It has been said that reading books is surreal: You stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly. Book lovers, therefore, are a strange bunch. They spend hours by themselves, escaping this world and immersing themselves in another. The variety of their worlds is as limitless as human knowledge. It’s a wonder that any one thing would bring these solitary souls together—until you consider the library. (See 14 other epic libraries around the world.)
Perhaps no institution in society holds as much promise as libraries do. For ancient monks, libraries were the repository of sacred knowledge; for early scientists, they made possible technical advancements and medical cures. The advent of the modern public library represents the greatest aspiration for civil society, namely that people would want to read, educate themselves, and actively broaden their horizons.
Of course, civil society is often under threat and therefore so are libraries. As repositories of theology and culture, libraries throughout history have come under fire—sometimes literally. Wars and fires have ravaged libraries, most notably the Library of Alexandria, but also lesser-known ones like Prague’s Strahov monastery library, which was destroyed by fire only to then suffer centuries of invading armies.
Threats to libraries aren’t always so extreme, though. The everyday problem of protecting antiquities from the ravages of time, or even merely from pests (both human and animal) is a principal concern. The Biblioteca Girolamini in Naples suffered at the hands of a crime ring that systematically plundered the collection in 2012, though librarians and bibliophiles the world over remarkably managed to recover the vast majority of stolen books.
Tasked with protecting our cultural heritage, librarians are unsung heroes, the first line of defense. But in Portugal, librarians find themselves with an unusual ally: bats. Book-loving insects are ingeniously kept at bay by bat colonies in such places as Coimbra’s Biblioteca Joanina and Mafra’s Biblioteca Municipal. (Explore the ancient temple full of meat-eating bats.)
Aside from books’ inherent value, libraries themselves often inspire awe and wonder. This is perhaps best illustrated when it comes to architecture. Some of history’s greatest architects have been commissioned to build libraries, from the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Henri Labrouste’s precursor to the modern library, to the Seattle Public Library, a contemporary marvel designed by Rem Koolhaas.
In these photos, we take a closer look at some of the most remarkable and beautiful libraries in the world. These marvels—like St. Emmeram, renowned in the Early Middle Ages for its bookmaking, or the private collections of former nobles now available to the public—might just inspire you to explore new worlds of your own.
Melissa Mesku is a writer and editor in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @melissamesku.