From museums to churches, architecture in U.S. cities ranges from jaw-dropping modernist masterpieces to historic gems hidden on side streets. But an oft-overlooked category of Instagram-worthy architecture is our country’s libraries.
Although the first function of a library is to house books and manuscripts, they also serve as places to study, research, and contemplate. Historic libraries from New York to California feature massive reading halls—many with coffered ceilings, chandeliers, and the warm glow of reading lights.
More modern buildings—like the Seattle Central Library or the Billings Public Library—are not only architectural marvels, but also function as community gathering spaces and technology hubs. Today’s libraries don’t just stop at books; new designs include recording studios, computer labs, and even art exhibition spaces.
In honor of their beauty, and to underscore their continued relevance in an increasingly digital world, we’ve rounded up 20 architecturally significant libraries throughout the United States.
The Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
After a landmark bond measure in 1998 that proposed a $196.4 million makeover of the Seattle Public Library system, the original downtown library was redesigned by Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in partnership with the Seattle firm of LMN Architects.
The Pritzker Prize-winning architect designed an 11-floor, 362,987-square-foot library that features a diamond-shaped exterior skin of glass and steel. The new Central Library—which opened in 2004—also features a “Books Spiral” that displays the entire nonfiction collection in a continuous run, a towering “living room” that reaches 50 feet in height, and a brightly lit “Red Room” on the 4th floor that uses deep crimson and red lights.
Boston Central Library in Boston, Massachusetts
The crown jewel of the Boston Public Library system, the Central Library is made up of two buildings by Charles Follen McKim and Philip Johnson. The McKim Building in Copley Square was constructed in 1895 and houses a massive reading room—called Bates Hall—that’s full of green lamps and classic wooden tables.
Bates Hall also features a barrel vault and coiffured ceiling, all surrounded by 15 arched and grilled windows. A $50 million restoration of the reading room that began in 1996 recently added new woodwork.
The Fisher Fine Arts Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Designed by American architect Frank Furness in 1888, the library at the University of Pennsylvania rejected the popular marble or granite designs of the late nineteenth century in favor of fiery red brick. The building contains a mix of towers, chimneys, and sky-lighted rooms that mimic the factories of downtown Philadelphia.
The library experienced several additions and alterations over the years, and went through a major restoration in the late 1980s and early 1990s before taking on the name of the Fisher Fine Arts Library.
Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
No round up of the most stunning libraries in the United States would be complete without the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress is housed in three buildings on Capitol Hill.
The most famous structure is the Thomas Jefferson Building, which opened in 1897 and houses the iconic Main Reading Room. Inspired by the reading room at the British Museum Library, the domed Main Reading Room is the central access point for the Library’s collections and is open to any researcher 16 and older. Interested in seeing more of Washington D.C.’s beautiful libraries? Head over here.
Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exter, New Hampshire
Phillips Exeter Academy may be a boarding school, but it has an oversized library; its shelf capacity of 250,000 volumes makes it the largest secondary school library in the world.
The library is also famous thanks to its design by celebrated American architect Louis Kahn. Commissioned in 1965, Kahn structured the library in three concentric square rings. While the brick outer rings hold the exterior walls, middle rings made of concrete house the heavy book stacks, and an inner ring creates an Instagram-worthy atrium.
New York Public Library in New York City, New York
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library system is a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture, centrally located next to Bryant Park on Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in Manhattan.
Construction began in 1902 and was eventually completed for $9 million in 1911. Today, it houses some 15 million items, including medieval manuscripts, ancient Japanese scrolls, and contemporary novels.
The library’s Rose Reading Room—with its iconic 52-foot-tall ceilings and vibrant cloud murals—recently reopened after a renovation that required the entire room to be sheathed in scaffolding. Read more about the renovation and see a time lapse of the incredible project, over here.
Arabian Library in Scottsdale, Arizona
Designed by richärd+bauer architects and opened in 2007, this modern library pays homage to Arizona’s desert environment. The sloping angle of the roof line and the earthen and stone roof echo the stone walls of the state’s desert slot canyons. The library’s exterior—made up of weather steel plates—also mimic the color of the terra-cotta walls of stone.
State Library of Iowa’s Law Library in Des Moines, Iowa
This library in Des Moines, Iowa, provides Iowa lawmakers, government employees, the Iowa legal community, and the general public access to 105,000 volumes of legal treatises on state, federal, regulatory, and case law.
Originally created thanks to an act of Congress in 1838, the law library’s collection moved from location to location until 1886 when it settled on the second floor of the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. The library’s grand hall is intricately decorated in the Victorian style, boasting painted ceilings, stained glass inserts, and book-lined alcoves forty-five feet in height.
Billings Public Library in Billings, Montana
Recently completed in 2015, the architecture team at Will Bruder Architects designed this building to be a sustainable, transparent, and dynamic gathering space for the community. Sitting along Billings’ busy 6th Avenue, the light-filled library cost $20 million to build.
According to the architect, “The library’s architecture is thus a hybrid of both the handsome and beautifully restored 19th century main train depot on Montana Street and the powerful block long warehouse buildings of brick masonry and metal that serve to shelter the transfer of resources at this point of commerce.”
George Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland
Housed in the Peabody Institute of Music, the George Peabody Library has often been described as a “cathedral of books” and it’s easy to see why. Constructed in 1878 and designed by Baltimore architect Edmund D. Lind, the library contains a huge open air atrium in the center that allows each level of the library a view down below.
Huge skylights allow natural light to filter in, and the library’s iconic marble floors and ornate railings make it a popular wedding venue. Although you won’t see many students perusing the stacks, the George Peabody Library remains a non-circulation library open to the general public.
Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago, Illinois
As the Chicago Public Library’s main branch, the Harold Washington Library Center broke ground in 1988 after a competition to design a new central library in the South Loop. An 11-member citizen jury selected the design by Thomas Beeby from Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc., and the building opened in 1991.
The building’s design has always been controversial, with some deriding the classical facade and the rooftop ornaments. But many love the postmodern structure, saying it celebrates iconic Chicago architecture and blends in well with its nineteenth-century neighbors.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut
One of the world’s largest libraries devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, the Beinecke Library sits on the Yale University campus. The building—made of Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass—was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Work began on the building in 1960 and was completed in 1963.
While the white and gray exterior of the building looks intimidating, the interior is simply stunning. A huge glass tower of books rises through the core of the building while two stairways ascend on either side to the mezzanine level. The Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type, and Audubon’s Birds of America are on permanent exhibition.
Geisel Library in San Diego, California
Located at UC San Diego, the Geisel Library was designed in the late 1960s by William Pereira as an eight-story, Brutalist concrete structure. It sits at the head of a canyon near the center of the campus, and the lower two stories form a pedestal for the six-story, stepped tower.
It is named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The building houses seven million volumes, including the Dr. Seuss Collection—an extensive portfolio of original drawings, sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books, photos, and memorabilia.
William W. Cook Legal Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Located on the University of Michigan campus, the William W. Cook Legal Research Library was built in 1930 and looks a bit like a modern-day Harry Potter library.
The grand building has large spires, stained glass windows, and metal work by the best metal worker of the time, Samuel Yellin. But the most stunning aspect of the library is likely its huge reading room, where large desks, wooden paneling, and elegant chandeliers create a peaceful and elegant hall.
Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas
Set in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, the Lawrence Public Library—originally constructed in 1974—had struggled with poor attendance before the community rallied to expand and renovate the building. A $19 million expansion added a 250-space parking garage and opened in 2014.
The new design—from the firm Gould Evans—uses glass and terra-cotta to create a welcoming space that’s bright and airy. A wraparound reading room was a major addition, and the renovation also included new communal meeting spaces, a music recording studio, and teen gaming zones. Outside the library, locals can enjoy a butterfly garden in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter.
San Francisco Public Library in San Francisco, California
The Main Library of the San Francisco Public Library system opened at its current site in 1996 and features seven floors with two million items. The building was designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (New York) and Cathy Simon of Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein & Moris (San Francisco) and represents the largest public/private partnership in the history of San Francisco at a cost of more than $122 million.
The most recognizable feature of the library is a dramatic skylight in the building’s five-story central atrium. Bridges connect the floors across lightwells, and the design includes a grand staircase that rises four stories.
The Doe Library in Berkeley, California
Set on the UC Berkeley campus, the Doe Library—which sits adjacent to the Bancroft Library—features a Neoclassical-style building completed in 1911. Named after its benefactor, Charles Franklin Doe, the structure’s iconic columns and grand scale make it one of the most recognizable buildings on campus.
Sawyer Library in Williamstown, Massachusetts
Williams College demolished a 1970s-era library building to make room for the new Sawyer Library, but the architects of the project—Bohlin Cywinski Jackson—also had to incorporate the classical styling of the historic Stetson Hall, built in 1921.
The result cost $66.8 million and is a blend of old and new, with a modern five-story facility housing the new Sawyer Library, the Chapin Library of Rare Books, and the Center for Education Technology. The new section features a central atrium that prioritizes natural light and offers beautiful views of campus.
Los Angeles Central Library in Los Angeles, California
As the largest public library in the west, the Los Angeles Central Library has been captivating book and architecture lovers since its construction in 1926. The building’s architect—Bertram Goodhue—drew upon design elements from ancient Egypt to create a geometric facade that is an early example of Art Deco.
The library’s most recognizable feature is the tiled pyramid at the top that has a golden hand holding a torch. A 1993 addition added 330,000 square feet of space—called the Tom Bradley wing—and helped to restore the original Goodhue building as well.
Suzzallo Library in Seattle, Washington
Designed in the early 1920s by Seattle architects Carl F. Gould, Sr. and Charles H. Bebb, the Suzzallo Library boasts a facade made with sandstone, precast stone, terra-cotta, and brick. Reminiscent of a large European cathedral, the library’s Collegiate Gothic style makes it one of the best-known buildings on campus.
While the exterior is impressive, the 65-foot high and 250-foot long reading room is simply awe-inspiring. A vaulted ceiling with bright colors and gilded details is accented by oak bookcases and hard-carved friezes. Large leaded-glass windows let in natural light and long desks provide plenty of study room.
What are your favorite libraries in the United States? Let us know in the comments!