Book Review: The Most Beautiful Libraries In The World

The Most Beautiful Libraries In The World, photographs by Guillaume De Laubier, text by Jacques Bosser

I picked up this book as part of my library reading about libraries–being very interested in such meta tasks, and I found the context of this book to be at least mildly interesting.  The usual library I go to in order to pick up books I put on hold is by no means an ugly library, but it makes no pretensions to be the most beautiful library in the world.  Neither the budget nor the aesthetic sense of the suburban area where I live would be suitable for such a task, and it appears that the vast majority of these libraries come about because of aristocratic if not royal patronage, and for good reason.  Wealthy patrons, be they church leaders, local nobles or aristocrats, or members of royal families are quite suitable for making art and architecture of the scale provided in this beautiful table book [1].  Taxpayers, especially contemporary ones, tend to be far less fond of the monumental expense involved in building these sort of buildings, and so most public libraries, especially current ones, tend to be the sort of utilitarian buildings that do not end up in coffee table books like this one with glossy photography.

The authors take a tour around Europe and the Eastern United States where apparently the world’s most beautiful libraries can be found.  This is a judgment, and book, that is aimed at a very small audience, specifically the cultural elites of the Atlantic world, without any interest in moving outside of that very narrow world of mostly privately endowed high culture.  It is perhaps unsurprising that his was originally a French work that was translated into English to get a (slightly) wider audience of readers.  The libraries included are:  the National Library of Austria in Vienna, the Benedictine Abbey of Admont in Austria, the Monastic Library at Wiblingen in Ulm, Germany, the Benedictine Abbey Library of Metten in Germany, the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, the Vatican Library, the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, the Mazarine Library in Paris, Institute Library, and Senate Library in Paris, France, the Cabinet Des Livres of the Duc D’Aumale in Chantilly, France, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall in Switzerland, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, the Wren Library of Trinity College in Cambridge, England, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England, the Trinity College Library of Dublin, Ireland, the National Library of Prague in the Czech Republic, the Library of the Royal Monastery of El Escorial just outside of Madrid in Spain, the National Palace Library in Mafra, Portugal, as well as the Boston Athenaeum, Library of Congress in Washington DC, New York Public Library in New York City, and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg.

This is not a particularly diverse group of libraries, it must be admitted, although it is a beautiful one.  As mentioned earlier, these libraries, with very few exceptions, owe their beauty and even their existence to the patronage of church, aristocracy, and royalty, and only very rarely to public largess.  Some of these libraries have gorgeous tromp l’oeil artwork on the roof as well as historical globes next to multi-story gorgeous bookstacks.  Quite a few of them have somewhat restrictive access, so that ordinary hoi polloi like ourselves are not able to enter without express permission or substantial payment in order to conduct research of our own.  This book is therefore something of the nature of aspirational literature for those who are able or who wish to be able to travel in the elite circles that allow one to appreciate this sort of architecture and this sort of beauty for the proper keeping and maintenance of ones immense collection of bookstacks.  As someone who likes books as well as high art and architecture, I found this collection to be immensely beautiful although it is with regret that I am unlikely to see more than a few of these places myself.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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