Libraries represent a shared culture and the universality of learning. Around the world, they provide vital and vibrant spaces for communities to gather, debate, discuss – and maybe even read a bit. 

We’ve compiled a list of 10 outstanding libraries across the USA that you’ll surely want to, um, check out soon.

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State Library of Iowa
The Iowa State Law Library is a Victorian fantasy for bookworms © State Law Library of Iowa

1. Iowa State Law Library, Des Moines, Iowa

Inside the grand, gold-domed State Capitol of Iowa is this Victorian fantasy of a library. Spiral staircases join multiple stories lined with wrought-iron railings on one side, with ceiling-high shelves of the books on the other. On the ground, mosaic tiles depict flowers and classical patterns; light pours in from the ceiling through panels of stained glass above. While the 100,000 volumes are available for specialized legal researchers, general visitors are most welcome to stop and take in the space.

2. Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter, New Hampshire

The campus of storied preparatory school Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire rivals what you’ll find at elite universities: think lush lawns, Georgian red-brick buildings and white clock towers. But one building stands out: the Class of 1945 Library, a mini masterpiece by seminal architect Louis Kahn. What looks like a giant brick cube from the outside has at its core a soaring atrium faced with Kahn’s signature concrete. (Kahn was famously able to bring out the expressive qualities of this most workaday of materials.) Kahn’s design pushes the study carrels and book-storage areas to the rim of the building, allowing for the atrium, with its dramatic circular openings, to dominate the design. An illuminating feat indeed.

Planning tip: The library is open to outside visitors – but only a few days each year, when school is not in session. Check Philips Exeter’s website for the full list of days.

The historic Rose Reading Room on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
The NYPL’s historic Rose Main Reading Room © jiawangkun / Shutterstock

3. New York Public Library, New York City, New York

The crown jewel of a 92-branch network, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library is the epitome of beaux-arts grandeur, and an icon of New York City. Famously guarded by two stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, the building’s marble facade and exterior steps lead to a temple-like atrium. At the top of the steps, check in with a librarian at the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, then head to the extraordinary Rose Main Reading Room – the length of two city blocks, with painted murals on the ceiling and tiered chandeliers – for an afternoon of research or writing. The best part? This palace of reading is completely open to the general public. Edification awaits.

Planning tip: Before or after visiting the library, count on taking a break in adjacent Bryant Park, surrounded by Midtown’s skyscrapers. This once-grungy eyesore has become one of New York City’s most elegant green spaces.

Relax in one (or many) of New York City’s best parks

Geisel Library at University Of California, San Diego in La Jolla, California.
The beautifully brutalist Geisel Library at UCSD © Education Images / Citizens of the Planet / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

4. Geisel Library at University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California

In the tony La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego, this futuristic-looking building is named for generous donors Audrey and Theodor Geisel – the latter better known as Dr Seuss. It’s not just the beautifully brutalist look of the Geisel Library that turns heads: the building is situated at the head of a canyon near the center of the sunny UCSD campus. In the tower, floors four through eight house much of the Library’s collection and study space, while floors one and two have service desks and staff work areas. The library hosts special events such as educational talks, performances, films and exhibitions. 

Detour: A short distance from the UCSD campus, the Salk Institute is an architectural masterpiece by Louis Kahn. Its perfectly composed sequence of research buildings draws the eye down a central court, to the dunes and Pacific Ocean just beyond.

The best hikes in beautiful San Diego

People at desks in the top-floor reading room of the Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, Seattle, Washington, USA
Light pours into the top-floor reading room of the ultra-modern Seattle Public Library © eli medeiros / Shutterstock

5. Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington

What looks like a spaceship in the heart of downtown Seattle is in fact the repository for more than 1 million books. Designed by architectural superstar Rem Koolhaas, the tour-de-force Seattle Central Library ingeniously turns the traditional layouts of libraries upside down. Rather than relegating books to underground “stacks,” the “Books Spiral” features an uninterrupted procession of nonfiction titles – organized by the Dewey Decimal System, of course – that ascends up several stories. On the 10th floor, the soaring main reading room is awash with light that pours in through glass cross-hatched by a steel exoskeleton.

The 11 best beaches in Seattle

Touring students during a visit to the Library of Congress
Any visitor will feel a sense of awe at the Library of Congress © Shawn Miller / Library of Congress

6. Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The largest library in the world, this peerless institution contains over 173 million items including books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts. And it’s all housed in a building that does the collection justice. The Great Hall of its main Jefferson Building is done up in stained glass, marble and mosaics of mythical characters. Nearby, treasures from the collection are on display, including a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s own library, an exhibition of handwritten music by George and Ira Gershwin, and other temporary presentations. You can also enjoy a view of the spectacular Main Reading Room, with its curved research desks arranged in a circle around the reference desk.

Take a stroll around DC’s best neighborhoods

7. George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Maryland

Behind a grand if forgettable beaux-arts facade is an astonishing atrium (or “Stack Room”) lined with five stories of ornamental cast-iron balconies – as well as some 300,000 books. This 1878 masterpiece, in Baltimore’s leafy Mt Vernon neighborhood, was a gift from a Boston philanthropist and today forms part of the Johns Hopkins University system. While nonexpert visitors can’t access the specialized book collection, just a few minutes looking up in the Stack Room is enough to transport you to a higher level of learning.

Interior view of the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in the Oakland neighborhood, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch, reading becomes an elevated experience © Alamy Stock Photo

8. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This ornate building makes the list to spotlight the man who did more for public libraries in the USA than anyone else. Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie made his massive fortune from the steel mills of Pittsburgh. At the peak of his career, the self-made mogul turned to philanthropy, eventually giving away billions (in today’s dollars) toward research institutions, music, the cause of world peace and – above all – libraries. Around the world, over 2500 “Carnegie libraries” sprang up, of which almost 1800 were in his adopted homeland. And they were grand indeed.

The 1895 main branch of the Pittsburgh library system – known, naturally, as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – features the architectural hallmarks of the best civic buildings of its time: marble stairs leading to a beaux-art facade, and a main reading room with a barrel-vaulted, coffered ceiling. Whether you’re researching your next book or just skimming the paper, reading becomes an elevated experience here.

Detour: The main branch is in the same complex as the wonderful Carnegie Museums. Round out your reading by taking in some dinosaur fossils or contemporary paintings afterward.

A replica the Rose Dorothea schooner inside the Provincetown Library, Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA
A replica of a historic ship rests inside the main room of the historic Provincetown Public Library © Alamy Stock Photo

9. Provincetown Public Library, Provincetown, Massachusetts

It’s a sight out of a New England tourist brochure: the white clapboard church, smack in the center of town. But this building, on Commercial St in Provincetown, is today a different kind of temple – one to learning, for the 1860 ecclesiastical building became the town’s main public library in 2005. This delightful story of architectural repurposing has yet another twist. For a period of time, the former church housed a local-history museum, with a half-size replica of the town’s famed race-winning schooner Rose Dorothea as its centerpiece. The replica proved too big to remove when the library-conversion work got underway – which means the readers today peruse the stacks next to the hulking hull of a historic vessel. It doesn’t get more New England than this.

Detour: Books followed by ice cream is always a brilliant idea. From the library, walk a short distance down Commercial St to the Nut House to get a few scoops from Cambridge-based cult favorite Toscanini’s.

Top 14 things to do in Provincetown, from LGBTIQ+ tea parties to strolls among the dunes

The “stacks” of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library contain priceless volumes, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Daylight filters through translucent marble panels and to the “stacks“ that house the Beinecke’s priceless collection © Jose L Vilchez / Shutterstock

10. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven

Built in 1963, this extraordinary work of architecture befits its collection of rare manuscripts, which includes a Gutenberg Bible; manuscripts by Dickens and Goethe; maps from the Middle Ages; and many other treasures. The centerpiece of the building – whose exhibition hall on the ground floor and mezzanine is open to the public – is a tower of book stacks containing the priceless collection. Enclosing the structure is a curtain of panels made of thinly cut translucent marble. By day, the panels filter sunlight into the building, protecting the collection; after dark, the building subtly glows from within.

Detour: Long a foodie favorite, New Haven pizza (or “apizza”) shouldn’t be missed. Three legendary joints each have their fierce partisans: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, Modern Apizza and Sally’s Apizza.

New Haven is pizza heaven

This article was first published Aug 6, 2019 and updated May 17, 2024.

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