Public libraries are an important icon to cultures worldwide. They serve as a sacred place of learning where anyone can improve their knowledge. And although public libraries are a dying breed, many are jewels in their community because they have the most striking architecture and beautiful decor. Here are some of our favourites.

1. Stuttgart City Library, Germany stuttgartCreativecommons.org/Rob Deutscher

The visual centre of this library is its atrium. Overlooking it is reminiscent to looking at an MC Esher painting, with stairs that are seemingly everywhere connecting this five-story cavernous behemoth. The pure white interior, accented by the colour of books and people, masterfully captures an open, yet intimate, atmosphere within the space.

2. Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

rioCreativecommons.org/Rodrigo Soldon

Constructed in the 1880s, the Royal Portuguese Reading Room holds the largest and most valuable collection of Portuguese literature outside of Portugal. Outside, the library has been built in the Neo-Manuelino style that is reminiscent of Gothic-Renaissance architecture at the time of the Portuguese Discovery Age. The facade is made from carved limestone from Lisbon and hosts statues of distinguished members of Portuguese history, such as Pedro Álvares Cabral, Luís de Camões and Vasco da Gama. Inside this towering building, the walls are lined with books all the way to the ceiling on the top floor. It is enriched by the massive iron chandelier and coloured glass skylight structure.

3. Bristol Central Library, United Kingdom

bristolCreativecommons.org/crabchick

Bristol Central Library is a testament to English history. The exterior is designed in a blend of Tudor Revival and Modern Movement styles that are meant to harmonize with the adjoining Abbey Gatehouse. The interior of the building is in stark contrast to the exterior, designed in the Neoclassical style, making extensive use of round-arch vaulting. The glass roof provides ample natural light and makes the turquoise glass mosaic on the north front practically glitter. The antique furniture in the reading room makes visitors feel as if they have stepped into andolder era to paw over manuscripts.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first library in Bristol, the Rusty Squid artist collective created a piece called the Book Hive, which consists of 400 movement-activated books in a honeycomb design. Each time a visitor passes by, the books open like 400 magnificent butterflies opening their wings.

4. New York Public Library, United States

nyCreativecommons.org/David Sim

Established in 1895, the New York Public Library has grown to the third largest library in the world. Though there are many branches throughout the boroughs of New York City, the main branch in midtown Manhattan is the visual masterpiece of them all. The exterior of the main branch is famous in its design, partly due to the iconic twin marble lions that stand as guardians of knowledge by the main staircase. The exterior is crafted of three feet of marble and brick in the Beaux Arts Neoclassical style. Inside, the building is lit with a combination of natural light and grand chandeliers.

5. Library of Alexandria, Egypt

egyptCreativecommons.org/David Stanely

The modern-day Library of Alexandria was built in 2002 near the site of the old library, which was famously burnt to the ground by Julius Caesar in 48BC during his siege of the city. Today, the modern library serves as a gravestone to the massive loss of ancient knowledge, while preserving what we still do know.

The new Library of Alexandria is a prized jewel of modern architecture. Designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta, the building it a marvel to behold from any angle. Overlooking the library from the sky, it seems as though the entire thing is a disc slipping into the water.

The exterior is comprised of granite that is inscribed with calligraphy. The interior is equipped with terraces on each level that allow unobstructed views from any floor. The solar sails on the roof diffuse the sunlight evenly over the wooden oak floors. This makes the interior seem as if it is glowing any time during the day.

6. Vennesla Library and Culture House, Norway

norwayBy Anne Kjersti Bentsen, via Wikimedia Commons

Completed in 2011, the innovative architecture of the Vennesla Library and Culture House has been praised across the globe. The exterior is comprised of glue-laminated timber that mimics the structural supports on the interior. When designing this library, architectural firm Helen & Hard were inspired by massive whale rib cages. The library is laid out in a neat, modern and minimalist style that gives the whole building a certain harmony and aesthetic appeal.

7. Angelica Library in Rome, Italy

romeBy Lalupa, via Wikimedia Commons

The Angelica Library in Rome is a piece of history in itself. The library was first established in 1604 and belonged to the Augustinian monastery. The exterior of the building shows its age, but it has been painstakingly maintained as a nation landmark. Walking into the Angelica Library is a bibliophile’s dream. The books are ancient and leather-bound, lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Among these books are 180,000 volumes of ancient manuscripts and 1,100 incunabula. Usually it is the decor that makes a library so visually stunning, but at the Angelica Library the beautiful old books serve as the most stunning decoration.

8. Vancouver Public Library, Canada

vanCreativecommons.org/masatoshi_

Vancouver Public Library is distinctly Roman in design; the spiral of walled columns is reminiscence of the legendary Coliseum. One unique aspect of this building's interior is the green roof on top of it. The various grass, shrubbery and Japanese maples that sit on the roof add a ring of depth and unforgettable colour to Vancouver from the air. Inside the library, the architecture from the outside is duplicated. With ample windows, this towering structure seems like a city encased in glass.

9. Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

denmarkCreativecommons.org/Jonay CP

The Royal Danish Library serves as the largest library of the Nordic countries and is home to all the works that have been printed in Denmark since the 17th century – including several historic treasures, like the first book printed in Denmark in 1482.

Though the library was founded in 1648 by King Fredrik III, it has undergone several renovations that have made it the modern marvel it is today. It is now fondly known as "the black diamond" due to its exterior dome of black marble and glass. The interior is like a piece of art in itself. The curves evoke the fluid movement of water with natural hardwood and glass that lets the natural light in from the outside.

10. Rijksmuseum Research Library, Amsterdam, Netherlands

hollandCreativecommons.org/Brian Douglas

The Rijksmuseum Research Library is part-public library and part-museum, meaning that it not only houses priceless artifacts and works of art, but historic literature as well. The exterior of the building was designed in a combination of Gothic and Renaissance styles, with just a hint of French inspiration. Both outside and within, the building is decorated with references to Dutch history. Inside, the four towering stories of this massive building are connected by beautiful spiralling wrought iron staircases and lit with towering windows.

11. Sendai Mediatheque, Japan

japanCreativecommons.org/scarletgreen

Like many Japanese buildings, the Sendai Mediatheque is an exemplary piece of modern – almost futuristic – architecture. The design of both interior and exterior is firmly rooted in the idea of creating a fluid space.

The exterior of the building was designed as a transparent cube suspended by seaweed-like tubes. Inside, designers aimed to make the Sendai Mediatheque a barrier-free open space. The interior space can be viewed without obstruction. This feeling of openness is complimented by the large open windows flooded with natural light

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