Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 1, 2011

National Library Month – World Libraries

Welcome to April, and our second annual celebration of National Library Month (to see the 2010 series, CLICK HERE, and continue through the subsequent postings). In the next few weeks, we will have several special features, including visits from guest bloggers, to help us celebrate libraries and writing. We start the month, though, with an exciting announcement.

I am contributing articles about travel, music, popular culture and the other topics we cover here to a Web site that is an online portal of fascinating adventures around the world, full of novel and unusual experiences. The site includes material contributed by experts who write about outdoor adventures, gourmet food, exotic islands, snowboarding on K2 and so forth. The site promotes Glenfiddich Whisky. You almost certainly recognize the brand, a single-malt whisky produced in — naturally — Scotland. They have launched The people of Glenfiddich have kindly invited me to be one of their “Explorer Experts,” and to contribute to their collection of unique adventures around the globe. I invite you to visit their site, and sample the array of worldwide adventures described there. If you’re looking for their version of the article below, enter “libraries” in the search box on their site. To read more about Glenfiddich Explorers, and how Under Western Skies became associated with them, please CLICK HERE.

Now, welcome to National Library Month!

While you travel — wherever in the world you go — visiting museums and palaces, you may be passing some of the world’s greatest treasures: libraries. Many of these are both historical troves and architectural masterpieces, and all are centers of learning that inspire the world. Those of us who love books (and that describes most of you faithful Under Western Skies readers) typically have a fondness for libraries, and yet I think I am safe in saying that we rarely think of them as places to seek out as we travel. Here are a few, and, if others come to mind, I encourage you to click on the “comment” button and submit your own favorites.

  • Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicia Laurenziana), Florence, Italy. Although this library houses an historic collection of manuscripts and early printed books, many of which are on display, most visitors visit it for the architecture. Michelangelo designed the notable parts of this impressive library in the late 1520s, incorporating it into the existing cloisters of the Medici’s Chiesa di San Lorenzo. The Library opened in 1571. Considered one of Michelangelo’s most important accomplishments, the grand staircase and the library reading room display his mastery of and influence on architecture of the Renaissance. The library is open at no charge for self-guided tours most days of the year. It’s a short walk from the Duomo, Baptistery and Campanile.
  • British Library.  This is the National Library of Great Britain and the world’s largest library in terms of total number of items. Located in the St. Pancras section of London, it has assumed collections formerly held in the British Museum. Anyone with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research can apply for a Reader Pass. Among its vast holdings are: The Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book, 868, China; The Lindisfarne Gospels (7th/8th Century); Two Gutenberg Bibles; Two 1215 copies of Magna Carta; The unique manuscript of Beowulf; and, perhaps most significant of all, the handwritten lyric sheet of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” There are always special exhibitions on display.
  • British Museum Reading Room. After opening in 1857, this spectacular example of 19th-Century construction technology had a long history of being the privileged enclave of scholars and researchers. Under the soaring dome of the Reading Room sat Marx, Wilde, Bram Stoker, Gandhi, Kipling, Orwell, Shaw, Lenin, Rimbaud, Macaulay, Thackeray, Darwin and Dickens and many others. They were ringed by approximately 3 miles of shelved books. Today, the room is open to the public, and houses special exhibitions.
  • Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. This is the largest building in the world reserved exclusively for the preservation of rare books and manuscripts. Its translucent white marble walls allow filtered light to seep into the interior creating a unique atmosphere of otherworldly contemplation. It’s a beautiful setting for the library’s unparalleled collection, which includes a Gutenberg Bible, the first four folios of Shakespeare, the “Vinland Map” of the Vikings and an enormous collection of papers of authors across many centuries including Joyce, Dickens and Defoe. It also possesses a collection of ancient papyri.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls. Jerusalem. The discovery of these scrolls – parchment and papyrus – in the 1940s and ‘50s was one of the greatest of archeological finds. The scrolls are copies – from about 150 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. – of texts from the Hebrew Bible and a variety of other religious texts. They are housed in The Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, in Jerusalem. Selected items from the scrolls rotate for display. While high resolution images of the scrolls are available online, for true bibliophiles, there’s nothing like seeing the genuine item. The Shrine’s Web site provides details for admission:
  • Biblioteque national de France, Paris. The national library of France dates to 1368. Housed for centuries in its Rue Richelieu quarters (currently undergoing restoration), the ultra-modern main library opened in 1996. At one time the world’s largest library, and still among the largest, it is an institution both for scholarly research and public access. You can visit this, one of the world’s great libraries, which is easily accessible from its own Metro station:
  • U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Claiming to be the largest library in the world (see British Library for a competing claim!), it is undoubtedly an unparalleled collection of books, papers, and media of all types. It has a venerable history, formed out of Thomas Jefferson’s private library, which he donated to the nation after the British burned and looted the original Congressional Library in 1814. In addition to rich historical collections, it preserves a copy of nearly every publication in the U.S. There are regular tours to provide a look into the workings of a library on the vastest imaginable scale:
  • Biblioteca Nazionale Marziana Venezia. Even repeat visitors to la Serenissima may have seen this noble institution many times without knowing what lies behind its façade. Founded in 1468, the state library of the Venetian republic took its current form, designed by Sansovino, in 1537. As Venice restricted the power of the Church within its boundaries, it absorbed libraries from some monasteries, including SS. Giovanni & Paolo. In the manner of a true “national library,” it was required that a copy of every book published in Venice be filed here. This is still a working library; scholars and researchers should contact the Director of the Library. There are tours of this spectacular, hidden-in-plan-sight Renaissance treasure on most Sundays, or reserve a weekday tour in advance: If you need convincing take this virtual tour [NOTE TO EDITOR: MAKE THIS A LINK on “virtual tour”]: .
  • Yunju Temple, China (70 Km southwest of downtown Beijing). Beginning in about 616 AD, Buddhist monks recorded more than 3,500 volumes of scriptures, called Tripitaka — Sanskrit for “three baskets” (of knowledge) – at Yunju (which means “cloud dwelling”), work which consumed more than a thousand years. The stone and wooden tablets on which these scriptures were carved occupy a large complex of pagodas and caves, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the caves, Leiyin cave, is currently open to the public. It affords scholars, researchers and historians an opportunity to see one of the oldest continuously-maintained “libraries” in existence, a glimpse into early organized compilation of collective knowledge. Details for visiting at:
  • Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. Interestingly, the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare manuscripts and material is not in England, but in America. Here is a vast collection of printed and audio-visual materials, extending from 1450 throughout the period of the Renaissance, but the Library also hosts dramatic and music performances focusing on Shakespeare’s works and of his era. For Americans, it’s the most accessible opportunity to see original Shakespeare texts, including the First Folio. Open Monday-Saturday except U.S. federal holidays.

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