You don’t need to be a bibliophile to appreciate the beauty of a well-organised bookshelf, and these incredible stacks will impress even the most lacklustre reader. Thanks to a luxurious new coffee-table tome by gestalten – Temples of Books: Magnificent Libraries Around the World – High Life brings you a sneak peek into some of the world’s most stunning collections
Words and pictures copyright gestalten
ALTENBURG MONASTERY LIBRARY
The great hall of Altenburg Monastery Library is justly considered to be one of the finest buildings of the Lower Austrian Baroque. The stunning stucco work, detailed frescoes, and marble pillars date back to the major renovation of the entire monastery complex in the early 18th century, for which the monks appointed architect Josef Munggenast. There is some evidence that this Benedictine monastery was founded in 1144, but the origins of its library cannot be traced back with any certainty. The founding fathers probably brought the first manuscripts with them from their mother monastery. The earliest documentation, a catalogue from around the year 1200, lists 25 books, mostly of a liturgical nature. Two of these works have been preserved and are among the library’s most valuable pieces. The library has now expanded its collection to include countless theological and fiction books, today numbering some 25,000 volumes across four separate collections: the monastery library, incunabula and early printed works, the Great Library, and the archive library.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Geisel Library on the campus of the University of California, San Diego, has all the appearance of something beamed down from space in a sci-fi movie. American architect William Pereira designed the uncompromising, Brutalist building in the mid-1960s, having conducted countless studies of university libraries across the country. His observations of incident light, the arrangement of books and natural walkways all informed the look of his library. Inside, the long bookshelves are spread over eight floors. With shrewd foresight, Pereira included two basement floors with the intention of housing the library’s growing inventory. The Geisel Library stands at the heart of the campus, overlooking a miniature gorge. It is named after Theodor Geisel, who wrote many beloved children’s books – including The Grinch – under his pen name of Dr Seuss. He and his wife Audrey bequeathed a generous sum to the library, plus something of incalculable value: his entire archive.
When Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers was entrusted with designing the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1877, he was determined from the very outset to give the museum a library where keen visitors could really delve into the history of the works of art on display. The Rijksmuseum Research Library – or Cuypers Library, as it is commonly known – is still thought to have the largest collection of works on art history in the Netherlands. The public has access to around 450,000 books, manuscripts, catalogues, drawings and etchings by the Old Masters here. Most of the collection is stored in catacombs beneath the museum building, but the most prestigious works throng the shelves of the spectacular reading hall. During Cuypers’ lifetime, the broad skylight in this room was fêted for its bold yet practical design: It brought daylight into the library, reducing the need for candles and gas lamps and saving the books from damage caused by excessive soot.
TRINITY COLLEGE LIBRARY
The Long Room is far and away the most important part of the library at Trinity College, which was founded in the late 16th century. Despite its modest-sounding name, the view down this 70-yard treasure chamber is utterly breathtaking. Beneath the vaulted wooden ceiling, busts of figures from Isaac Newton to Aristotle watch over the tall bookshelves, which extend across two levels. The Long Room owes its present-day appearance to major renovations in the 19th century, which freed up much more space for the university’s growing collection. Today, the 200,000 oldest books of the library’s total of six million volumes are stored here. The other publications are spread across five large buildings. The most valuable item in the collection is the Book of Kells, with the four Gospels inscribed in elaborate script and illustrated with vivid images. After a turbulent journey over the centuries, the 1,200-year-old book is now safely stored in this incredible library. Visitors can marvel at two original pages from the priceless tome in a display case on the ground floor.
GEORGE PEABODY LIBRARY
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND, USA
Sunlight streams down through the huge skylight, illuminating the six floors of the George Peabody Library. With its lovingly sculpted columns, arches and cast-iron balconies, this library has a deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful in the world. In the 19th century, George Peabody, a patron of the arts, donated the Peabody Institute and Library to the citizens of Baltimore in gratitude for their “kindness and hospitality”. That ethos informs the running of the library to this very day. Instead of keeping the enchanting space for scholarship and research alone, the team rents out the vast reading hall and the exhibition areas for private events such as weddings, receptions and parties. On such occasions, string lights, bar tables and music transform the George Peabody Library into a peerless party venue, complete with trained waitstaff. In turn, the venue’s reasonable rental fees help preserve this unique Baltimore landmark for the future. It’s a win-win concept that is now being adopted by libraries all over the world.
BERLIN STATE LIBRARY
Some 350 years after Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, founded the Electoral Library at Cölln on the River Spree, the contents of what is today the Berlin State Library are now spread across two iconic buildings. When it was built between 1903 and 1914, the Unter den Linden building was the largest library complex in the world. Following 15 years of renovation work, this splendid neo-Baroque building, originally designed by architect Ernst von Ihne, was reopened to great fanfare in January 2021. When Germany and Berlin were divided after World War II, the library’s collection was also dispersed. Some of the books had already been transported to Western Germany amid the chaos of the war, eventually finding a temporary home at Marburg University Library from 1946. When the contract for a new library building in West Berlin was put out to tender in 1963, architect Hans Scharoun was awarded the commission, having completed the neighbouring Berlin Philharmonic concert hall just a few weeks earlier. Having long been separated by the Berlin Wall, the historic library building and Scharoun’s masterpiece on Potsdamer Straße are now just an easy bike ride apart.
REAL GABINETE PORTUGUÊS DE LEITURA
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
Those who emigrate take more with them than just their luggage. In the 19th century, Portuguese emigrants increasingly began settling in Rio de Janeiro, following some 200 years of colonial history in Brazil. Like the thousands before them, they brought a piece of their own little sphere with them. It was only a matter of time before the first Portuguese library was built, helping recent arrivals put down roots in their new homeland. “At first, the library was more of an educational institution. In its statutes, the members stated that its purpose would be ‘the cultivation of the spirit and advancement of knowledge,’” says Francisco Gomes da Costa, who presides over the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura today. The association, which was set up in May 1837 by 43 founding members, was initially restricted to Portuguese immigrants. “The basic idea was to found a collection for the Portuguese colony. Soon, however, it started to be frequented by Brazilians, too, and ever since 1900, it has been a public library accessible to all.”
Temples of Books: Magnificent Libraries Around the World is out now from gestalten and available to buy here. Editors: gestalten and Marianne Julia Strauss. Price: €49.90/£45/US$69