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13 Majestic University Libraries to Connect With the World’s Past, Present, and Future

The world’s best university libraries for escaping reality.

Tucked within the bookshelves of university libraries across the globe are fascinating tales of their country’s history, culture, and iconic literary figures–and you don’t need to be a college undergrad to discover them. Here are the world’s best university libraries and what should be on your radar when you visit.

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PHOTO: Benny Marty/Shutterstock
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Biblioteca Joanina, University of Coimbra

WHERE: Coimbra, Portugal

Located at the pinnacle of the illustrious University of Coimbra’s historic center, the Joanina library was named after Portugal’s 18th century King Joao V who stunned the faculty’s rector by insisting that his request for library aid was too modest. The result is a lavish baroque jewel boasting over 56,000 of the world’s oldest lusophone volumes enclosed by golden arches and wood accents. Its most prized treasures include an extremely rare first edition of Os Lusiadas, an epic Portuguese poem; a Hebrew Bible, paying homage to the Iberian Peninsula’s golden age of Jewish culture; a 48-line Latin Bible, printed in 1462; and the first 1543 edition of the Fabrica do Corpo Humano, an anatomy atlas of the Belgian Andreas Vesalius. Since 2005, the library has launched various restorative projects, including the digitalization of its antique collections.

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PHOTO: BondRocketImages/Shutterstock
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UNAM’S Central University Campus Library

WHERE: Mexico City, Mexico

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to the Central Library in the National Autonomous University of Mexico, you’ll want to make an exception. Adorning all four corners of the 10-floor building’s exterior is a kaleidoscopic stone mural that earned the campus World Heritage status. Designed by Juan O’Gorman, the Mexican artist of Irish descent’s aim was to tell the tale of the nation’s historical epochs: the north wall represents the pre-Hispanic period, the south, the colonial period; the east, the modern era; and the west, the university’s history. Inside, its open shelves house more than 400,000 general and historical collections in paper and electronic format, as well as printed volumes dating back to the 1800s. UNAM has Mexico’s largest library budget for serials, monographs, and electronic resources.

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PHOTO: RauL7 CC/Shutterstock
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The Old Library, Trinity College

WHERE: Dublin, Ireland

If your preferred fragrance is the smell of centuries-old dusty tomes then you’ll be entranced by the old library’s Long Room, famous for its marble tiers, long stretches of arched ceiling, and a history that is bound to take visitors back to the 18th century. Its oak bookshelves contain 200,000 of the library’s oldest books depicting the world’s greatest writers, philosophers, and Trinity college notables. This library is also known across the globe as the home of the Book of Kells, the radiant ninth-century Gospel manuscript considered one of Ireland’s national treasures. Other pots-of-gold include a 15th-century harp and a rare copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic published in 1916.

INSIDER TIPBe prepared to pay a fee to visit the Old Library and its Book of Kells exhibition if you’re not with a student—but know it’s money well spent. The beautiful grounds surrounding the campus are also worth exploring, before taking a leisurely stroll to Dublin’s world-class pubs.

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Nakajima Library, Anika International University

WHERE: Tokyo, Japan

Nestled within the leafy groves of Akita International University, the Nakajima library is a welcome respite from the commotion of Tokyo city. Built in 2008, the interior resembles the Roman colosseum with its circular, user-friendly design and parasol-shaped roof. Open to university students 24 hours a day, it has earned itself the tagline “the library that never sleeps” and prides itself on philosophical thinking. Visitors can dive into its 75,000 book collections, 200 varieties of magazines and newspapers, and over 3,000 audio-visuals. If your Japanese is a little rusty, you’ll be pleased to hear that foreign language books make up roughly 60 percent of the collection.

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Philological Library of the Free University

WHERE: Berlin, Germany

The German capital is known for its creative innovation and free-thinking attitude, so you’d expect nothing less when it comes to one of Berlin’s most iconic universities. The extraordinary state-of-the-art architecture is the work of master architect Norman Foster who designed the dome-style structure in the shape of a human brain. Constructed in 2005, it didn’t take long for its “Brain of the city” nickname to catch on, but that’s also thanks to it being home to works of some of Europe’s most stimulating collections. As a philological library, the more than 800,000 volumes cover classic and modern languages, as well as comparative language and literature.

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PHOTO: S-F/Shutterstock
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Magdalen College Old Library at Oxford University

WHERE: Oxford, United Kingdom

Founded in 1458 with more than 20,000 rare books and manuscripts almost entirely published before 1800, the prestigious Oxford University’s Old Library at Magdalen College truly looks like a sanctuary devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. Said to be one of the world’s most charming libraries, the wooden oak bookshelves and furnishings, lanterns, and striking Gospel revival exterior scream Hogwarts–but rather than H. Potter or H. Granger, it counts English scholar and theologian C.S. Lewis and the historian A.J.P. Taylor among its alumni. The backbone of the library’s collection is 17th and 18th-century theological works that were once lent to the university’s novice monks.

INSIDER TIPThe library is only open to the public on the first Thursday of every month but the Oxford Covered Market nearby runs every weekday and is a great place to mingle with students and locals alike.

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PHOTO: Delali92/Shutterstock
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Balme Library at the University of Ghana

WHERE: Ghana, Africa

The Balme Library at the University of Ghana, students, researchers, professors, and faculty flock to one of Africa’s premier research libraries to expand their grasp of a wide range of subjects, as well as to use the specialized volumes that are part of the United Nations Regional Depository and the World Bank Collection. Built in the 1940s, the over 100,000 books, 500 microfilms, variety of electronic titles, and scarce manuscripts include Arabic books as well as an extensive Africana collection of books and primary source materials from countries across the continent.

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PHOTO: trabantos/Shutterstock
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University of Salamanca Library

WHERE: Salamanca, Spain

Once a significant center of learning during the Spanish Golden Age, the University of Salamanca is one of the oldest universities in the world, and its 15th-century historic library houses an important collection of early printed books to match. Located in the heart of the university’s historic center, the library houses more than 160,000 volumes, containing important incunables and manuscripts which hark back as far as the 11th century. Crowning jewels of this magisterial library include a manuscript with a translation of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s works by Alfonso de Cartagena (Ms. 201) and, of course, remnants of the famous 1475 El Cielo de Salamanca ceiling mural representing artistic knowledge and tradition of the time on astrology and astronomy.

INSIDER TIPKnown as the “living room” of Salamanca, don’t leave this ancient city without soaking up the Spanish sunshine at one of the cafes on Plaza Mayor–preferably with a book in hand.

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PHOTO: Kit Leong/Shutterstock
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The Geisel Library at the University of California

WHERE: San Diego, California

From stepping back in time, the Geisel Library at the University of California is bound to catapult you into a futuristic science-fiction movie. Elevated at a staggering 110 feet in the air, the six-story tower was designed by Architect William Pereira as a cylindrical shape with robust concrete piers and hovering glassy compounds in which layers can be added for future additions to the library. Named on behalf of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as the children’s author Dr. Seuss, among its 7 million print and digital works is the Dr. Seuss collection which houses some of the writer’s most prized works. Other notable collections include the Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, championed as one of the finest for early voyages of the pacific and a special archive for new poetry.

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PHOTO: Lewis Liu/Shutterstock
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Uris Library, Cornell University

WHERE: Ithaca, New York

Perched on the top of the “Slope” campus, the Uris Library is a sight to behold. The design work of architect William Henry Miller, Cornell’s first architecture graduate, Uris is often applauded for its combination of aesthetic allure and remarkable research capacity. It became the university’s first library when it opened its doors in 1891 and still houses some of the faculty’s earliest collections of books and manuscripts. The focus is on the humanities and social sciences, with noteworthy volumes related to central Andean countries, as well as holdings of classics, Icelandic studies, philosophy, and criticism, and important U.S. Government documents for research purposes.

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The State University of Santa Catarina

WHERE: Santa Catarina, Brazil

Placed among the best universities in Brazil and Latin America, the State University of Santa Catarina, located in the southern city of Florianopolis, was founded in 1960 to promote teaching, research, and broadening technological knowledge. While there’s not much to shout about in terms of its architecture, its library wins points for its special collections which house historic books and audio-visual works from the region’s authors dating back to the 19th century. Recently, the university’s archaeology department launched a project to gather bibliographic materials of the threatened Guarani indigenous language, in an attempt to create a library collection of the oral language in written form.

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The National Library of Finland

WHERE: Helsinki, Finland

It wasn’t until the 16th century after written Finnish was established by the Bishop and Finnish Lutheran reformer Mikael Agricola that Finnish language literature first hit print. Since then, most notable Finnish works and poetry have revolved around achieving and preserving a strong Finnish identity–a notion reflected both in the library’s centuries-old collection and architecture. Built during the 1840s, the library’s classic exterior is a fine example of Empire-style Finnish architecture, harking back to the time when Finland became part of the Russian Empire. It’s the proud home of the Fennica collection, Finland’s national heritage, which is stored in an underground bookcave.

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PHOTO: Michael Gordon/Shutterstock
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Powell Library at UCLA University

WHERE: Los Angeles, California

First opened in 1929, Powell is UCLA’s main campus library, which drew inspiration from the Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan, Italy. Its Italian Romanesque architecture and beautiful terracotta mosaic entrance promise to transport you to Mediterranean Europe. But step inside and you’ll feel the college spirit in no time. Nicknamed “Club Powell,” allegedly due to it being louder than other libraries, it was here that author Ray Bradbury is believed to have written the first draft of his classic novel Fahrenheit 451. Thanks to Lawrence Clark Powell, after whom the library was named, the library houses over 2,000,000 volumes and is internationally known as a dynamic spot for books and learning.

4 Comments
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annelkington4257 August 18, 2021

State Capitol Law Library, Des Moines IA.    A breathtakingly beautiful and often overlooked library.

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nittyoshop August 18, 2021

Very good article. The library is very important for us. The library plays a fundamental role in society as a gateway to knowledge and culture. The resources and services they provide support learning opportunities, literacy, and education, and help create new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society.

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TahoeKay August 17, 2021

Thank you for this very interesting article.  I am a big supporter of the library system in my county and love to visit libraries wherever I travel.

If you are not aware of the Abbey Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, you have a treat awaiting you. I have long been convinced that the notion that little of interest happened in the early Middle Ages is a major misunderstanding, and this library's large collection of manuscripts and books from the era reinforced my thinking.  It is also a stunningly beautiful room.

Kay Henderson, South Lake Tahoe, CA