Virtually Visit 8 World-Class Libraries

For some stuck at home, with travel and everyday library visits alike on indefinite hiatus as society works to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, virtual tourism has become a lifeline. It offers beauty, expanse, culture, and a momentary escape from anxiety. These eight of the world’s most beautiful—as well as a few of the most out-there—libraries are a click away for now and a bucket list destination for the future. 

For some stuck at home, with travel and everyday library visits alike on indefinite hiatus as society works to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections, virtual tourism has become a lifeline. It offers beauty, expanse, culture, and a momentary escape from anxiety. These eight of the world’s most beautiful—as well as a few of the most out-there—libraries are a click away for now and a bucket list destination for the future. Got another great library virtual tour to share? Add it in the comments!

Vatican Library (Vatican City, Rome, Italy)

Vatican library interior
Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library
Photo Credit: Francesco Dazzi - Flickr

Ornate architecture, stunning artwork, priceless manuscripts—the Vatican Library has something for everyone. Like many research libraries, most of Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana’s collection is closed to the general public. But that won’t stop virtual tourists:. The Holy See occasionally grants journalists behind-the-scenes access of their historic holdings, including the 60 Minutes team in April 2011. BAV staff show Morley Safer (and viewers) select treasures, along with beautiful pans of impeccably decorated halls and endless rows of bookcases. If the twelve-minute CBS video leaves you wanting more, head on over to the DigiVatLib to explore digital versions of some of the Vatican’s 80,000 manuscripts.


Bodleian Libraries (Oxford, England)


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Bodleian Library interior
Photo Credit: David Iliff - Flickr

While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s pop on over to the United Kingdom and pay a visit to the Oxford’s Bodleian. This short one-minute video shared by the university’s library alternates gorgeous aerials and interior shots with impressive facts like, “The Bodleian is over 400 years old and the libraries hold over 12 million books.” By the time the video gets around to name-dropping the Bodleian’s cameos in the “Harry Potter” franchise, you’ve seen enough of the extraordinary buildings and grounds to think, “Oh yeah, that checks out.” If you want a virtual experience that feels like you’re really there, this 360° tour from librarian Vanessa Corrick and The Telegraph has got you covered. Once you’ve absorbed those YouTube teasers, tumble down the rabbit hole that is Digital.Bodleian. The homepage is a work of art in itself, with new categories for exploration elegantly unfolding as you scroll down. The digital records are a little clunkier to navigate, but it’s worth exploring for gems like the original artwork that accompanied Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.”


Vasconcelos Library (Mexico City, Mexico)


Vasconcelos Library interior
Photo Credit: Second-Half Travels - Flickr

And now for something completely different! If sleek, modern architecture is more your style than hallowed halls, Mexico City’s Biblioteca Vasconcelos is the library for you. Prior to the unveiling of Vasconcelos in 2006, the spot it now occupies in the world’s fifth largest city was a bleak, barren eyesore. Today, the biblioteca and its botanical gardens provide an urban oasis of native flora and a naturally lit human hive of knowledge. Designed by Alberto Kalach, the angular and asymmetric arrangement of the stacks form a hypnotic feast for the eyes, almost like an M.C. Escher sketch brought to life. Take note of the Ballena (whale) that greets visitors in the central atrium—while it looks like a well-preserved fossil, it’s actually a sculpture by artist Gabriel Orozco.


Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandria, Egypt)

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Library of Alexandria exterior
Photo Credit: Short History

The phrase “Library of Alexandria” conjures up communal memories of a devastating fire and the loss of irreplaceable written works…but that is, quite literally, ancient history. The denizens of Alexandria have since rebuilt, and the current Maktabet Eskendereya is a massive complex of book and artifact collections, museums, and—no joke—the only physical backup of the Internet Archive on the planet. Clicking around a 360° view of the library gives you a sense of its sheer size. Its clever combination of glass (to allow natural lighting) and a gently sloping granite wall (showcasing languages and alphabets from around the world) helped the building to blend in with the existing city skyline and earned it the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The video posted by Aga Khan states that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina serves 18,000 people each day, and provides sufficient footage of visitors utilizing study spaces and engaged in dynamic programming to back up that claim. To peruse still images of the library’s elegant design, check out its presence on Archnet, an open access repository focused on Muslim architecture and design.


Liyuan Library (Jiaojiehe, China)


Liyuan Library exterior
Photo Credit: Zhang Xinghai - VCG

If urban libraries aren’t your jam, the Liyuan Library might be the bucolic book retreat you’re seeking. The prize-winning design by architect Li Xiaodong blends seamlessly into its rural setting with its ingenious exterior of hundreds of locally sourced tree branches. Liyuan’s interior utilizes natural lighting and warm wooden fixtures for a delightfully escapist reading room. Unfortunately, government officials of neighboring Beijing shut down Liyuan in 2017 after pirated works were discovered on its shelves, so YouTube videos may be your best bet for exploring this architectural marvel even after social distancing is over.


VAC Library (Hanoi, Vietnam)

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VAC Library exterior
Photo Credit: Farming Architects

Want a library that not only mimics Mother Nature, but actively helps reduce its users’ carbon footprint? Take a look at the Thư viện VAC, or VAC LIBRARY, of Hanoi, Vietnam. The brainchild of the aptly named Farming Architects, the “VAC” is named after the Vietnamese words for garden (Vườn), pond (Ao), and cage (Chuồng). Its open-air, aquaponic design aims to teach its visitors, particularly children, about sustainability and urban farming. With koi ponds, jungle gym structure, and resident chickens, the VAC unites the best parts of reading rooms, public parks, and petting zoos to offer an urban library experience like no other.


Seattle Metaphysical Library (Ballard, Washington, U.S.)

Seattle Metaphysical Library interior
Photo Credit: Seattle Metaphysical Library - Facebook

Looking to expand your horizons and your mind? Pay a virtual visit to the Seattle Metaphysical Library, also known as the AS-YOU-LIKE-IT Library. In true DIY fashion, this collection of 16,000+ books and audiovisual materials is housed in a basement, accessible via an unmarked door. The property’s landlord is anti-signage, so you’ll have to either call or look for the library’s hand-painted sandwich board to determine if they’re open. It’s a remarkable institution in several regards, from its unique and hard-to-find holdings to its volunteer-powered existence since its 1961 founding. While the Seattle Metaphysical Library has temporarily closed its doors due to the current pandemic, you can get a taste of what it has to offer by watching this Unique Seattle profile.


Biblo Tøyen (Oslo, Norway)


Photo credit: Marco Heyda—AATVOS

While the barrier for Americans wanting to visit most of these institutions after the pandemic is over is geographic distance, Biblo Tøyen poses an additional age constraint: no grown-ups allowed! According to the Visit Oslo tourism website, this eclectic library is “for young people between the age of 10 and 15 only, filled with books and experiences.” Fortunately for those of us who’ve left our tween years behind, Visit Oslo shares a four-minute video tour of this warehouse of whimsy. Highlights include books and Maker spaces, yes, but also funhouse mirrors, a wooden moose, and every conceivable type of cozy and quirky seating, from gondola lift cabins to a dentist’s chair. You’ll quickly see why Time for Kids named Biblo Tøyen one of its “World’s Coolest Places” of 2019. Fans of Atlas Obscura and surreal shows like Dispatches from Elsewhere will want to check this out.

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