Visual Culture

8 Public Libraries That Are Architectural Wonders

Kim Hart
Sep 13, 2017 6:02PM

Public libraries can sometimes be taken for granted. From their vast, free, and accessible collections of books (plus magazines, movies, and music, at times) to their welcoming, open spaces, they’re powerful institutions that enrich minds and spread knowledge amongst the masses.

While all libraries are important incubators to foster learning, some are also visually stunning to experience—featuring centuries-old frescoes, marvelous architectural details, and innovative designs that make studying and borrowing texts all the more enjoyable. Here, we’ve rounded up eight of the world’s most striking public libraries, in no particular order.

National Library of the Czech Republic, Klementinum Building, Prague

Opened to the public in 1722

Photo by aldo_mx, via Flickr.  

Located in the center of Prague, the Klementinum is home to the Czech Republic’s national public library. Its headquarters, within a vast building complex on Old Town Square, includes the historic Baroque Library, a hall so called for its curvaceous architecture and fantastical decor that has gone untouched since it was first built in 1722. Perhaps its most striking feature is a series of 18th-century ceiling frescoes by Czech artist Jan Hiebel, depicting the disciplines of art and science, along with a collection of massive globes running through the center. Beyond the extraordinary Baroque Library—which contains 20,000 books—the entire institution of the Klementinum houses over 6 million titles, spread across its several reading rooms.

New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York City

Opened to the public in 1911

Photo by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.


When one thinks of the New York Public Library, this particular branch likely comes to mind. The city’s massive flagship library on Fifth Avenue was originally designed by architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings. The pair is not only responsible for the building’s marble facade, but also its chairs, tables, chandeliers, and even trash cans, making the entire library a gleaming example of the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style.  

The library’s iconic Rose Reading Room boasts an ornate ceiling featuring lush murals of an opening sky, which appear ever more vibrant after undergoing restoration that concluded in 2016. The Schwarzman library is also known for its two marble lions, named Patience and Fortitude, who have flanked either side of the main entrance on Fifth Avenue since it opened its doors in 1911, and are now emblematic of the city’s vast public library system.  

The New Library of Alexandria, Alexandria, Egypt

Opened to the public in 2002

Photo by Joakim Jardenberg, via Flickr.

This unique library was established as an homage to its namesake, the Royal Library of Alexandria, which was destroyed by fire sometime between 48 B.C.E. and 640 C.E. With a goal to “recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship” of its ancient predecessor—one of the largest libraries in antiquity, housing thousands of precious scrolls —the New Library of Alexandria can hold up to 8 million books and receives nearly 1 million visitors a year.

Located steps from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the modern, circular building gradually rises out of the ground at an angle, as if it were emerging from the ashes of its biblio-ancestor. While the library’s exterior lacks traditional windows, a striking skylight system floods its huge, multi-layered interior with sunlight. Beyond its massive cache of books, the New Library also includes a number of art galleries, a planetarium, and a museum on Egyptian history, all located throughout its 11 floors.

Vennesla Library and Culture House, Vennesla, Norway

Opened to the public in 2011

Photo by View Pictures/UIG, via Getty Images.

Though it’s one of the most recent institutions on this list, the Vennesla Library in southern Norway is already revered for its striking modern design, winning accolades such as the 2012 Byggeskikkpris award, a state prize for architectural achievement. Twenty-seven wooden ribs act as the physical support of the building, as well as the internal structure of the bookshelves themselves, and much of the library’s blue-cushioned seating. The result is a space that blurs the lines between form, function, and aesthetic.  

Architects Siv Helene Stangeland and Reinhard Kropf also incorporated energy-conserving elements into the library-slash-“culture house,” stating that their goal was “to create a sustainable public building, both environmentally and socially.”  

Kanazawa Umimirai Library, Kanazawa City, Japan

Opened to the public in 2011

Photo by Forgemind ArchiMedia, via Flickr.

This massive library in Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture hosts a collection of roughly 400,000 items, contained within a box-shaped concrete-and-glass structure created by Hiroshi Horiba and Kazumi Kudo, who together won the 2013 Japan Institute of Architects prize for the design. Its exterior is decorated with some 6,000 glass circles that alternate in size, making the building’s flatness appear fluid. The architects cited the Richelieu branch of the French National Library (also on this list) as an influence due to its singular, central reading room, which Horiba and Kudo emulated in the library’s entire first floor (despite it being rectangular).

The rest of the building consists of meeting spaces, group activity rooms, and dozens of open stacks. “What we wanted to do…was design a certain ‘atmosphere’ for books and reading,” the architects stated upon the library’s opening. They hoped to create an innovative space that “encourages readers to stay and linger,” rather than simply a one-stop shop for borrowing books.

French National Library, Richelieu Building, Paris

Opened to the public in 1868

Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images.

France’s national public library system is truly historic, having been founded by King Charles V in 1368; coincidentally, this particular location on the Rue de Richelieu, in the heart of Paris, opened exactly 500 years later. The Richelieu library is dominated by its enormous central reading space called the “Oval Room,” which was constructed between 1875 and 1932 by academic architect Jean-Louis Pascal, following the death of the library’s original designer, Henri Labrouste.

As the name suggests, Pascal added a rounded room that boasts curved, five-story-high walls brimming with bookshelves, and multiple round skylights that project light throughout. The library also houses an impressive collection of historic French artworks, including original ilustrations by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and 16th-century maps of Paris.

Min Buri Old Market Library, Bangkok, Thailand

Opened to the public in 2009

Photo by Pasi Aalto. Courtesy of Aalto.  

Full disclosure: This isn’t your average public library. What was formerly a derelict space within a century-old building in one of Bangkok’s most impoverished districts is now home to a unique community library. The space is complete with a lofted study zone, a backyard area, and a central reading room that has an assortment of colorful cube-shaped shelves filled with books. Measuring 10 by 30 feet, and built for less than $5,000, the Min Buri Old Market Library is the result of a collaboration between TYIN tegnestue architects, a nonprofit organization in Norway, and the Thailand-based CASE architecture studio.

The two teams took a largely environmental approach to the small library’s design, using as many local and reused materials as possible (such as recycled wood for the structural cladding). They incorporated sun-loving skylights and placed large potted plants throughout. The Min Buri Library is not only an attractive, design-forward space that’d be perfect for curling up with a book, it’s also beneficial for the largely impoverished neighborhood. “The urban poor, in areas like Min Buri, are [often] left out of social and humanitarian support systems,” wrote TYIN in a statement upon the library’s opening. “[Our] aim…is to strengthen the passion in the neighborhood that eventually can contribute to a positive development in the area.”

Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library, Mexico City, Mexico

Opened to the public in 1970

Photo by Ismael Villafranco, via Flickr.

While it only opened as a public library less than 50 years ago, the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada—named after a famed Mexican statesman—is located within a former 18th-century chapel in Mexico City’s historic district. Its exterior, reminiscent of a Baroque castle, is adorned with corinthian columns, theatrical figures, and a massive rounded wooden door that welcomes visitors. Upon entering, however, the age-old essence of the facade transforms into a vibrant central reading space that’s illuminated by a grid of overhead lights.

The interior walls are covered with a colorful, active fresco mural painted by Russian-Mexican painter Vladimir “Vlady” Rusakov between 1972 and 1982, which wraps around the entire space, as well as a series of canvases he placed within rounded arches. Titled La Revolucion y los elementos, the interior paintings represent the trials of the Mexican Revolution that took place earlier in the century, though it’s been said that Rusakov intentionally left one of the panels incomplete as a symbol of “unfinished revolution.” Today, the library is mainly used for economic research, as it holds over 100,000 titles on the subject.

Kim Hart