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15 Most Famous College Libraries in the World

Any bibliophile might tell you that the only way to choose a college or university is to pick among the best college libraries in the world. While famous library collections are important, so is the ambiance — an atmosphere that supports and encourages studying, contemplation and as inspiration for future works. This list of the 15 most famous college libraries in the world include all the above plus some interesting historical attributes.

  1. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript LibraryBapst Art Library, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts: Gothic architecture fans can get their fill of enjoyment from this art library, part of the Boston College University Libraries. It has been called the “finest example of Collegiate Gothic architecture in America” and won an award for the “most beautiful building in Boston.” While the library originally housed the school’s main collection, today it contains over 51,000 volumes, 150 serial titles, and access to hundreds of journal databases and electronic journals in art, architecture, museum studies and photography.
  2. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Gifted to the school in 1963 by the Beinecke family, this library is the largest rare books and manuscripts center in the world. Designed by renowned firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, this is the largest building in the world reserved exclusively for the preservation of rare books and manuscripts. Now, the collection spans through to the present day including such modern works as limited-edition poetry and artists’ books.
  3. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, England: This is the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe with a continuous history dating back to 1602. The Library’s fine architecture has made it a favorite location for filmmakers, representing either Oxford University or other locations. It can be seen in Brideshead Revisited (1981 TV serial), Another Country (1984), The Madness of King George III (1994), and the first two Harry Potter films, in which the Divinity School doubles as the Hogwarts hospital wing and Duke Humfrey’s Library as the Hogwarts library.
  4. Nicholas Murray Butler Library, Columbia University, Morningside Heights Campus, New York, New York: This is the largest single library in the Columbia University Library System, which contains over 9.3 million books. Its facade features an arcade of columns in the Ionic order above which are inscribed the names of great writers, philosophers, and thinkers. Several books and screenplays have been written within its walls, including Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book and the script for the film Capote.
  5. Chancellor Green Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey: This library opened in 1875 and was considered by many to be a model of future library space — “an octagonal building in which from the center of the room, on a raised platform, Librarian Frederick Vinton wrote the card catalog by hand and kept a watchful vigil over the patrons.” Since its founding over 250 years ago, the library system at Princeton has grown from a collection of 474 volumes to holdings in 15 buildings throughout the campus. The combined collections total more than six million printed works, five million manuscripts and two million non-print items, and increase at the rate of about 10,000 volumes a month.
  6. Duke University Libraries, Duke University: Voted as third-best university library by The Princeton Review in 2008, the libraries of the Perkins Library System at Duke are the Pearse Memorial Library located in Beaufort at the Duke Marine Laboratory, Biological and Environmental Sciences; Music, including the Music Media Center; Lilly; the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library; and, for the social sciences and humanities, Perkins Library (the Perkins and Bostock buildings and the von der Heyden Pavilion)
  7. Fisher Fine Arts Library, Penn State, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: This building was designed by acclaimed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1985. The building served as the main library of the University of Pennsylvania until the construction of Van Pelt Library in 1962. Today it houses collections related to architecture, landscape architecture, city and regional planning, historic preservation, history of art, and studio arts.
  8. George Peabody LibraryGeorge Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland: The goal of the Peabody Library’s first librarian was to build a library that contained the best and latest literature in all branches of knowledge except law and medicine. Today, it houses over 300,000 volumes that are part of the Special Collections department. The books date back to the 19th century and cover topics like religion, British art, architecture, history, literature, romance languages and travel, reflecting the academic interests of the period. The building itself has been heralded for the beauty of its design, created by Baltimore architect Edward G. Lind in a Neoclassical style.
  9. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: This library consistently is ranked among the top ten in the nation, with a #1 ranking in 2004 by The Princeton Review and #4 in 2007. This is the main academic library for BYU, and it has approximately 98 miles (158 km) of shelving for the more than 6 million items in its various collections, as well as a seating capacity for 4,600 people. The library holds 350,000 rare books and print matter, over 1,000,000 photographs, and 10,000 manuscript and archival collections. The library also offers numerous exhibits, lectures, tours, and conferences related to its holdings.
  10. Harvard Libraries, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard Libraries consist of the oldest library system in the United States, created in 1638. It contains the largest privately held collection of books anywhere in the world and the fourth largest collection of books overall, with over 15.8 million works. The largest and best known building in the Harvard library system is the Widener Library, the central library for the college. It houses over three million volumes, including copies of the first printed book, the Gutenberg Bible. Harvard was voted as the best college library by The Princeton Review in 2008.
  11. Pontifical Lateran University Library, Pontifical Lateran University, Rome, Italy: This library was founded by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854. Called The main library of this university brought together several smaller libraries from around the city to form one larger collection. The collection was moved into the modern, impressive building that houses it today in 2007, a space with clean lines and open space that highlights the books themselves, including numerous private Papal and monastic collections as well as over 400,000 rare and antique volumes.
  12. Powell Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California: Serving as the main college undergraduate library on this University of California campus, the Powell Library was designed in a Romanesque Revival style to resemble an ancient Roman basilica, specifically Milan’s Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, with a few modern accouterments. Construction on the building was finished in 1929 and it is one of the oldest buildings on UCLA’s campus. Library collections support the undergraduate curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and mathematics and also include a graphic novel collection, new fiction books, travel guides, and more.
  13. Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle: The central library of the University of Washington in Seattle is named for Henry Suzzallo, who was president of the University of Washington until he stepped down in 1926. The library’s original architects, Charles H. Bebb and Carl F. Gould, called for three structures built in Collegiate Gothic style and arranged in a roughly equilateral triangle with a bell tower in the center. Of the 6 million volumes that make up the University of Washington Libraries collection, approximately 1.6 million are housed in Suzzallo/Allen Library.
  14. Trinity College LibraryTrinity College, Dublin: This is the only college in Dublin, and — be default — the oldest college as well. The Library of Trinity College is a legal deposit library for Ireland and the United Kingdom, containing over 4.5 million printed volumes and significant quantities of manuscripts (including the Book of Kells), maps and music. The College is legally entitled to a copy of every book published in Great Britain and Ireland and consequently receives over 100,000 new items every year. The Library contains over five million books, including 30,000 current serials and significant collections of manuscripts, maps, and printed music.
  15. William W. Cook Legal Research Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Often deemed one of the most beautiful libraries in the university and college systems in America, this library opened one year after William W. Cook’s death in 1930. Cook Legal Research is the most magnificent of a grand set of buildings, with its spires, huge reading room, stained glass windows, and graceful metal work by the best metal worker of the time, Samuel Yellin. Originally built to hold about 350,000 volumes, it was expanded in the early 1950’s by the addition of four floors to the stacks. The Reading Room was restored and its lighting improved in 2008.