Unless you're an avid bookworm, checking in at one of America's behemoth libraries while on a sight seeing tour of New York or Boston probably isn't foremost on your agenda. But, when you consider that many of these book repositories were intended to symbolize the collective superior knowledge, creativity and power of philanthropists and literary greats, it's understandable why some people get excited. With that in mind, we've tried to compile a must-visit list that encompasses both libraries of architectural excellence, and those with notably interesting collections. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these are a combination of the two!
Library of Congress
Washington D.C, Federal District of Columbia
With over 29.5 million volumes contained within four buildings across Washington D.C and Culpeper, Virginia, the 18th Century Library of Congress is the largest library in the U.S by volumes held. Established for the United States Congress as a research facility in 1800, the library was originally housed in the neoclassical U.S Capitol Building where members of U.S Congress still meet today. The War of 1812 wiped out much of the earlier volumes, and it wasn't until 1815 that the library once again began to acquire larger collections.
Today, the Library of Congress spills across three buildings at the very heart of Washington D.C. Constructed in the Beaux-Arts style, Thomas Jefferson boasts an equally lavish interior with Minerva mosaics, detailed American Renaissance sculpture work, and soaring porticoes lining the main hall. A lofty, rotund space, the Main Reading Room also serves as the main entrance to the Library's research collections. It's here you'll also find the Computer Catalog Center, from which you can consult approximately 70,000 volumes contained in the Main Reading Room Collection. The Thomas Jefferson Building also houses a wide range of commissioned works art dating back to the 19th Century, including Edward Blashfield's mural “Evolution of Civilization” and Gari Melcher's “Murals of War and Peace”.
The Morgan Library (and Museum)
Madison Avenue, New York
The Morgan Library began life in the 1870s as the private collection of eminent financier Pierpont Morgan, starting with just a few academic drawings and books on art. Following the death of his father in 1890, Pierpont acquired his 12.5 million dollar fortune, and thus began his passion for collecting on a larger and more expensive scale. Intent on constructing a building that would reflect the beauty and rarity of the collections contained within it, Pierpont commissioned Boston Public Library architect Charles Follen McKim to design a palazzo of such grandeur and importance, that it would be regarded as a work of art in its own right.
It is estimated that between 1890 and the time of his death in 1913, Pierpont had spent in excess of $60 million on art, literature and antiquities, including authentic Egyptian artifacts and original manuscripts for both Keats's “Endymion” and Dickens' “A Christmas Carol”. Among some of Morgan's most notable acquisitions are three Gutenberg Bibles – the first books to be printed using movable type in the West, along with the only surviving manuscript for John Milton's “Paradise Lost”. His collections also extend to two separate museum buildings adjacent to the library, both of which house in excess of 12,000 drawings, preparatory studies and sketches by some of the greatest artists in history.
George Peabody Library
While nowhere near as large as the Boston and New York Pubic Libraries in terms of scale, the Gothic-esque athenaeum in Baltimore is still every bit as impressive. Named in honor of the British-American philanthropist George Peabody, the 19th Century repository was originally intended as a research library for the John Hopkins University. Intent on creating a broad and accessible collection of literature which encompassed all fields of knowledge (save medicine and law), Peabody enlisted the help of celebrated English-born architect and close friend Edmund George Lind to create what would later be described as a “cathedral of books”.
Set across six floors, the neo-Grecian interior bears all the hallmarks of an ancient cathedral, including a soaring 61 foot atrium covered by skylights and ornate, cast-iron balconies overlooking the black and white marble 'court'. The library itself boasts a small, yet impressive collection of just over 300,000 volumes, including numerous bound manuscripts from the 17th and 18th Centuries. While most are concerned with art, religion, history and culture, the library also counts a number of cuneiform tablets among its collections, coupled with several early editions of “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
Boston Public Library (BPL)
No list of U.S libraries would be complete without mention of the BPL. Established in 1848, Boston Public Library was the first municipal library in the United States to be supported by public funding, and the first to allow volumes to be freely borrowed by the public. The library was originally contained within a small schoolhouse, yet a mere four years after its inaugural opening in 1854, was relocated to an Italian building on Boylston Street due to the increasing number of acquisitions. It wasn't until 1888 that the municipal government finally agreed upon both a style, and an architect, for the earmarked location at Copley Square.
Beaux-Arts architect Charles Follen McKim is credited with the building's unique Renaissance design, which features huge, arcaded stained glass windows and monumental inscriptions. Inspired by the work of Valencian architect Rafael Guastavino, the main hall features one of the very first successful installations of Catalan vaults anywhere in the U.S. Aside from its architectural marvels, the behemoth library houses a number of fascinating murals by the likes of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and John Singer Sargent, as well as the famed “Quest of the Holy Grail” by Edwin Austin Abbey. With an estimated 14,900,000 materials, the BPL now ranks as the third largest library in the U.S by volume, and counts early works by Shakespeare and Mozart among its most famous acquisitions.
Salt Lake City Public Library,
Salt Lake City, Utah
It may not be up there with the likes of New York and Boston as one of America's must-visit cities, yet the municipal capital of Utah has more than its own fair share of interest attractions. Built in 2003, the newly constructed Public Library has become one of the city's most recognizable landmarks – a marriage of glass, steel and light that gives it a sleek, futuristic appearance. The interior is a little like a shopping mall – all vast open walkways, glinting metal and sweeping steel spiral staircases connecting one level to the next.
It's no strange coincidence the SLCPL also has a small, designated shopping area. The space itself was incepted to provide inhabitants of the city with an ambient indoor space in which to read, learn, experience and socialize. The layout somewhat differs to that of a conventional library as there are reading areas scattered throughout the building. Window seats alongside the 5-storey glass wall offer tantalizing views across the city, but if you really want a prime spot, you can't beat the efflorescent Roof Terrace Cafe up on the 6th floor!
With around 3 million volumes held, Salt Lake City Public Library can't quite compete with the repositories of Boston and New York in terms of scale. It can, however, stake claim to having one of the largest graphic novel collections in the U.S, and a 'zine collection comprising 15 subscriptions and more than 6,000 titles!