10 Amazing North American Libraries


We've toured some spectacular European and South American libraries. Today let's see what North America has to offer.

1. Central Library of Vancouver, Canada

Many modern building designs are based on historical icons, but few of these designs focus on the ruins rather than the original. The Central Library of Vancouver is an exception. Based on the Roman Coliseum, this massive building takes up one full city block and features not only a library with 1.3 million reference materials, but also retail shops, restaurants, a parking structure, office buildings and a rooftop garden.

Images courtesy of Evan Leeson's and David J. Laporte's Flickr stream.

2. Library of Parliament, Canada

The Library of Parliament was once part of the city’s original Parliamentary headquarters constructed in 1876, and was the only part of the building to survive through a massive fire in 1916. The unique Gothic building is so iconic that it is even featured on the Canadian ten-dollar bill.

Humorously, the building was already under construction for ten years before it was revealed that the builders didn’t actually know how to create a domed roof as seen in the plans. To get around this issue, the Tomas Fairbairn Engineering Company of England was commissioned to create a pre-fabricated dome. As a result, the building had the distinction of being the first building in North America to have a wrought iron roof.

That wasn’t the only major change from the original plans. When originally created, the building featured colored shingles on the roof. Unfortunately, only twelve years in, a tornado ripped them all off, and since then the roof was clad in copper instead.

These days, the library holds 600,000 items and employs 300 people. If you’re intrigued, don’t schedule a trip to visit though; admission to the building is generally restricted to those on parliamentary business.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia users Wladyslaw and Alejandro Erickson.

3. Library of Congress, USA

Speaking of national libraries, this one happens to be a personal favorite, if only for their amazing photo collection. While we’ve featured plenty of images from the Library of Congress, now it’s time to actually learn more about the library itself and, as the oldest federal cultural institution in the US, it has quite a bit of history.

These days, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the entire world as ranked by both shelf space and number of books. As a result, it should be no surprise that the collection isn’t limited to just one building. The oldest building still serving as part of the Library of Congress though is the Thomas Jefferson Building, which just might be the most beautiful structure in the library system.

Completed in 1897, the library features a neoclassical style designed by John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, who based their creation on the many classical libraries of Europe. As a result, the building has some of the most intricate interiors of any building in the U.S., featuring murals and sculptures from a variety of classically-trained American artists. Interestingly, the building’s exterior was even more lavish than it is now, as it was originally gilded, but this was criticized as it was believed to draw attention away from the Capitol Building. These days, the roof consists merely of copper that has aged into a sea green shade.

Images courtesy of NCinDC's and BamaLawDog's Flickr streams.

4. Stephen A. Schwarzman Library, USA

You might recognize this National Historical Landmark, better known simply as the “New York Public Library,” as it’s been featured in a few popular movies, most notably Ghostbusters and Spider-Man. While the most famous aspect of the library is the two stone lions guarding the building (known as either Lord Astor and Lady Lenox or Patience and Fortitude), the library has a lot more going for it than two great statues.

The marble walls of the library are all about three feet thick. Inside, the wooden shelves, frescoed ceilings and grand chandeliers give the entire building an old-world feel. The building is so impressive that it was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1965.

Completed in 1911, the library featured more than 75 miles of shelves when it was first opened. Surprisingly, the collection still managed to grow too large for its home by 1970, so the library was expanded by adding an underground area that extends all the way under nearby Bryant Park.

Images courtesy of melanzane1013's Flickr stream and Wikipedia user Diliff.

5. Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library in Vassar College, USA

This massive Gothic structure houses three wings and a central tower and now houses around a million books, 7,500 periodicals and a massive microfilm and microfiche collection. While the main tower is quite striking, the most famous part of the library is the enormous stained glass window in the West Wing showing Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to earn a doctorate in Europe, receiving her degree from the University of Padua.

Images courtesy of mebrett's and Matt De Turck's Flickr streams and Wikipedia user noteremote.

6. Jay Walker's Private Library, USA

You have to have a pretty impressive private library to be able to compete with the best public libraries in North America, but Jay Walker’s gorgeous wooden library, filled with an array of historical and pop culture artifacts, certainly qualifies to be on this list. In fact, Wired has gladly labeled the collection as "the most amazing library in the world.”

As if the gorgeous etched glass, labyrinthine design and multiple stories of book shelves weren’t impressive enough, the collection of rarities stored in the library is completely mesmerizing. Between books bound in rubies, a Sputnik, a chandelier from Die Another Day, and a list of plague mortalities from 1665, visitors to the private library might just have a hard time leaving.

So what line of work should you get into if you want to own your own 3,600 square foot marvel like this? Technology, of course, but you can’t just be a regular old code jockey. No, if you want to be like Jay, you need to be an entrepreneur with a brilliant idea. In his case, it was the think tank Walker Digital, which came up with Priceline.com. In other words, get to brainstorming.

Images courtesy of Aaron "tango" Tang's Flickr stream.

7. Harold Washington Library, USA

This is one of my favorite modern library designs as it takes new construction techniques and applies them to neoclassical building styles. The result is a vintage look with a modern twist. The red brick base perfectly balances the glass rooftop adorned with seven massive aluminum adornments. Best of all, the designers took their inspiration from other famous Chicago buildings, ensuring the whole structure fits in perfectly with its surroundings.

Images courtesy of Douglas Kaye and clarkmaxwell's Flickr stream.

8. Beinecke Rare Book Library in Yale University, USA

From the outside, this windowless monstrosity really isn’t much to look at, but that’s because it was created exclusively to protect the rare books inside, not to look pretty. Even so, the interior of this Yale library is quite impressive and undeniably unique with its windowless, marble walls.

The library is now the largest building in the world designed exclusively for the protection of rare books and manuscripts. And it has quite the collection to protect, as the building is home to one of 48 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible, ancient papyri, rare maps, medieval manuscripts, early American newspapers and more.

Images courtesy of Henry Trotter and Lauren Manning.

9. José Vasconcelos Library, Mexico

Nicknamed the “megalibrary” by the Mexican press, this giant library takes up a whopping 409,000 square feet, making it large enough to dwarf a painted gray whale skeleton displayed inside the main hallway. Outside of the library is an impressive botanical garden that protects the building from the loud city streets outside, providing a moat for this castle of knowledge. Inside, over 500,000 books are displayed on glass shelves hanging from the five stories of the building. The end result is as striking as it is stunning.

Images courtesy of CliNKer's and vladimix's Flickr streams.

10. Palafoxiana Library, Mexico

In many ways, the Palafoxiana Library is just as impressive as the José Vasconcelos Library, just drastically different. That’s because this Puebla library was the first public library in Mexico. Established in 1646, some even argue that it was the first library in the Americas. It is now listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register and its 41,000 books and manuscripts include an array of rare and antique titles.

Images courtesy of Carlos Enrique Lopez C's and David Cabrera's Flickr streams.
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Now I know there are plenty more gorgeous libraries in North America, including the Salt Lake City Main Branch, the Seattle Public Library, the Geisel Library at UCSD, the George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University and many, many more, but there simply isn’t enough space here to include all the beautiful libraries on this continent. That being said, feel free to discuss your favorite North American libraries even if they aren’t on this list, and whether or not you think one of these libraries should have been bumped in favor of your choice.