thought we’d scour the United States to highlight the most impressive institutions, so read on and prepare to be awestruck by America’s collection.

1. George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland

George Peabody Library

Photo by Patrick Gillespie via Flickr

Open to the public, this stunning 19th-century-focused research library lives within The John Hopkins University. The building was finished in 1878 and designed by architect Edmund G. Lind and Nathan H. Morison, the first Peabody provost. With black and white marble flooring, a 61-foot-tall atrium, and stacks and stacks of books, the George Peabody Library is a dream.

2. Jefferson Market Library in New York, NY

Jefferson Market Library

Photo by Chris Ford via Flickr

Built around 1833, this building’s original purpose was to serve as the Third Judicial District Courthouse, and later served as a woman’s prison. It was supposed to be demolished in 1959, but community members rallied together to save the building and convert it into the Jefferson Market Library in 1967.

3. Geisel Library in San Diego, CA

Geisel Library

Photo by O Palsson via Flickr

The Geisel Library calls University of California, San Diego home, which has us wishing we could go back to school. Designed by William Pereira (who also designed the Transamerica Pyramid in our own San Francisco), the 1970s style aligns with Brutalist architecture. It was named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Geisel, the latter being none other than Dr. Seuss.

4. The Community Bookshelf in Kansas City, Missouri

Community Bookshelf

Photo by Chris Murphy via Flickr

Okay, so this is technically not a library in the literal sense—the Community Bookshelf runs along the Central Library’s parking garage—but we still think it counts. The wall is composed of 22 larger-than-life book spines, each approximately 25 feet tall, and the titles were chosen by local readers on what they believed best represented Kansas City.

5. Seattle Central Library in Seattle, WA

Seattle Central Library

Photo by brewbooks via Flickr

A visit to Washington is not complete without stopping by the jaw-dropping Seattle Public Library. Standing at 11 stories and constructed out of glass and steel, the Rem Koolhaas-designed structure offers plenty of natural light, modern design elements, and sudden onslaughts of color—including a section that is entirely red.

6. The Morgan Library in New York, NY

The Morgan Library

Photo via The Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan Library is the result of financier Pierpont Morgan commissioning the firm McKim, Mead and White to design him a library for his extensive collection in 1902. In 2010, the interior was completely restored and opened to the public. On view are medieval illuminated manuscripts and rare printed books, including a Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455.

7. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, CT

Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Photo by Lauren Manning via Flickr

None other than Yale University could call the Beinecke Library their own—it’s one of the largest buildings in the world solely dedicated to rare books and manuscripts. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1963, the space consists of a reading room surrounding a climate-controlled central shelving stack, teeming with rarely seen works.

8. Joe and Rika Mansueto Library in Chicago, IL

The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library

Photo by John Schiebel via Flickr

From the outside, the Mansueto Library at University of Chicago looks like a simple egg-shaped dome—but inside, it recedes 240 feet underground into a closed, high-density storage facility that has the capacity to store 3.5 million volumes. Book retrieval is automated and takes only 5 minutes! Another perk: cozying up in the reading room while the skylights are covered in snow.

9. Boston Public Library in Boston, MA

Boston Public Library

Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr

A step inside the Boston Public Library is a step back in history: opened in 1895, it was the very first publicly supported free library in the world. It was also the first to allow its citizens to borrow books and materials, and the first to develop a branch system. On top of that, it boasts a collection of 23 million items (including several first edition folios by William Shakespeare and original music scores from Mozart), and is pretty darn beautiful.

10. Hearst Castle Main Library in San Simeon, CA

Heart Castle Library

Photo by Eric Chan via Flickr

You’ve likely heard of Hearst Castle, the 165-room, 127-acre Californian complex designed by Julia Morgan for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. But did you know he had a library of more than 4,000 books, 150 ancient Greek vases, and other precious objects? While you can’t check these books out to borrow, you can check them out with your eyes.

11. Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City, UT

Salt Lake City Library

Photo by Jonathan Grado via Flickr

Is it a mall? An international airport terminal? Nope, this 5 story building is (you guessed it) the Salt Lake City Public Library. With a spiral staircase, a 20,000-square-foot skylight, an art gallery, a massive graphic novel and zine collection, and a rooftop garden, this sounds like a wonderful place to pass the time.

12. Suzzallo Library in Seattle, WA

Suzzallo Library

Photo by Michael Matti via Flickr

Hogwarts, is that you? Seattle makes this list twice, and deservedly so—the Suzzallo Library, designed by Charles H. Bebb and Carl F. Gould, is the central library at the University of Washington. The Reading Room is lined by oak bookcases, topped with hand-carved friezes of the native plants of Washington.

13. Library of Congress in Washington, DC

Library of Congress

Photo by Matthew and Heather via Flickr

The Library of Congress is not only the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States—it’s also the largest library in the entire world by collection size. There are a whopping 160,775,469 items total, with 23,892,068 of those being catalogued books. The card catalogs help put it in perspective!

14. New York Public Library in New York, NY

New York Public Library

Photo by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Following the Library of Congress in size is the New York Public Library, with a collection of nearly 53 million items. The historical collections include Columbus’s 1493 letter announcing his discovery of the New World, George Washington’s original Farewell Address, and John Coltrane’s handwritten score of “Lover Man.”

– – –

Of course, there are many, many more impressive and beautiful libraries throughout these 50 states. Which ones did we miss that deserve some attention? Let us know in the comments.

And if you liked this, you’ll probably also like…

Featured Image by Michael Matti via Flickr

Jenna Homen

Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found cooking, camping, or in a museum. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
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8 Comments

  • Elizabeth May 2, 2016 at 11:35 am

    These are gorgeous! My affections tend to vacillate between the large, impressive facilities and the petite-but-distinctive libraries. (I’ve written several posts about my favorites at my Coastal Book Gal blog, searchable using the “libraries” tag.) Among its many other virtues, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose has a mind-boggling eight floors, some great exhibition rooms, and a rooftop terrace. If you prefer something smaller, Carmel’s Harrison Memorial Library invites with its stone walkway and cozy fireplace. Santa Cruz’s tiny Garfield Park branch (which celebrated its 100th anniversary last summer) is really charming, too!

    Reply

    • wurdnurd May 13, 2016 at 9:44 am

      I used to work at MLK, when I was an MLIS student! In addition to the features you mention, the building is chock full of public art and sly library references (i.e., the mystery section of the pop library on the first floor has a revolving bookcase; the 100s in the public library have mirrors behind the books; the theses are stored in a giant beehive; the tables on the 8th floor are actually tectonic plates that can be assembled into Gaia…there’s SO MUCH more).

      I’m in Charlotte now, working for the library, and Imaginon deserves a place on the list. Purely a children’s and teen library, there are sculptures and art throughout, two theaters (one housing the Children’s Theater of Charlotte), a makerspace, greenscreen studio, podcast studio, and so much more. Did I mention that it’s gorgeous? Well it is!! 😀

      Reply

  • Debbi May 6, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Thank you! I just enjoyed a fabulous trip. I think I need this book.

    Reply

  • David Wright May 6, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    A public librarian living in Seattle, I have the good fortune to work at one of these libraries, and spend good working time in two of them.

    Reply

  • DiAnn Mills May 7, 2016 at 7:22 am

    Loved viewing these libraries. Here in Houston, TX, almost in my backyard, is one of the most impressive and unique libraries I’ve visited. The Lanier Theological Library http://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org is a growing resource for all students and scholars of the Bible in Northwest Houston. Within the library, you will find a comprehensive collection of books, periodicals, historical documents and artifacts with topics ranging from Church History and Biblical Studies to Egyptology and Linguistics. The LTL regularly hosts events with noted authors, guest lecturers and researchers who will challenge you both academically and spiritually. This short video highlights the facility – https://vimeo.com/30457007

    Reply

  • Kitty Shanahan May 9, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I would love to have seen NCSU’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library. It’s stunning.

    http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/huntlibrary

    Reply

  • Esther Franklin April 20, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    I began researching about Thomas Jefferson in the Suzzallo LIbrary while teaching in the Graduate School of Librarianship (now School of Information) at the University of Washington. I did 10 years further research in other libraries, including many hours at the Library of Congress–Later that Rare Books Librarian, Clark Evans, wrote a “Kudo” for the cover of my book, (2 volumes) THE OTHERS AT MONTICELLO. This is Historical Fiction which could have happened. More Libraries, more Research and THOMAS JEFFERSON: INQUIRY HISTORY FOR DARING DELVERS was published. This is Non-Fiction. I owe MUCH to Libraries!

    Reply

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