Temples of books: The world’s most beautiful libraries

Architecture critic Jonathan Glancey writes in praise of the world’s great storehouses of knowledge – from the vaulted frescoes of Spain’s Escorial to the timber enigma of China’s National Library.

‘Print is dead’ has been the mantra of publishing and new media executives for so long now that a book should be written about it. It would sit on the shelves of the world’s libraries for centuries to come as a lesson that some things – like books, along with pens, pencils and paper – will be with us for a very long time. These are things that serve a purpose, but delight us too. Writing and drawing by hand and, yes, holding and reading a printed book are enduring, tactile and even sensual pleasures.

The natural repository for books, more of which are printed today than at any time in the pre-digital past, is the library. And, these have existed since humans first began to write. By the time of Christ, the Graeco-Roman world abounded in libraries, and it made perfect sense for St John to begin his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word and holy books were all important to the people  who would shape early Western civilisation. No wonder libraries mattered so much to them.

Equally, Eastern civilisation treasured its scrolls and manuscripts, whether written on paper or silk, and stored these in exquisite wooden buildings, some set on stilts above water so that insects were unable to devour their precious books.

For millions of us around the world who have learned through libraries, these buildings will always be special. Not only are they storehouses of thousands of years of knowledge, they are also places to study, to browse serendipitously, to dream, to snooze, to admire beautiful printed books, to watch other people and even to flirt. Libraries are romantic places and their architecture has often been, along with that of cathedrals and temples, the finest civilisation has had to offer.

The Library: A World History by James WP Campbell, fellow in architecture and history of art at Queen’s College, Cambridge, with luminous photography by Will Pryce, is a magnificent book documenting 82 libraries in 20 countries. It is a story of how libraries have evolved to reflect contemporary book production, reading habits and the value placed on knowledge. And of how what has often been a passion for books has sparked the imagination of patrons, librarians, readers and architects alike.

Immaculate collections

“Knowing I loved my books”, says Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan in The Tempest, “he [Gonzalo, a noble Neapolitan] furnish’d me/From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” Shakespeare wrote these lines at a time when some of the most magnificent libraries of all time were being crafted in Italy, Portugal and Spain. The breathtaking 225ft-long vaulted and frescoed library at the Escorial - the King of Spain’s monastic palace designed by Juan de Herrera, and the blueprint for so many of Europe’s greatest Renaissance libraries - had been completed just twenty-five years before the first performance of The Tempest in 1611.

Here, books were as much ornament as the architecture itself. In some of the glorious Baroque and Rococo monastic libraries that followed, architecture became as rich as the plot of any Romantic novel. Just look at the Altenburg Library in Austria, completed in 1742 to the designs of Josef Muggenast. Here the books are framed between Corinthian columns with gold-leaf capitals and set under undulating coral-coloured marble cornices.

Campbell and Pryce take us on an architectural pilgrimage through one compelling building after another. Who can fail to thrill to the great timber vaults of Dublin’s Trinity College Library (rebuilt superbly by Deane and Woodward in the mid-1860s), the daunting iron bookstacks of the six-storey atrium of the 1860s George Peabody Library in Baltimore, or to the National Library of China, designed like a giant wooden puzzle contained within a timber enigma, by the German architect, Jürgen Engel and opened in 2009, well into the digital era?

What about the State Library of Berlin, a ‘60s design by Hans Scharoun where angels read the patron’s thoughts in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire? And, who would not want to leaf through a book at least once in their lives in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s transcendent Glasgow School of Art Library, the vast main reading room  of the New York Public Library, or the haunting new Grimm Centre in Berlin  named for the dictionary-compiling brothers, and designed by the Swiss architect Max Dudler in a relentless rhythm of hypnotic timber stacks?

Constantly evolving, and often as thrilling and seductive as any of the books they contain, libraries will long outlive those who still believe ‘print is dead’. The book and its guardian angel, the library, defy them.

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