Visiting a library might not top most people's vacation itineraries. Browsing the stacks is usually something done before heading out in order to find a good guidebook or something to read on the plane. The world’s national libraries, however, offer insights into the history of their countries and a chance to see some rare treasures you can't find in museums. Plus, they’re almost always located in the center of the capital, making them easy to visit. As an archaeologist and author, I’ve had the privilege of doing research in many fine national libraries. Here’s a sampling of some that are open to the public, and one that we may lose forever.
(above) The “King’s Library” at the British Library was the personal library of King George III. You can see it from the library cafeteria. Photo courtesy Andrew Dunn.
The British Library, London, UK While many national libraries are overlooked, this one gets many visitors thanks to its incredible collection of important documents and books. Here you can see the Magna Carta, beautiful illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, a Gutenberg Bible, some of the earliest maps showing Britain, and much more. Stamp collectors won’t want to miss the huge philatelic collection next to the cafe. There’s also an excellent series of special exhibitions that tend to go beyond Britain to look at places as far away as Armenia and India. Find out more on their website.
The Divinity School at the Bodleian Library is a fine example of late medieval architecture. Photo courtesy John Lord.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK This is by far the most beautiful library I’ve worked in. Located at the famous Oxford University, the Bodleian has been open to scholars since 1602. Like the British Library, it’s a copyright library and strives to have every book ever published in the United Kingdom. The behind-the-scenes tour takes you through the stacks to the elegant 17th century Duke Humfrey’s Library and the 15th century Divinity School, two architectural jewels familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films. There’s also a free museum with book-related exhibitions. Past shows have ranged from Renaissance magical texts to Arthurian romance.
The grandiose exterior of the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, Spain The Biblioteca Nacional is a bit harder to get inside as a reader, thanks to some idiot a few years ago who cut up dozens of old atlases and smuggled out the maps to sell on the black market. Luckily there are still tours that take you to the reading room and the book-themed museum. Here you can see first editions of Don Quixote, early maps from Spain’s Age of Exploration, and much more.
A 15th century Ethiopian portrait of the Negus (king) of Lalibela, from the Institute of Ethiopian Studies collection. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
National Library, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
At the center of the lush and relaxing campus of Addis Ababa University stands one of Haile Selassie’s old palaces. The ground floor is dedicated to the library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. Readers sit in what was once the throne room. Upstairs is the Institute’s museum with its extensive collection of art and artifacts from the nation’s many ethnic groups. The top floor is still preserved as it was when the Emperor lived here. The tour takes you through his bedroom, private chambers, and even his baby-blue bathroom.
Al-Assad National Library, Damascus, Syria My first experience studying in a national library was in 1994, when I spent several wonderful weeks visiting the ancient sites of Syria. I also did some research in the national library. It was here that I had a little incident that remains clear in my mind and reminds me how insidious sexism can be even for well-meaning men.
I’d been traveling in the Muslim world for several months and had become accustomed to seeing only men in positions of authority. When I went in to the National Library in Damascus to apply for a reader card the guy at the desk sent me upstairs to speak with the head librarian. I walked into the office indicated and saw a woman sitting behind a desk with a man standing next to her looking at some papers. I looked at the woman, then at the man, who nodded, and I realized it was the woman who was the head librarian. I turned back to her just in time to see her getting a frown off her face. Not one of my best moments. Nevertheless I got a reader card and spent many happy hours reading their excellent collection of archaeological journals.
As of January of this year the library was still standing. I have no idea what happened to the people I met there, or any of the Syrians who showed me hospitality on that trip. Hopefully they and their important library will survive the war.