Ten Magnificent Historical Libraries (That You Can Still Visit Today)

When we first trav­el some­where, we see noth­ing quite so clear­ly as the usu­al cat­e­gories of tourist des­ti­na­tion: the mon­u­ments, the muse­ums, the restau­rants. Take one step deep­er, and we find our­selves in places like cafés and book­stores, the lat­ter espe­cial­ly hav­ing explod­ed in touris­tic appeal over the past few years. Take Por­to’s grand Livraria Lel­lo, which bills itself as “the most beau­ti­ful book­store in the world” — and has arguably done so too suc­cess­ful­ly, hav­ing drawn crowds large enough to neces­si­tate a cov­er charge. Per­haps we’d have a rich­er expe­ri­ence if we spent less time in the livrarias and more in the bib­liote­cas.

That, in any case, is the impres­sion giv­en by the Kings and Things video above, which presents “Ten Mag­nif­i­cent His­tor­i­cal Libraries,” two of them locat­ed in Por­tu­gal. Stand­ing on a hill­top over­look­ing Coim­bra, the Bib­liote­ca Joan­i­na “is sump­tu­ous­ly dec­o­rat­ed in Baroque fash­ion,” and “con­tains intri­cate­ly carved fur­ni­ture and book­shelves made of exot­ic woods as well as ivory, and is embell­ished with cold and chi­nois­erie motif.” As for the cen­turies-old vol­umes on those shelves, they remain in excel­lent con­di­tion thanks to the Bib­liote­ca Joan­i­na’s being one of only two libraries equipped with “a colony of bats to pro­tect the books from insects.”

The oth­er is in Lis­bon’s, Mafra Palace, which “con­tains what is arguably one of the world’s most beau­ti­ful libraries.” Com­plet­ed in 1755, it’s decked out with book­shelves “dec­o­rat­ed in the Roco­co style.” The stretch of the aes­thet­ic spec­trum between Baroque and Roco­co dom­i­nates this video, all of its libraries hav­ing been built in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, most of them are in the Old World, from the Saint Gall Abbey in Switzer­land to the Library of Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin to the Nation­al Library of France (the Riche­lieu site in the thir­teenth arrondisse­ment, not the mod­ern François-Mit­ter­rand Site decried in W. G. Sebald’s Auster­litz).

Instra­gram­ma­ble though they may have become in this day and age, these ven­er­a­ble libraries all — unlike many tourist-spot book­stores, where you can’t hear your­self think for all the Eng­lish con­ver­sa­tions going on around you — encour­age the spend­ing of not mon­ey but time. They wel­come the trav­el­er look­ing not sim­ply to hit twen­ty cap­i­tals in a dozen days, but to build a long-term rela­tion­ship with a place. And not just the trav­el­er in Europe: the video also includes a des­ti­na­tion in the Unit­ed States, the “cathe­dral of books” that is Bal­ti­more’s George Peabody Library. The true con­nois­seur will, of course, fol­low a vis­it to that august insti­tu­tion by tak­ing the Sil­ver Line north to hit up Nor­mals Books & Records.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexan­dria: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Doc­u­men­tary Fea­tur­ing Some of the World’s Most Beau­ti­ful Book­stores

What Was Actu­al­ly Lost When the Library of Alexan­dria Burned?

The Last Book­store: A Short Doc­u­men­tary on Per­se­ver­ance & the Love of Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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