The Library: A World Historyis the most complete account of library buildings to date. Here James Campbell and Will Pryce take us on a virtual journey through some of their favorites.
Will Pryce: "Visiting this library was an extraordinary, if fraught, experience. We hiked up a mountain only to be told that we weren't allowed to photograph the interior. Fortunately we had a Korean student of James's with us who pleaded with the Abbott and little by little we negotiated our way in. First we could take a picture through the door, then from just inside and so on. The collection is revelatory because you realize that you are looking, not at books, but printing blocks and that they date from 1251 -- reminding us that the Koreans were printing for centuries before Gutenberg."
Tianyi Chamber, Ningbo —
Tianyi Chamber, Ningbo, China
James Campbell: "This is the oldest surviving Chinese library, dating from 1561. It is very dark because you were not intended to read inside, but to take your book to the garden or perhaps your room. The books have since been removed so this is the last picture that will ever be taken with the books on the their original shelves."
The Peabody Library, Baltimore —
The Peabody Library, Baltimore, U.S.
Will Pryce: "This is an extraordinary space, a temple to the industrial age which creates an almost cathedral-like effect. There are thousands of books wherever you look and gorgeous ornate balustrades. Despite all the classical details it's actually made of iron and spans the weight of this huge library above the concert hall below."
Biblioteka Malatestiana —
Biblioteca Malatestiana, Cesena, Italy
James Campbell: "This is the closest you can get to what a medieval library looked like. It was built for Malatesta Novello, a member of a prominent Italian aristocratic family, and it still contains original books, in their original places."
Merton College Library, Oxford —
Merton College Library, Oxford, UK
James Campbell: "Although the building was completed in 1373 and is one of the oldest academic libraries in the world still in continuous daily use, the fittings date from the late sixteenth century. It is less ornate than Rococo libraries in palace or monastery complexes, because universities did not have access to the same amount of money, but it is still extraordinarily beautiful."
Biblioteca Marciana, Venice —
Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Italy
Will Pryce: "It's an extraordinary piece of design, a statement of confidence by the Venetian Republic. It lies at the center of Jacopo Sansovino's scheme to re-design St Mark's square, though the building was completed after his death. The vestibule houses the Grimani collection of classical sculpture under a ceiling by Titian. While the original lecterns have gone, the superb interior design of the library gives us a sense of the richness of Venetian cultural life in this period."
The Bodleian Library, Oxford —
The Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
Will Pryce: "Arts End is one of most lovely corners of the group of libraries that constitute the Bodleian. Under the galleries there are little desks where readers face the bookshelves of one of the earliest wall-system libraries."
Admont Abbey library, Admont, Austria —
Admont Abbey library, Admont, Austria
James Campbell: "This is one of the largest monastic libraries ever built. The whole thing is a complete work of art. The corridors and staircase that leads to it is relatively simple, so when you enter this stunning space flooded with light there is almost a moment of revelation, a theatrical effect. There are no desks to work at because these library rooms were never intended for study, but for impressing visitors. The books were taken back to the monks' warm cells to be read. It was built in 1776, a piece de resistance of rococo design."
Most beautiful libraries in the world —
Philips Exeter Academy Library, New Hampshire, U.S.
James Campbell: "This is perhaps the largest high school library ever constructed. From the outside it looks like a severe brick box punctured by windows. The inside is completely different. The main space rises the whole height of the building and the bookcases are behind the dominating concrete structure. Students can read with privacy on carrels next to the windows which they can decorate with their own possessions."
Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra —
Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra, Portugal
Will Pryce: "This is a very imposing library from a time when Portugal was extremely wealthy and powerful. It is very dark but features intricate gold leaf which gives it magical luminosity. The backs of the bookcases each have different color, and there are integrated ladders that pull out, and secret doors that lead to reading rooms."
The Escorial Library, Madrid —
The Escorial Library, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain
WIill Pryce: "This library was ground-breaking. It established the template of using books to decorate the walls of the library which we've been using ever since. The great hall is a harmonious combination of bookshelves, books and a wonderful painted ceiling. It was complete by 1585 and influenced everything that followed it."
Most beautiful libraries in the world —
Mafra Palace Library, Mafra, Portugal
James Campbell: "The Mafra Palace Library in Mafra, Portugal is at 88 meters the longest Rococo monastic library in the world. Sadly the original designs are lost but we think it would have been covered in gold leaf with an ornate painted ceiling. However, because the construction lasted from 1717 to 1771, by the time it was completed a simplified decoration was adopted. The library also hosts a colony of bats who come out at night to feed on the insects who would otherwise eat the books."
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library —
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, U.S.
James Campbell: "Outside it looks like a white box, so there is an element of surprise when you go in. All light comes through the stones in the wall, and the honey-color trickle of sun rays makes it magical. It is one of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, and it is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The elegance of the Beinecke later inspired the glass-walled structure that holds the original core collection of the British Library."
Utrecht University Library —
Utrecht University Library, Utrecht, Holland
Will Pryce: "This is best solution I have seen to the problems of building a library on a contemporary scale. From the outside it's a simple rectangle but inside a series of voids have been opened up creating a complete variety of spaces to work. There are secluded areas for those who like to be surrounded by books and more open ones for those who prefer to be around people. It seemed hugely popular with the students."