10 Unusual Libraries From Around the World

Lorna Wallace
Tianjin Binhai Library, China.
Tianjin Binhai Library, China. / TPG/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
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In the words of Stephen King, “books are a uniquely portable magic.” They have to be stored somewhere—and the buildings created to house them can be equally as magical. There are 2.7 million libraries scattered across the globe, and while there are many beautiful ones, there are also a number of more unique ones. Here are 10 of the most unusual libraries—ranging from creative architectural wonders to libraries that aren’t housed within buildings at all.

1. Seikei University Library // Tokyo, Japan

The main atrium of Seikei University Library features five elevated glass study pods that are fashioned in a slick, sci-fi style. It was designed by Shigeru Ban and completed in 2006. One wall of the five-story library is made almost entirely of glass, giving those outside the building a brilliant view of the raised meeting rooms that are scattered across the different levels. The futuristic domed pods are aptly known as “planets.”

2. The Haskell Free Library & Opera House // Quebec, Canada and Derby Line, Vermont

The Haskell Free Library straddles the border between Canada and the United States and serves patrons from both countries. The main entrance is on the American side, but the majority of the books reside in Canada. There’s even a line on the floor to mark the border. While Canadians are not required to show their passport to enter the library, it is strongly encouraged that they bring identification in case U.S. Border Patrol or the RCMP decide to do checks.

As well as operating as a regular library, the building is also home to an opera house. The stage is in Canada, but most of the seats are in the States.

3. Future Library Project // Oslo, Norway

Each year the Future Library—described by The Guardian as “the world’s most secretive library”—sees a different author add a manuscript to a collection that will not be available for reading until 2114. The project was started in 2014 by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, and the stories involved are being stored in the Silent Room at Oslo Public Library. Once the 100 books have been gathered, they will be printed on paper made from a specially grown forest.

A Future Library committee has been established to choose which author should be invited to contribute each year. The decision is made based on “outstanding contributions to literature or poetry, and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generations.” Margaret Atwood was the first author to pen a secret story for the Future Library; other authors who have contributed include David Mitchell, Han Kang, and Ocean Vuong.

4. Beach Library // Balchik Municipality, Bulgaria

The Albena vacation resort has the perfect solution for guests who want to read by the sea but don’t want to lug around physical books or risk getting sand in their devices: An open-air library on the beach. The massive resort, located on the coast of the Black Sea, features the expected amenities like luxurious spas and sports facilities. The real draw for readers is the beach library outside Hotel Kaliakra. The library has around 6000 books in 15 languages, which are housed on 140 weather-resistant shelves. A plastic cover protects the shelves during inclement weather.

5. Bibliotheca Alexandrina // Alexandria, Egypt

Bibliotheca Alexandrina stands in commemoration of the ancient Library of Alexandria that was sadly lost to antiquity. Designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, the library is a cylindrical building that looks as though its top has been sliced off diagonally and rises out of a pool of water. Construction was completed in 2001, near the location of the original library.

According to Snøhetta’s website, “Its vast circular form alongside the circular Alexandrian harbor recalls the cyclical nature of knowledge, fluid throughout time.” The tilted roof, which glistens in the sun, was designed to recall the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria.

As well as the library facilities, the building is also home to a planetarium, a conference center, four museums, and a number of art galleries. 

6. Tianjin Binhai Library // Tianjin, China

Another library with a futuristic sci-fi design is Tianjin Binhai Library in China. The main atrium features rows of undulating white shelves that stretch up to the ceiling. In the center of it all is a huge spherical auditorium, known as The Eye. Though it’s visually impressive, it isn’t entirely practical—the higher shelves are inaccessible, and are filled out with images of books printed on aluminium plates.

MVRDV, the Dutch architectural firm that designed the building, explains that “access to the upper bookshelves from rooms placed behind the atrium” was planned, but had to be dropped because of the tight construction timetable—the library was finished just three years after the first sketch was drawn. “The full vision for the Tianjin Library may yet be realised,” MVRDV optimistically writes.

7. Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library // New York City

The main branch of the New York Public Library, located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, is one of the most famous libraries in the world. But the NYPL also claims one of the most unusual: Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library. The tiny library is located in the subway system, specifically on the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and 50th Street, just outside the turnstiles to the 6 train. There’s no on-street signage indicating its existence below ground; as a result, many people have no idea it’s even there.

In 2010, then-branch manager Anisha Huffman told The New York Times that people “come in asking for help with the MetroCard machine. We do help them if we’re not too busy, and they also ask us for subway maps, so we keep a lot of them on hand.” The underground library has served its main purpose of providing reading material though; books about business and page-turning tales were particularly popular with passing commuters. As of 2022, though, the Terence Cardinal Cooke-Cathedral Library has been temporarily transformed into an IDNYC office.

8. Biblioteca Vasconcelos // Mexico City, Mexico

From the outside, Biblioteca Vasconcelos looks like a concrete monolith. But inside is a huge cavernous space lined with what seems like endless cantilevered stacks of books. The staggered shelves hover above the central walkway and are barricaded by minimal steel banisters rather than walls. This all gives the space an open feel and brilliantly shows off the hundreds of shelves. The design feels simultaneously geometric and chaotic.

9. Biblioburro // La Gloria, Colombia

When schoolteacher Luis Soriano realized that his rural pupils lacked access to books at home, he decided to take matters into his own hands and deliver literature directly to them with the help of his donkey. “At first, people saw me as nothing more than a half-insane teacher with some books and his donkey,” Soriano once recalled. But his idea was a success and he soon added a second book-carrying donkey—the pair of burros are called Alfa and Beto, which together spell alphabet in Spanish.

Soriano’s traveling donkey library, which he started in 1997, has flourished over the years. At the beginning his collection numbered just 70 books, but it is now 7000 strong. There are nearly 20 Biblioburro operating in the area. Soriano has also helped to open a public library—with walls rather than hooves—and multiple schools.

10. Seashore Library // Qinhuangdao, China

The Seashore Library has been called “the world’s loneliest library,” sitting as it does on an isolated stretch of beach with no road access. It isn’t actually that far from civilization. Although patrons have to walk across the sand to reach the doors, the library is located in Beidaihe District, a popular beach resort in Qinhuangdao. The lone building was designed to foster a connection with the ocean and so the main reading room features a tiered design to ensure that everyone has a good view of the sea. 

Bonus: The Informal Library Aboard the International Space Station // Low Earth Orbit

The informal library on board the ISS is definitely unusual, given that it isn’t even located on Earth. The small space library is made up of books brought up by astronauts to enjoy during their down time. As might be expected, science fiction is the most heavily represented genre.

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