Read Much? 19 Largest Libraries Ever Built
Some focus on specific centuries, some on local cultural history, and still others on the general interest of the public, encompassing a broad range of collections. Most of the libraries on this list are research libraries, established centuries ago, but given their broad selection of collections, I find it hard to believe and any of them would leave you wanting more. If you’re a traveling book worm, this may just be a great list for you to follow and visit on your adventures. Whatever your use, enjoy!
The British Library, London – 170 million items
Behold, the largest library in the world, ticking in at 170 million items catalogued. Along with around 14 million books, the British Library also houses historical manuscripts and other such documents dating back as far as 2000 B.C. Not to mention, they acquire about 3 million new pieces of media yearly, equating to about 6 miles of shelf space.
All things considered, this library gives fair coverage of media from various countries and languages, including everything from journals to music, play scripts to maps, stamps to drawings… They really do have it all.
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, US – 158 million items
Standing as the oldest cultural institution of federal development in the United States, the Library of Congress holds a close second at 158 million items. Despite being one of the oldest federal institutions, the Library of Congress definitely faced some major struggles. Most notable of those struggles would be losing the majority of their collection twice twice in 50 years. Regardless, it is now standing strong and will remain so for centuries to come.
Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa – 54 million items
Third on our list is the Library and Archives Canada – another federal institution as you might expect. Before 2004, the collections within LAC were actually split between two separate entities: The National Archives of Canada (a division of the Department of Agriculture) and – you guessed it – The National Library of Canada. Today, the two live in harmony as one, granting LAC their boast-worthy collection of 54 million items.
This isn’t exactly a subjective list – it’s based on numbers, after all. Regardless, I have to say that the New York Public Library is one of my favorites. It is the 4th largest in the world, 2nd largest in the US, and not only that, it’s independently managed. If you’re a student in New York, you’ve no doubt learned to appreciate this resource. If not, it’s a brilliant location to check out, regardless of your academic status.
Russian State Library, Moscow – 44.4 million items
With over 275 kilometers of shelves, the Russian State Library comes up to number five on our list. It is worth noting, however, that as far as books in specific are concerned, they have the 4th largest collection in the world. The library was first established in 1862 and acted as the first admission-free public library in Moscow.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris – 40 million items
The BnF traces back all the way to the Louvre and was actually the largest book repository in the world up through the late 1800s. It was founded by Charles V in 1368 and didn’t move to its current location until 1868. Originally designed by Henri Labrouste, the Rue de Richelieu site was expanded various times before reaching the state it’s at today.
While the Oval room (pictured above) and grand staircase from Jean-Louis Pascal’s expansion are by far the most recognized aspects architecturally, the library also managed to earn the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 1996. A wonderful landmark to visit if you’re ever in France. Besides, ya know, the Eiffel Tower.
National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg – 36.5 million items
This marks the second Russian library on our list, and it’s not too far behind the first. As with many great libraries, the National Library of Russia began as a privately owned collection. Catherine the Great established what was then known as the Imperial Public Library and it included various private collections, including those of Voltaire and Diderot.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the building you see above was built, and it is one of various branches that the library has available to the public.
National Diet Library, Tokyo, Japan – 35.6 million items
The NDL is the only national library in Japan, but that’s acceptable considering it is one of the largest libraries in the world. Not only that, but it was only established back in 1948 – that is centuries after most of the libraries on the list. While the structures and buildings themselves are not nearly as impressive or intriguing as others on the list, they certainly deserve credit for building such a vast collection so quickly.
National Library of China, Beijing, China – 31.2 million items
The NLC holds the floor for the largest collection of Chinese literature and documents in the world. Pictured above is the interior of the new building, acquired in 1987, but the old building which houses the ancient books and texts is at least as beautiful with its traditional construction.
Some of the most notable collections include 270k rare and ancient Chinese books and 1.6 million traditionally bound Chinese books. Also included are 35k inscripted oracle bones and tortoise shells dating to the Shang dynasty and the surviving tablets of the Xiping Stone Classics.
Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark – 30.2 million items
The beauty you see above is known as the Black Diamond, and it’s shared by both the Royal Danish Library and the University of Copenhagen. It’s known as the largest library in the Nordic countries. King Frederik III founded it in 1648 and contributed quite a collection of European works.
The Royal Library is now split into 5 major sites, one of which is the old building constructed in 1906 at the Slotsholmen site. With an interior modeled after Charlemagne’s Palace chapel in the Aachen Cathedral, paying a visit is quite the experience.
German National Library, Leipzig – 29.7 million items
The German National Library is split between 2 venues: Leipzig and Frankfurt am Main, plus online publications. What you see above is the Leipzig location, completed in 1916 with the plans of architect Oskar Pusch. As the main building, it is certainly the most impressive, with a 160m facade.
Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg – 26.5 million items
This state-owned library was founded in Saint Petersburg in 1714. Unlike most of the libraries on our list, it is only open to employees of institutions of the Russian Academy of Sciences and scholars with higher education. Even so, it’s an impressive collection with quite a crowd of academics.
Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, Spain – 25 million items
Behold, the largest library in Spain, established in 1712. Most of it’s antique collections were acquired during the 19th century via purchases, donations, confiscations and such. The same building you see above was first opened in 1896, and even today it acts as the central location.
The Biblioteca Nacional went through a series of remodels and expansions – the most notable one tripling its repository capacity – and eventually acquired the rest of Spain’s primary bibliographic institutions.
Berlin State Library, Berlin, Germany – 23.4 million items
The Berlin State Library was established in 1661 and had quite a good run before the 1900s, including the construction of two new locations – the first completed in 1785 and the second in 1914. Since then, 3 new sites have been added. Pictured above is the most recent addition to the family.
Hey, do you remember the WWII book burning in 1933? Well, here’s an interesting tidbit for you. Most of those books didn’t even come from the state library; they were stolen from a neighboring university instead, and amounted to over 20,000 books.
Boston Public Library, Massachusetts, US – 22.4 million items
The Boston Public Library was formed in 1848, and it marks the 3rd of five US libraries on our list. While many libraries we’ve talked about split their collections between a few respectable locations, Boston holds the bulk of its reserve in one central research library, the interior of which is pictured above. It’s called the McKim building for its architect, Charles Follen McKim, and the construction was completed in 1895.
New York State Library, Albany, NY, US – 20 million items
Established in 1818, this library was built specifically to serve the government of New York State. The collections there have a focus on the history and culture of the state of New York and, as such, it is now housed in the Cultural Education Center. The building is 11 stories tall, and it was completed in 1961. The style you see in the design of the structure is known as Brutalist.
National Library of Sweden, Stockholm – 18 million items
Behold, the national library of Sweden. While it is a major research library housing works of various cultures and languages, the bulk of its collections are preservations of domestic works, written in Swedish. The Swedish Privy Council Chancery began systematically building a collection of all domestically published books in 1661, but interestingly enough, the purpose of this endeavor didn’t have much to do with preservation of works. It had more to do with monitoring what was being written than anything.
After the Royal Palace – in which the collections were held – burned down in 1697, it was time for a new building. The building you see above was the answer, and it has been the home of the library since 1877 when construction was completed. Besides the addition of two new wings in 1927 and some comprehensive remodeling in 1997, it has maintained its original construction for almost 2 centuries.
Harvard University Library, Cambridge, MA, US – 16.6 million items
We now come upon the 5th and final US library on the list, and where better for it to sit than on the campus of one of our most prestigious universities. It was established in 1638, just two years after the university itself had formed. John Harvard himself was the started the ball rolling with over 400 books – it was a bequest.
Within under a century, the library had become the largest in the US, until a fire in 1764 destroyed the entire collection in the building at the time. The library has since replenished its collections, however, and currently sits as the 18th largest in the world.
Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Kiev – 15 million items
Last but not least, we have the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. At 15 million items, it may be a stretch below our number one at over 160 million, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still impressive. The library was established in 1918, meaning it’s only been around for just under 1 century. A large portion of the collections inside come from the 18th and 19th centuries. Since it is a depository library, it acquires all collects all Ukrainian publications annually, meaning it is likely to keep its spot here on our list.
If you liked our list of top libraries, don’t forget to check out our other lists and articles as well!