What Are the Most Important Libraries in the World?

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Wonderful libraries are everywhere, each one home to a unique collection of the world’s knowledge and history. The collections in these libraries, though, top the charts. Grab a bib, English majors—you’re about to drool.

St. Catherine’s Monastery

Built in the 6th century, St. Catherine’s is the oldest continuously running library in the world. The building itself is a piece of history. It supposedly houses the Burning Bush—the divine topiary spotted by Moses. It also stores the second largest collection of early manuscripts and codices anywhere. Its collection includes the Syriac Sinaiticus—one of the oldest translations of the New Testament—and the Achtiname, a document so old, it was ratified by the prophet Muhammad. As for art, the library stores the oldest—and best-preserved—Christian icons in the world.

Vatican Library

The Roman Catholic Church has been collecting documents since the 4th century, although it took until 1471 for the Holy See to build an official library for them all. The Vatican Library has the most significant collection of historical texts anywhere. Mull over these numbers: 1.6 million books. 75,000 codices. 8600 incunabula (texts printed in the 15th century). It’s no surprise that the library owns the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209—the oldest complete Bible in the world, penned near the year 325. If that weren’t enough, 52 miles of shelving in the Secret Archives hold the complete records of the Church’s activities since 1198.

U.S. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds 150 million items and adds about 10,000 each day, making it the largest library in the world. When you’ve got that much stuff coming through the door, you’re bound to have an amazing collection. That includes Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, every U.S. patent, three centuries worth of newspapers, a perfect vellum Gutenberg Bible, a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, a few Stradivarius violins, the largest rare book collection in North America and—oh, let’s not forget—over 100,000 comic book titles. The LOC even archives tweets. By January 2013, it had catalogued 170 billion of them.

Mount Athos

Located in Northeast Greece, Mount Athos is the spiritual capital of Orthodox Christianity. Athos is still locked in medieval times, and monks are the only inhabitants. (Admission into one of the twenty monasteries is tougher than admission to Harvard!) More impressive, though, are the Athos’ libraries. The Monastery of Great Lavra arguably has the greatest collection of Greek manuscripts, codices, and scrolls in the world. Mount Athos also holds priceless treasures and icons from the long-lost Byzantine Empire.

Beneicke Rare Books and Manuscript Library

This Yale library is proof you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The building is a giant, ugly block of concrete. But inside? A gorgeous trove of rare books, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Whenever the library receives a new text, it’s frozen at -33F for three days to kill bookworms. Then it’s enclosed in glass, which, in case of a fire, is flooded with Halon 1301 and Inergen fire suppressant gases. Of course, there’s a lot of amazing stuff to save. Originals of James Joyce, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, and over 3100 incunabula.

Trinity College, Dublin

Each year, millions flock to Trinity’s Long Library. And with good reason—it’s beautiful. But the real value isn’t in the impressive woodwork, but what’s on the shelves. The library, along with the Special Collections archive, contains most of Ireland’s recorded history. (The oldest document dates back to the 13th century BCE!) Highlights include the Book of Armagh—a 9th century manuscript in Old Irish detailing St. Patrick’s exploits—and the Book of Kells, a stunning illustrated version of the four gospels from the 8th or 9th century.

National Library of China

The National Library of China reaches further back in time than any other library on this list. It has 270,000 ancient and rare Chinese books, plus 35,000 early inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (That’s 36 centuries old!). Included in the 27 million volumes are the Xiping Stone classics:  Confucian stories that are so ancient, they’re carved in stone.

British Library

The British Library meets every expectation you may have for a treasure trove of knowledge. Its collection is the second largest in the world, dating back as far as 2000 BCE. It’s got 4 million maps, 1 million musical scores, and a total of 150 million items. Each year, it adds six miles worth of material. No wonder greats like George Orwell, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, and Mahatma Gandhi explored its shelves.