In 2016 I spent six months travelling Europe, and visited more than 30 libraries in 13 countries. Each space was unique, from private collections with restricted access, to huge public facilities with free wi-fi and events, to tourist attractions with entry fees and a look-don’t-touch approach.
Evidently, I really love libraries. The bookshelves of libraries feature in my childhood memories with as much frequency as playgrounds, classrooms and the beach. On those shelves I found stories big and small, stories that challenged me, made me laugh, and sometimes made me cry. The hushed spaces convinced me of the power of words long before I understood just how much sway words hold in this world.
“Libraries really are the gates to the future.” – Neil Gaiman
Whenever I talk about my love for libraries, people either respond with vague acknowledgement that libraries are a good thing in theory but not a space they have any connection to, or like me, they launch into tales of how libraries shaped their reading habits and – in some cases – their lives.
Below are some of my favourite European libraries, ones which captured my imagination or my heart.
Best Known: Trinity College Library – Dublin, Republic of Ireland
A book lover’s visit to Ireland is not complete without making the pilgrimage to see the Book of Kells and the Long Reading Room in the Trinity College Library. Pop culture fans will notice a striking resemblance to the Jedi archives from Star Wars, and I overheard more than one fellow Harry Potter fan pointing out the resemblance to the Hogwarts library – though the actual filming location for those library scenes was Oxford University’s Bodleain Library. By far the most crowded and expensive library I visited, it was nonetheless worth braving the crowds to see the famous busts and thousands of leather-bound books under the curved ceiling.
Most Obscure: “Gheorghe Asachi” Technical University of Iaşi Library – Iaşi, Romania
This library was so difficult to find it took two days of searching, and the completely empty reading room indicated that I wasn’t the only one struggling to locate it. Iaşi is the second largest city in Romania and home to many of the oldest cultural and educational institutions in the country, but it is mostly overlooked by Western visitors to Romania. This beautiful library is definitely worth a visit for the period architecture and the friendly librarians passionate about their hidden treasure.
Oldest: Chetham’s Library – Manchester, United Kingdom
Though the Bodleian Library at Oxford University (founded in 1602) was the oldest library I visited, a more wonderful treasure was Chetham’s Library in Manchester. Founded in 1653, it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world to have been in continuous use. Most of the original books in the collection have been preserved and remain chained to a special desk. These books and any others can be viewed in the reading room, a beautiful space that many famous scholars, philosophers and political theorists have sat in – including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose research in the library led to their work on The Communist Manifesto.
Newest: Openbare Bibliotheek (Central Library) – Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The newest public library I visited on my trip, Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam, was in fact Europe’s largest until it was dethroned by the Library of Birmingham in 2013. The beautiful modern library, opened in 2007, really typifies the contemporary approach to libraries as flexible public cultural hubs and includes a theatre, an exhibition space, study pods, a music department, conference rooms and a restaurant with an outdoor terrace. At 28,500 m², spread out over 10 floors, there are plenty of places to escape from the crowds and read in silence.
Tamsien West is MWF’s Development Executive. In her spare time, she moonlights as Babbling Books, a successful multi-platform book-blogging profile – reviewing a variety of genres, producing videos and taking more photos of books than is strictly necessary. When she isn’t working or blogging, Tamsien can be found reading, painting, or planning her next international adventure.