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Free Books! 19 Remarkable Public Libraries in America

PHOTO: travelview / Shutterstock

You don’t need to be a book lover to enjoy these literary landmarks.

University libraries get all the glory for their donor-funded grandiosity, but from coast to coast, public libraries offer memorable stop-off spots ranging from quaint to historic to monumental. Consider booking a trip to see these literary landmarks.

1 OF 19

Central Library

WHERE: Los Angeles, California

It seems only a matter of time before Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown gets around to featuring L.A.’s 1926 library building in one of his novels: Every wall, alcove and ornament seems steeped in mystical symbolism. Starting with the pyramid on the roof and continuing all the way down to the Star of Ishtar embedded in a tile floor, everywhere you look, eerie Egyptian icons seem to peer from around every corner. Most of the books here have been moved to a modern-day annex, the better to admire the spectacular architecture, especially in the large central reading room, where there’s a mesmerizing illuminated glass globe suspended from the ceiling. What is the meaning of the 48 lights surrounding the globe, or the golden sunburst from which it is suspended? If we told you, we’d have to kill you.

INSIDER TIPDrag your eyes from that globe in the main room and check out the old library catalog file drawers embedded in the walls. In an age of computer searches, the drawers have been cleverly converted to donor plaques

 

2 OF 19

The Floating Library

WHERE: Minnesota

Since 2013, Minneapolis artist/author Sarah Peters has launched her floating library into the waters of numerous bodies of water in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Accessible only by boat, canoe, or kayak (the operators discourage swimmers from trying to clamber aboard), The Floating Library is basically a big raft of bookshelves laden with artist-made volumes and other printed matter from around the world. You can actually check out books to take home, courtesy of the raft’s floating librarians. But please try not to get the pages wet.

INSIDER TIPThe Floating Library is based in Minnesota, but a branch library set sail in Los Angeles’ Echo Park in February 2016. Check the website for information about upcoming events.

 

3 OF 19

Library of Congress

WHERE: Washington, D.C.

Sorry, but unless you’re a bonafide researcher you can’t enter the library’s magnificent reading room (although you can view it from a balcony). Still, this landmark building near the U.S. Capitol has plenty of tantalizing attractions for the more bookish among us.  The Great Hall is a riot of marble, columns, and sculpture; climbing the great staircase is a lot like ascending to the Paris Opera House. There are always major exhibitions in galleries near the Great Hall showing off Library treasures like Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence (he condemned slavery, but that part didn’t make the final cut) or one of the earliest known baseball cards (John M. Ward, New York Giants, 1887).

INSIDER TIPAsk a docent to point you towards the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment, down a long hallway off The Great Hall. Not only is there a comprehensive exhibition about Ol’ Ski Nose (including his personal joke file), but there are videos of legendary American entertainers of the past and present.

 

4 OF 19

New York Public Library

WHERE: New York City

Intimidated by those iconic lions that guard the 5th Avenue entrance (Patience and Fortitude are their names), lots of Big Apple visitors forget that you can actually stroll right into this, the largest municipal library in the U.S. The enormous reading room is world-famous, but feel free to prowl around the hallways, admiring the 19th century stonework and art works. If you wander out back to picnic or ice skate in Bryant Park, you haven’t actually left the library: The book stacks extend far beyond the building through the ground beneath your feet.

INSIDER TIPCasual visitors can’t enter the Berg Collection reading room, but peer through the glass door and you’ll spot Charles Dickens’ desk with its calendar flipped to June 9, 1870, the day he died.

 

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PHOTO: Wickedgood | Dreamstime.com
5 OF 19

Provincetown Public Library

WHERE: Provincetown, Massachusetts

With its tall windows and high ceiling, you don’t need to see the steeple outside to know Provincetown’s public library started out as a church. The Methodists built the place in 1855, and after various incarnations as an art space and a history museum, it welcomed Provincetown’s book collection in 2005. One remnant of the building’s days as a history museum, too large to remove, remains:  A half-scale model of the schooner Rose Dorothea still dominates the children’s section.

INSIDER TIPCheck out the mahogany bookshelves on the first floor. They were crafted by a local master carpenter from the building’s original church pews.

 

6 OF 19

Seattle Public Library

WHERE: Seattle, Washington

If you want to see a thing on which Bill Gates would spend $20 million, feast your eyes on Seattle’s glass-enclosed library, the third to stand on this site since the 1800s. Besides having windows everywhere, enabling patrons to read in natural light, rain or shine, the library’s most striking feature is its four-story-high “book spiral”: The entire book collection in one continuous incline. So starting at ground level, a Dewey Decimal System junkie can start at 001 (general knowledge) and stroll nonstop to 999 (extraterrestrial worlds).

INSIDER TIPYou’ll see patrons returning their books like most of us do: dropping them in a slot. But glass windows reveal the books are whisked off on conveyor belts to a transport and filing system that resembles an airport baggage system.

 

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PHOTO: Catherine Dodwell
7 OF 19

Dixon Homestead Library

WHERE: Dumont, New Jersey

Tucked at the center of one of Northern New Jersey’s most densely populated boroughs in this small-town library, the core of which is a Revolution-Era home. Inside, the floors still creak with history and the stairs echo with ghostly footsteps. The basement, with its dirt floor and dry air, was once a repository for the library’s most fragile volumes. The books were moved to a modern addition some time ago, but if you ask nicely, the librarians will still usher you through the centuries-old home, built 60 years before the rotary press was even invented.

INSIDER TIPA block south of the library is the Old North Reformed Church, built in 1801. The cemetery is the final resting place of several Revolutionary war soldiers.

 

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PHOTO: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
8 OF 19

Peterborough Public Library

WHERE: Peterborough, New Hampshire

Boston makes a big deal about having the nation’s oldest library, but to find the actual oldest public library in the world, head up the road a piece to Peterborough. It was there that in 1833 Rev. Abiel Abbot obtained public funds to start a library that was free to everyone in town (before that, you had to pay dues to borrow books). Head into the library’s reference room and you’re standing in the middle of the oldest section, built in 1890 when the collection got too large to be contained in the Town Hall.

INSIDER TIPPetersborough’s McDowell Colony is among the oldest art colonies in the U.S. The main building features works by artists who have taken up residence here, including Virgil Thompson, Jonathan Franzen, and James Baldwin.

 

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PHOTO: Homer Public Library
9 OF 19

Homer Public Library

WHERE: Homer, Alaska

When the folks in Homer (population 5,003) mandated in 2003 that their new library utilize recycled local materials in its construction, they meant it: The maple countertops are made from the former gymnasium floor of a local high school. The award-winning building, with glass walls and a wing that projects outward like the prow of a ship, was funded partly through salmon bakes and other fund-raisers.

INSIDER TIPFace it; you’re not going to journey to a remote point on the Kenai Peninsula just to visit a library. The Pratt Museum’s botanical garden features the unique plant life of Western Alaska, and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center introduces you to Kachemak Bay, the world’s largest seabird refuge.

 

Book a Hotel

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PHOTO: Lisa Wishard
10 OF 19

Old Rock Community Library

WHERE: Crested Butte, Colorado

For most of its 134-year life — and long before Crested Butte became known as “the last great Colorado ski town” — this sandstone beauty with a small bell tower served as the town’s two-room public school. Its stones were quarried just a few blocks away, at a time when the tiny town was known for its coal, rather than its black diamond ski slopes.

INSIDER TIPEven when it’s not ski season, Crested Butte Mountain Resort offers rides up the ski lift for an 11,875-foot elevation view of the valley.

 

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PHOTO: North Dakota State Library
11 OF 19

North Dakota State Library

WHERE: Bismarck, North Dakota

Near the banks of the Missouri River, this limestone-and-marble palace has served as the state’s library in Bismarck not once, but twice. Built as a lavish World War I memorial in 1924—the marble floors and grand staircase are from Italy—it first welcomed library patrons in 1936. The books were evicted in 1970, but they were welcomed back in 1982.

INSIDER TIPThe Dakotas are among the richest dinosaur fossil fields in the world, and at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, just around the block from the library, you’ll see a full-size skeletal cast of a T-rex doing battle with a triceratops.

 

12 OF 19

Free Library of Philadelphia

WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Since 1894, patrons have been dazzled by the Beaux Arts masterpiece’s majestic marble stairway and its sprawling reading room, but the real treasure is a third-floor elevator ride away: the library’s Rare Book Department. Free tours are held every morning at 11 (no reservation needed for individuals). There’s always a special exhibit, plus in a glass case, stuffed and perched on a small log, you’ll find Grip, Edgar Allan Poe’s pet raven — the very one that inspired him to write The Raven while living in Philadelphia.

INSIDER TIPAcross the traffic circle from the library stands the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania. Check out the windows on the oldest parts of the 1864 building; they’re way up near the roof to discourage vandals. In fact, the architect and workers are said to have stood at the foot of the uncompleted walls and hurled stones as high as they could to make sure the windows would be out of stone shot.

 

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PHOTO: McAllen Public Library
13 OF 19

McAllen Public Library

WHERE: McAllen, Texas

When the local WalMart moved to bigger digs nearby, somebody in McAllen had a stroke of genius: Why not turn that empty big-box space into a new home for the town’s cramped library? And so since 2011, the library, with enough floor space to cover two football fields, has traded hunting gear for romance novels; bicycles for children’s fiction. The award-winning design includes lots of cozy reading nooks, cheerful 3-D signs, lots of skylights and, perhaps in honor of its retail past, a café.

INSIDER TIPSince 2006, bird lovers have been atwitter over McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan, the grounds of an adobe mansion that have become a facility of Texas World Birding Center. Thanks to its location in extreme South Texas, it’s one of the only places in the U.S. to see species like Buff-bellied hummingbirds, Green Jays, and Altamira Orioles.

 

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PHOTO: U.S. Naval Observatory, James M. Gilliss Library
14 OF 19

U.S. Naval Observatory Library

WHERE: Washington, D.C.

Since 1893 the Navy’s studies of sun-and-star-based navigation have been based in this impressive domed building on Massachusetts Avenue, just a few miles from downtown Washington, DC. The city’s lights have pushed all the Navy’s dark-sky observations to telescopes in Arizona, but the 85,000-volume James McGillis library remains here in a circular, domed room that would look at home on Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. The library and observatory used to be easily visited; now that the Vice-President has taken up residence on Observatory Hill, tours are infrequent and book up fast. But if you can get on the list at usno.navy.mil, you’ll have in your hand one of the hottest tickets in town.

INSIDER TIPAt the Massachusetts Avenue entrance is a readout directly linked to the observatory’s atomic clock, accurate within 10 one-billionths of a second.

 

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PHOTO: Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects
15 OF 19

Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library

WHERE: Little Rock, Arkansas

It doesn’t look like HRC will ever get that Presidential Library she yearned for, but for the lifelong champion of children’s causes, this might be the next-best thing. With its bright, airy interior, the facility expands the whole idea of what a library should be, including a kids’ teaching kitchen and, scattered around the six-acre site, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden and an arboretum.

INSIDER TIPThe political careers of both Clinton and her hubby Bill are detailed nearby at Little Rock’s William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library.

 

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LPA Brochure 2016 PHOTO: Jonathan Blanc/New York Public Library
16 OF 19

New York Public Library for The Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

WHERE: New York City

You couldn’t ask for a more impressive setting for a library than New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and tucked between the Opera House and the Lincoln Center Theatre, right near an imposing Alexander Calder sculpture, is the entrance to a collection that equals Nirvana for music and theater lovers. Visitors can view rare videos of dance and stage productions, listen to one of 700,000 sound recordings, and attend lectures and performances. Some privileges are reserved for those with a New York Public Library card (and even non-New Yorkers can apply online), but there’s more than enough for a casual visitor to see, hear, and do.

INSIDER TIPOn a sunny afternoon in Manhattan, there’s no better place to catch some rays than on the rooftop “lawn” across the square from the library; it’s planted atop a restaurant and overlooks the complex.

 

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PHOTO: SFO Museum
17 OF 19

SFO Aviation Museum and Library

WHERE: San Francisco, California

You don’t even have to go through security to visit this unique aviation library, located in the International Arrivals Building at SFO. Modeled to resemble the airport’s 1930s passenger lobby, the museum and its library are a prime research destination for aviation experts and enthusiasts. The collection includes items from vintage airline matchbooks (remember smoking sections?) to scale model aircraft.

INSIDER TIPSFO has long been an innovator in providing activity spaces for kids between flights. Our favorite “Kids’ Spot” is the one in Terminal 3, boarding area F, where you’ll find weather exhibits from the Exploratorium of San Francisco.

 

18 OF 19

Queen Mary 2 Library

WHERE: At Sea

“Public” might be pushing things when it comes to gaining access to the QM2’s floating book bonanza. But if you’ve got a ticket to ride this grand dame for one of its frequent New York sailings, you’re sure to find some deck chair reading from, at 10,000 volumes, the world’s largest library at sea.

INSIDER TIPCarnival Cruise Lines’ libraries aren’t as extensive, but on the Breeze, Sunshine, and Vista they feature wine dispensers to enhance your reading pleasure.

 

19 OF 19

Boston Public Library

WHERE: Boston, Massachusetts

“Free to All” reads the inscription above the door of this, the oldest large public library in the U.S. The cavernous Bates Hall reading room — 218 feet long and 50 feet high — resembles a classic railroad terminal for good reason: the architects also designed New York’s original Penn Station. Head up a flight of stairs from Bates Hall and you’ll find yourself immersed in a gallery dominated by a sumptuous room-sized mural called The Triumph of Religion, painted over a 19-year period by John Signer Sargent. For some reason, Boston’s Hebrew community objected when he depicted the Jewish synagogue as a blindfolded old hag and the Christian church as a beautiful young woman.

INSIDER TIPYou’ll be whisked to the world of Tudor England if you seek out the library’s Abbey Room, a dark-paneled space lined with murals depicting the search for the Holy Grail. It’s not hard to imagine Henry VII holding court in here, gnawing on a turkey leg.