Libraries are important social and cultural institutions that provide citizens with access to literature, information, technology, and resources. The advent of public libraries has exposed more people to new ideas and helped provide patrons with everything from rentable telescopes to 3-D printing technology to a platform for finding employment and paying bills.
In a modern world with technology that is ever-evolving, there seems to be no such thing as “conventional” library services.While libraries are always finding ways to innovate, some historic libraries have managed to stand the test of time. It is their age and the rare collections they hold that make many of this libraries cultural and historic landmarks, showing how the human love of reading and knowledge transcends time. Here are some of the oldest still standing libraries throughout the world that you can still visit today.
Location: Florence, Italy
Officially known as the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, this historic library in Florence flourished under the patronage of the powerful de Medici family and was designed by their favorite artist and architect: Michelangelo. The library contains more than 10,000 historic manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books. Commissioned in 1523 with constructing beginning in 1525, the library didn’t open until 1571 because Michelangelo left Florence in the 1530s. Considered one of the most important architectural accomplishments of the artist's career, the design of the building is still considered revolutionary.
The library was still incomplete when it was opened to Florentine scholars in 1571 and great expanded in the 1750s under its most famous librarian, Angelo Maria Bandini. In addition to manuscripts and printed books, the library is home to 2,500 papyri, 43 ostraca, 566 incunabula, nearly 1,700 prints from the 1500s and more than 126,500 prints from the 1600s onward. The core of its manuscript collection dates prior to 1590 including personal collections donated by the Medici family itself.
Some of its rare books include the Nahuatl Florentine Codex, which is the major source of Aztec life pre-European contact. It also holds the Codex Amiatinus, which is the earliest surviving source of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and the Squarcialupi Codex, one of the most important and earliest European musical manuscripts. Its papyrus collection includes fragments of Sappho while it also holds the Syriac Rabula Gospels. Many of these books belonged to Cosimo di Giovanni Medici, known as Cosimo the Elder, who founded the powerful dynasty, though it was his descendant Guilio de Medici - better known as Pope Clement VII - who commissioned the library from Michelangelo to house the familial collection of books back in the hometown of Florence.
Today, the library is considered a public library and held by the Italian State. It is a center of documentation as well as literary and historical research. The library also holds frequent exhibitions of its collection as well as on the building’s architecture and Florentine history. The library also specializes in the conservation and study of rare manuscripts and collections as part of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities, and Tourism. Visitors come to the library today to marvel at its architecture as much as at its book collection.
The library is considered by many to be the epitome of the High Renaissance style known as Mannerism and contains a stunningly designed staircase, reading room, study room, and intricate flooring and ceiling work. The inner rooms were decorated as they were constructed to create a sense of unity and geometry. The library is adjacent to the Basilica of San Lorenzo and is a great destination for those who want to see one of the best examples of Michelangelo's works without having to beat back the crowds.
St. Walburga's Church Chained Library
Location: Zutphen, Netherlands
Books were a rarity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe, so to prevent any texts from going astray many libraries literally chained their books to the shelves. These chained libraries still exist in a few places around Europe, though many were replaced with it was discovered that chaining the books also bound patrons into cramped quarters to read them. Usual for early reference libraries, most of the time it was only the most valuable books that were chained.
The practice existed from the early 1500s well into the 1700s with one of the oldest surviving examples located in the Netherlands. The library or librijie of St. Walburga’s Church in the city center of Zutphen was build in 1561 is one of the few surviving such libraries not located in England. In addition to being one of the oldest chain libraries in Europe, this library is also believed to be the oldest intact library in the Netherlands.
The church, named for an English-born Catholic saint whose religious mission took her to the still pagan Frankish lands, was built sometime in the 900s and then rebuild sometime between 1200 and 1270. The church is the oldest in the city. The library was built in the 1560s as a part of the church’s chapter house out of the belief that exposing parishioners to the right sort of literature would prevent them from falling victim to the Reformation. The library’s most valuable manuscripts and incunabula were among those items chained to the shelves to prevent their theft.
The library was originally funded by the rich citizens of Zutphen and only those deemed trustworthy enough were allowed to use it. However, the church library couldn’t stem off the tide of egalitarianism brought by the Reformation. More texts were added in the 1600s and eventually the library was opened up to the general public more to see the books than read them.
From the 1600s through the 1800s it served as a public reading room and a meeting place for the town’s intellectuals as well. Use of the library petered off during the 1900s until 1984 when a group rediscovered it as a valuable historical and cultural resource and preserved it, opening it up to the public. Those who come to the library today can see that historical landmark and tour the church that adjoins it, which is known for its medieval Gothic architecture. The church also gives seasonal concerts on its Henrick Bader organ that dates to the Renaissance.
Tianyi Pavilion Library
Location: Ningbo, China
The same year as St. Walburga's Church opened its library, another library was being started across the world. The Tianyi Ge, literally translated “One Sky Pavilion” or Tianyi Pavilion is a library and garden located in the city of Ningbo in China’s Zhejiang province. The oldest existing library in China and one of the oldest private libraries in the world, it was founded around 1561 during the Ming dynasty by famous politician and bibliophile Fan Qin. At one point, the library contained some 70,000 volumes of antique Chinese books and served as the prototype for imperial libraries such as those built in the Forbidden City.
The library was built at an interesting time for literature and the publishing industry in China. The country had moveable type printing for more than 500 years by the time the library was built, but recent developments had allowed for more clear printing as well as the print of images and text in vibrant colors.
Likewise, paper making had existed in China for generations but improvements had been made on the cheap bamboo paper that decayed over time. At the same time, widespread urbanization was increasing literacy rates across Ming China. Advents in printing leading to lower cost books had popularized reading and soon, the possession of books became equated with social status. It was into this era that Ningbo native Fan Qin decided to built his famed library in what was then his family’s ancestral residence. Looking out over the family’s garden, the library was built with non-combustible material to protect its contents from catching fire. The library was filled with the the rare editions and contemporary texts he had compiled while in imperial service.
After his death, he put in his will that none of the books could leave the pavilion for 200 years. Unfortunately, only 13,000 of the original 70,000 volumes exist largely because of forces outside anyone’s prediction. After the Second Opium War came to Ningbo, British soldiers raided the library and took much of its historical collection to sell to collectors. They were then followed by local thieves and by 1940, only some 20,000 of the original books remained.
More books disappeared between then and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Fortunately for the library, the new government saw it has an important cultural and historic site in need of preservation. While the library only holds about 13,000 of its original collection today, donations from the government and private individuals have built it back up to 30,000 volumes contemporary to what would have been in the original library. The library today is a National Heritage Site along with the Qin Family Drama Stage built in the garden. A major restoration was undertaken during the 1930s and a second one in 1982 after the building was given National Heritage status. Historically only opened to scholars of great repute, the library today is now open to the public along with its gardens to showcase on of the most impressive literary collections in China.
Vatican Apostolic Library
Location: Vatican City
Officially the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana but often known simply as the Vatican Library, this is the official library of the Holy See in the Vatican Library and while it dates to 1475, many of the texts in its collection are much older. The library contains some 1.1 million printed books in addition to 75,000 codices and 8,500 incunabula. The library’s main purpose is as a research library covering disciplines such as history, law, philosophy, science, and theology and is open to those who can document their qualifications and research needs. Until around the 1600s, the Vatican Secret Archive was also part of this library.
There are four major collections in the library dating to before the library itself was actually built. The Pre-Lateran collection comprises books dated from the earliest days of the Christian church and while only few of these texts survive, they are immensely historically significant.
The second collection is the Lateran era which began at the end of the 1200s and lasted until 1303. This was the first incarnation of the modern library and contains some of the library’s most notable collections of illuminated manuscripts. However, the original palace that held the library burned to the ground in 1303 and much of the surviving collection was then plundered by Philip IV of France. After this point, the Avignon Papacy began wherein seven successive popes resided in France rather than Rome. The collection of papal and church material dating from this time is known as the Avignon collection and details church history from 1303 to the 1370s.
From 1370 to 1446 is the Pre-Vatican Collection. During this time, the papal library was scattered throughout Rome, Avignon, and other places as the Vatican was re-established. It was bibliophile Pope Nicholas V who again sought to bring the church’s main research library back under one roof as well as create a destination in Rome for scholars. In 1451, he gathered some 350 Greek, Latin, and Hebrew codices from the collections of previous popes as well as his own and then instructed Italian and Byzantine scholars to translate Greek classics in Latin for use in the library.
He also encouraged the inclusion of pagan classics as vital pieces of literature and, within four years, the library’s collection had grown to 1,200 books. Successive popes added to the collection and today, there are more than 2 million cataloged items in the library. The library still has strict laws for usage with only 200 scholars allowed inside at one time, largely postgraduate students. Some of the most notable books held within the libraries include the Gelasian Sacramentary, which is one of the oldest books on Christian liturgy; the Lorsch Gospels; the Barberini Gospels; a classical copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, one of the oldest known copies of Euclid’s Elements; the Codex Borgia that is one of the oldest known Mesoamerican texts; the Codex Ríos that has copies of original Aztec paintings; and the original manuscript of Procopius of Caesarea’s Secret History. Since 2012, the Holy See has begun digitizing some of its artifacts to allow more access to its unique collections.
Location: Cesena, Italy
While not as famous as Rome, Florence, of Venice, the Italian city of Cesena is home to one of the country’s biggest treasures: the Biblioteca Malatestiana or Malatestiana Library. The oldest existing library in Italy, the structure was commissioned by local nobleman Malatesta Novello for whom it is named in 1447 and was finished in 1452. Novello allowed the library to be owned by the city itself rather than the church or his family, making it the oldest public library in Europe.
Constructed toward the beginning of the Renaissance, the library building itself features early Italian Renaissance geometrical designs but also is an early example of how humanist beliefs in the early Renaissance allowed for designs once only used in churches and religious buildings to be implemented in the public, non-religious sphere. The library includes a basilica to showcase Novello’s intention it be a “temple of culture” and the building features three naves. Novello himself is buried in the library.
At present, the library holds more than 400,000 books and 340 codices covering topics like religion, Greek and Latin classics, science and medicine. There are also some 3,200 medieval manuscripts in the library, the most famous of which is Isidore’s Etymologiae dating from the 600s. There are also some 17,000 letters held in the collection including ones written by Galileo. In 2005, the library was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme register as an example of how libraries looked before printing became widespread in Europe.
Wells Cathedral Library
Location: Wells, Somerset, England
Officially the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew but more famously known as Wells Cathedral, this Anglican church in the town of Wells is one of few that managed to survive the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541. Constructed between 1176 and 11490, the Gothic Cathedral is considered one of the first true Gothic structures in England and houses many rare English religious and secular treasures. One of these treasures is the cathedral library
Constructed above the church’s eastern cloister between 1430 and 1508, the library is home to three major collections. The first is early documents housed in the church’s Muniment Room, which was used for church records. The second is the famed chained library that houses both the chained shelves of its namesake and most of the library’s pre-1800 collection. Books from 1800 onward are largely housed in the cathedral’s library reading room. While the cathedral itself survived the dissolution of the monasteries, much of its collection did not so much of the books here are early printed books rather than medieval manuscripts. One of the major draws is the rare chained library, which might be one of the oldest still existing. The library has some 2,800 volumes that show the wide interest of the religious order and local scholars dating until the 1800s. In addition to religious works, it features volumes on science, medicine, exploration, languages, and classics by Pliny and a copy of Aristotle’s works that belonged to the Renaissance scholar Erasmus.
The library contains some of the earliest area records. .The cathedral offers tours of the library for a fee during certain months of the year. These tours are typically kept to between 8 and 12 people to preserve the collections and because of the space and stone spiral staircase needed to access the library itself. Scholars are also welcome to take a look at the library’s collection for research purposes and can make an appointment with cathedral officials to do so.
While on site, the cathedral itself is also worth a visit. With a history dating back to the original abbey church in 705, the cathedral has largely been the same since the reign of Henry VII though much of its valuable brasses and monastic holdings were sold during this period. The church was rechartered as an Anglican one in 1591 under Elizabeth I and managed to survive some local fighting during the English Civil War, even being used briefly as a prison by the Parliamentarians. The Cathedral was restored during the Restoration and then again in the Victorian era. Visits to the church itself are free and each year some 150,000 people attend services at Wells.
National Library of France
Location: Paris, France
The Bibliothèque nationale de France serves not only as France’s national library but also as one of the largest libraries in the world owing to its status as a deposit library for government documentation. The library also houses the largest collection of medieval and modern manuscripts of anywhere else in the world, a collection that has survived the overthrow of France’s monarchy, the French Revolution, and the expansion of the library into several sites.
The oldest part of this library dates to 1461 though its book collection is much older. The French National Library began life as the personal library of the French royal family at the Louvre Palace under King John II. In 1368, King Charles V transferred the collection from the palace to the Palais de la Cite and hired his valet to serve as its librarian. He continued to collect books over his lifetime, though most of these original texts were taken to England by the Duke of Bedford in 1424. Instead of trying to recover the old books, Charles VII began to renew the collection with material printed on the new printing presses in Paris.
The National Library as it is today was founded by Louis XI using this collection in 1461 as the Bibliotheque du Roi. Further monarchs enriched the core collection with literature confiscating from Aragon, the library of the Dukes of Blois, the Gruthuyse collection, plundered books from Milan, and their own private libraries. Figures like Queen Catherine de Medici and Finance Minister Colbert also fostered the growth of the collection. While the library was open to the court and royal family, it wasn’t until 1692 that it was first opened for public perusal. Within a 100 years, the library's fate would be called into question.
Most royal collections and properties were seized and destroyed during the French Revolution, but revolutionary leaders decided the library was an important resource for the French people. During the Revolution, the library not only continued operating but flourished with the addition of more than 300,000 volumes of books seized from the private collections of the nobility and clergy. The library was also renamed the Bibliotheque Nationale or National Library, indicating it was now the property of the people of France.
Since then, others have also added to the library’s collections. Napoleon ordered that any books found on his campaigns not already in the library should be sent to it. In the 1860s, the more than 650,000 books and 80,000 manuscripts needed a larger home which prompted the construction of new buildings on the Rue de Richelieu to house the library.
By 1920, the library grew to more than 4 million books and 11,000 manuscripts. During Nazi occupation of France cut the library’s resources in half as many of its prized possessions were sent back to Germany. French citizens also began taking books from the library to prevent their being sent out of the country, hiding them until liberation came and the library was restored. In 1988, the library was expanded again to house its growing collection with many of the major collections moved from the Rue de Richelieu site. Presently, the library is divided into four major locations with more than 14 million books and a total collection of 40 million items. The latest chapter in its history as been Gallica, the library’s digital branch, that has made more than 4 million documents, 533,000 books, 96,000 manuscripts, 1.2 million images, 47,800 sheets of music, 50,000 recordings. and 1.9 million newspapers and magazines available online.
Sorbonne Interuniversity Library
Location: Paris, France
While the National Library is the biggest in France, the country’s oldest library is located at another place in Paris: the Sorbonne. In fact, this might be the oldest publicly accessible library in Europe. While the library began as a resource for the famed medieval university, it now serves as a library for several other schools including the Panthéon-Sorbonne University, Sorbonne-Nouvelle University, Paris Descartes University, and Paris Diderot University. The library is located in the historic Latin Quarter which got its name from the amount of Latin-speaking students who lived there in the Middle Ages to be close to the school.
The College de Sorbonne was founded as a theological branch of the University of Paris in 1253 by Robert de Sorbon and still operates autonomously as part of the larger University of Paris system. The library of the college was founded about 30 years later in 1289 and amassed a large collection of books and manuscripts under the management of the Jesuits.
However, the Jesuits were forced out of the college in the 1700s and gave away most of the books they had acquired to the University of Paris. When the French Revolution came in 1791, most of the elite universities in Paris were suppressed or disbanded. The 25,000 books found within the Sorbonne library were taken out and redistributed to other libraries during this period. After the revolution ended, the school and the library were restored with the library being renamed the Paris School Library in 1802 and then the Library of the University of France in 1808. Between 1816 and 1821, the university began to expand again with faculties from the school’s colleges of theology, sciences, and literature adding their own collections into the larger library.
In 1857, the library was deeded to the city of Paris as the University Library of France though it was still used as a university facility. The library served as the official library for the University of Paris from 1930 to 1970 when the scientific collections were transferred to a new science campus while the main library merged with libraries for colleges of art, archeology, and medicine.
The library separated again six years later, renamed the Sorbonne Library and associating itself with the Library of the Institute of Geography. From 2010 to 2013, the city of Paris undertook restoration of the historical building were the library was located. Today, the library has more than 2.5 million books, some 3,500 manuscripts, 7,100 images, and adds about 1,000 to 2,000 new volumes each year. It is divided up into five sections: Letters and Sciences, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Law. In addition to texts in French, it also contains literature in English, German, Italian, Spanish, and Italian. The library also holds the personal collections of papers, letters, and manuscripts of prominent French figures including the Richelieu Collection, which is the official archives for the family of the Duc de Richelieu.
The Temple of Haeinsa Library
Location: South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea
One of the Three Jewels Temples in Korea, this Buddhist temple in the South Gyeongsang Province is also home to one of Korea’s most important literary works. The Tripitaka Koreana are 81,350 wooden printing blocks with all of the Buddhist scriptures on them and have been housed here since 1237. These wood blocks are the most complete collection of Buddhist texts, laws, and treaties and were used tp print books. Thus, this collection is the oldest literary collection or library in Korea.
The temple itself was built around 802 by two Korean converts to Buddhism, though it has been renovated at least five times since then. The literary treasures of the library were threatened several times, most notably during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 1500s, a fire that nearly burned down the complex in 1817, and a near bombing during the Korean War.
Despite this, the woodblocks and much of the temple itself have remained in tact for centuries. The Janggyeong Panjeon complex that houses the Buddhist texts is the oldest part of the temple and was expanded in 1457. A more traditional library is now also attached to the complex, which holds a variety of Buddhist texts. Of course, what really draws visitors is the fact that these centuries old woodblocks remain in such pristine condition. The preservation of the woodblocks aren't exactly a natural phenomena; it was done by design.
The temple architects utilized nature to help preserve the wooden blocks, building this area at the highest point of the temple and facing southwest to avoid damp winds. Windows are used for ventilation and the roof is made so its absorbs excess moisture from rain. In the 1970s, there was a plan to move the blocks from the temple, but modern architects couldn't devise a storage system that preserved the blocks as well as the current building.
The current woodblocks on display are actually the second housed in the temple, the first incarnation having been destroyed during the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s. This second incarnation was ordered by the Korean emperor in hopes it would spur divine help against Mongol invaders. Modern historians believe that the reconstruction of these blocks cost Korea about the same as the American moonshot cost in the 1960s when adjusted for inflation. Today, the blocks are considered both a national treasure and have been designated as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Location: Fez, Morocco
The al-Qarawiyyin Library is the library of the University of al-Qarawiyyin a madrasa or university established in Morocco that is the oldest existing continually operated higher education institution in the world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman whose family migrated to Fez as part of a large Muslim migration from the Abbasid Caliphate in the 800s. She and her sister Miriam were among the large number of Muslim women who founded mosques and associated universities throughout North Africa and the larger Arab world at this time.
The university was founded to educate Muslim scholars about the Islamic religion but also offered higher education including law, medicine, and studies like grammar, astronomy, philosophy, logic, and mathematics. The madrasa was a place of learning for all ages with classes for what we would consider preschool students through higher education degrees similar to the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates offered in European institutions.
Both the school and its library benefited from the patronage of powerful families in present-day Tunisia, specifically the local sultanate. To put the date of the university and library’s founding into perspective, algebra was just being invented when the doors opened for the first time. The library existed before Alfred the Great became King of Wessex, before the house of Capet came to rule France, and prior to the establishment of the Chaco Canyon community by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples. As the university was being built, much of Europe was fighting off a Viking horde known as the Great Heathen Army, East African slaves were fighting back against their Persian overlords in the Zanj Rebellion, and Chinese printers were making the earliest known printed text the Diamond Sutra.
The library was used to house a large number of manuscripts both gathered by those who worked and studied at the university and donated bythe local elite. Sultan Abu Inan Faris donated a large collection to the library while Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur gave volumes of the famous Al-Muwatta written on gazelle parchment, the Sirat Ibn Ishaq, the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s Al-’ibar, and his personal copy of the Qu’ran.
The library has been renovated and expanded numerous times over its existence with its most recent facelift coming in 2012. After the work was completed, the library was opened for the first time to be toured by the general public rather than just those who were enrolled at the university or theologians.
St. Catherine’s Monastery Library
Location: Qesm Sharm Ash Sheikh, Egypt
Officially known as the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai but later named for the town of St. Catherine in Egypt where it stands, this monastery on the Sinai Peninsula is located at the mouth of the gorge that leads up to the famed Mount Sinai and was established in 565 under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. According to tradition, it was here that St. Catherine of Alexandria was sentenced to death by being broken on the wheel only to be beheaded when the wheel broke before she could touch it.
A favorite site of pilgrimage, the monastery is also said to have been built near where Moses had his encounter with the burning bush. As such, the site is sacred to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism though it is operated under the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem.The monastery library is the oldest in the world and is second only to the Vatican in the number of early codices and manuscripts it preserves.
Texts written in Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, Hebrew, Armenian, Aramaic, and Caucasian Albanian all exist within its walls. Some of its rare texts including the Syriac Sinaiticus and the Ashtiname of Muhammad, which many believe show that the Prophet Muhammad bestowed his protection on the monastery itself. The monastery also has a great collection of icons and palimpsests. Of course, not all of the books that originally belonged at the monastery have remained there. One of its treasures was the Codex Sinaiticus dating from the 300s, which was at one point the oldest almost completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. The volume was taken back to Russia by a scholar and then found its way into the British Library where it now resides.
Since 2011, a team of scientists and scholars have been working with the monastery and its library to digitize many of its rare items, particularly the library’s collection of unique palimpsests. They have also been using new technology to uncover writings and messages that might otherwise have been lost to the ages.
Since paper was expensive at this time, monks often erases certain text with lemon juice and wrote over them. New imaging technology can reveal all the messages that were once written and then erases on these palimpsests, giving a glimpse into history that otherwise may have been lost. Some of the discoveries that have been made by the project already include more than 100 previously unknown Greek poems and the oldest-known recipe created by Hippocrates as well as insights into languages long thought dead.