Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, every book lover dreams of stepping into a gigantic library to wander, explore, and lose themselves in browsing and reading books. Now, it’s no longer a fantasy because there are many libraries out there that have stood for centuries. They have retained much of their old-world charm that it feels like you’re stepping back in time. Most of these existing libraries boast stunning architecture. Here are the oldest libraries in the world that have survived through many centuries and are still open to the public.
1) Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library
Year established: between 548 – 565 CE
Location: Sinai, Egypt
The library is located at Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library, which lies at the foot of three mountains: Ras Susafeh (also known as Mount Horeb in the Bible), Jebel Arrenziyeb, and Mount Sinai. The monastery itself is also one of the oldest existing Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Due to its age and undeniable significance to the Christian world, the Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library holds important and extremely rare works. These works include the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century Christian manuscript of the Greek Bible. Another rare work, the Syriac Sinaiticus, is a 4th– or 5th-century collection of folios that includes a near-complete translation of the four canonical Gospels of the New Testament into the Syriac language.
2) Al-Qarawiyyin Library
Year established: between 857 – 859 AD
Location: Fez, Morocco
The library is part of the Al-Qarawiyyin University, which was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, a daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant. It is the oldest existing university in the world.
For the past decades, the library has been closed off to the general public due to extensive damage. In 2012, the university contacted Aziza Chaouni, a Toronto-based architect originally from Morocco, to assess the library’s damage. Since then, the library has undergone massive restoration work. The library was reopened to the public in 2017.
3) Hereford Cathedral Library
Year established: 1100
Location: Hereford, England
The Hereford Cathedral Library is a functional Christian lending and reference library located in Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, England, opened in 1100. In addition to theological books and manuscripts, the library holds books and other materials of significant importance to the county of Herefordshire. It is also one of the few surviving chained libraries in the world whose books are attached to a chain to prevent theft.
4) Saraswathi Mahal Library
Year established: c. 16th century
Location: Thanjavur, India
The Saraswathi Mahal Library is one of the oldest libraries in Asia, featuring a rare collection of more than 60,000 volumes. These included a rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts and paper written in Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, and other regional languages in India.
5) Tianyi Pavilion Library
Year established: 1561
Location: Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China
The Tianyi Pavilion Library is the oldest functioning library in China and the third-oldest private library in the world. It was built in 1561 by Fan Qin, a retired imperial minister during the Ming Dynasty. The library complex also features a museum (which showcases the culture of storing books) and a lovely garden. During the library’s heyday, it had 70,000 volumes
6) Laurentian Library
Year established: 1571
Location: Florence, Italy
The Laurentian Library was built on a cloister of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze under the patronage of Pope Clement VII, who belonged to the Medici clan. The library, which opened in 1571, was meant as part of the Medici’s cultural legacy. Michelangelo designed this magnificent library, which now owns more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 books printed during the time. It also holds the Nahuatl Florentine Codex, an ethnographic research study containing information about the Aztecs before the European conquest.
7) Redwood Library
Year established: 1747
Location: Newport, Rhode Island, USA
There’s a dispute regarding the distinction of the oldest library in the United States, but the Redwood Library is considered the country’s first and oldest purposefully built library. It was founded in 1747 and completed in 1750. An astounding number of books were lost or stolen during the Revolutionary War, but many of them were later returned. Since 1947, the Redwood Library has regained 92% of the volumes it lost.
8) Rampur Raza Library
Year established: 1774
Location: Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India
Nawab Faizullah Khan, who ruled the state of Rampur from 1774 to 1794, established a library from his personal collection of Indo-Islamic manuscripts.
Today, the Rampur Raza Library has over 17,000 manuscripts in several languages (Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Sanskrit, Turkish, and others) and over 80,000 other books, including periodicals. You can also find rare specimens of Islamic calligraphy, astronomical instruments, and miniature paintings.
9) Admont Abbey Library
Year established: 1776
Location: Admont, Austria
The small town of Admont, Austria, is home to the world’s largest monastic library, simply called the Admont Abbey Library. The library is quite a vision, with 70 meters (almost 230 feet) of absolutely stunning bookshelves, frescoes, gold busts, and wooden sculptures. The library was designed by the renowned Austrian baroque architect Joseph Hueber.
10) Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading
Year established: 1837
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading (Real Gabinete Português de Leitura) was established in 1837, constructed in 1880, and opened to the public in 1900. Located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the library has the most extensive collection of Portuguese works outside Portugal, with around 350,000 volumes. The library is voted one of the most beautiful in the world.
Looking for more interesting libraries? Check out the Library of Congress and find out some unusual items there.