It took a while, but the internet has displaced libraries as the center of college scholarship. Reference books are available online, study groups can meet on Skype, and research films can be streamed to your phone.
Still, let's not count out the ol' brick-and-mortar behemoths full of dead trees. Libraries still house millions of volumes the web doesn't have. They serve as a gathering place for late-night, coffee-fueled cram sessions. And they're where students from all over the world come together, speak in whispers, and make sure no one steals their laptops while they run to the bathroom.
They’re also architectural marvels, and on many of the finest American college campuses they're the most iconic structure that isn't a football stadium. They include neo-Gothic classics at Michigan and Washington, pillared temples at Columbia and Cal, and glass-paned walls at Ohio State and Fresno (yes, Fresno!). And while many campuses around the country have similarly impressive libraries, for a wide representation of big and small, these are the 15 best.
Nicholas Murray Butler Library
New York, New York
Year opened: 1935
Notable fact: Dan Futterman (class of ’89) wrote much of the screenplay for the movie Capote in the Butler Library.
The largest single library at Columbia's Morningside Heights campus is an imposing, Gothic structure fronted by 14 columns inscribed with the names of great thinkers and philosophers: Milton, Shakespeare, Sophocles. The place is so impressive, its original name was simply "the grand hall," and with one step into the cavernous reference room you'll understand why. It's a space worthy of the world's grandest hotels, boasting an ornate ceiling with chandeliers dripping halfway to the floor. The stacks themselves, however, are no beauties; originally they weren't even open to the public. Until a few years ago patrons had to order a book at the circulation desk and wait to be called.
University of California, Berkeley
Year opened: 1910
Notable fact: The Morrison Memorial Library in the lobby was used as the setting for the 2000 Abercrombie and Fitch back-to-school catalog.
The neo-classical design and arched ceilings in the main reading room give this Bay Area library the feel of an old East Coast train station (and with not-dissimilar crowds). But the main library for California's flagship campus is as diverse in its design as it is in its collections. The Doe Library also houses the Gardner Main Stacks, a spiraling Guggenheim Museum of scholastic research where students ascend the staircases in search of reference material while others study below.
Ithaca, New York
Year opened: 1891
Notable fact: The building was designed by William Henry Miller, Cornell's first architecture student.
This cross-shaped library is home to more than 8 million print books and 71,000 cubic feet of manuscripts. Its clock tower symbolizes the university, and the arches, stained-glass windows, and epic reading room on the inside are some of the grandest spaces in academia. But perhaps this library's most interesting feature: the metal bookcases, essentially shelf-lined cubicles set in majestic gold-colored metal, where students sit veritably encased in literature.
Senator John Pinto Library
Shiprock, New Mexico
Year opened: 2010
Notable fact: The college is the center of higher learning for the Navajo people across 26,000 square miles through Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
The 2,000 students enrolled at Diné attend two main campuses and six community centers throughout the Navajo Nation. The crown jewel of the wide-flung college is this library on the Shiprock campus, designed to reflect Navajo traditions in architecture and blend with the surrounding mesas. The interior has stone walls throughout, and twice a year sunlight beams through the glass walls at the perfect angle to stretch through the entire library. The centerpiece is the blue glass hogan, the deep translucent center of the storytelling room that puts a serene, azure-hued escape in the middle of the stacks. And in parts of the library, lights placed to resemble constellations shine from the ceiling.
Bapst Art Library
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
Year opened: 1925
Notable fact: The Parish of St. Ignatius began during Sunday masses that were held in the library's auditorium.
This English Gothic-style space adorned with intricate stained glass is named for BC's first president, father John Bapst. It was originally part of a 20-building project in this style built in the 1920s, meant to give BC a look like Oxford University. It served as the campus' main library until 1993, and now is purely devoted to art with 51,000 books, manuscripts, and other works, as well as rotating student artwork.
Kansas State University
Year opened: 1927
Notable fact: When the library needed a $28 million expansion, KSU students passed a referendum to fund $5 million of it themselves.
Though it doesn't have the Gothic gables of Michigan or the glass walls of Ohio State, this library is emblematically Kansas. The stocky brick structure and wide tower make this library look like a cross between a castle and a farmhouse, an appropriate style for one of America's premier agricultural schools. The grand room is outfitted with tall windows and brown wood beams, giving students the feeling of studying in an epic church in the plains. The library as its seen today is the result of a 1997 expansion upon the old Farrell Library, which the student body had outgrown.
Klarchek Information Commons
Loyola University, Chicago
Year opened: 2005
Notable fact: The blinds on the east and west sides automatically rise and lower when temperatures and brightness exceed or drop below pre-set levels.
Though we wouldn't recommend hanging out on the front steps in February, the setting for this joint venture between the university's library system and IT departments might be the most scenic in America. Constructed right on the shores of Lake Michigan, this library and tech center makes the most of its location with a glass wall bordering the water. This makes every seat like a waterside restaurant table. With that much light exposure, the building has also employed some serious technology in its heating and cooling systems, using underfloor air distribution and radiant concrete ceilings to keep everyone warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Cook Legal Research Library
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Year opened: 1931
Notable fact: William Cook, for whom the library is named, didn't want his name on the building. But when he died in 1930, the university did it anyway, lacking any living objection.
The University of Michigan's law quad might be the most outstanding collection of Gothic architecture in America. Its centerpiece is this behemoth law library, with its cathedral ceilings, stone walls, and towering spires. It's a regular on lists of the world's greatest law buildings, prettiest libraries, and best collegiate architecture, and the main reading room is one of the most photographed college interiors in the world. But it's not just the bones of the building that make it so special: The metal work throughout the library was done by Samuel Yellin, considered the greatest metal worker of his day. And the hedges in front of the library came from Cook’s home in Port Chester, New York.
William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library
The Ohio State University
Year opened: 1912
Notable fact: Though the library contains 1.2 million volumes, that's only about 40% of what the university owns. The rest are stored off-site.
Thanks to a 2009 renovation, the library seamlessly blends old with new, maintaining the classic, Beaux Arts design with glass panels, green space, and modern amenities. The classic central stacks, once an enclosing tower of volumes, replaced its walls with glass, allowing for an open, bright space. Additions built in the architecturally regrettable 1950s and 1970s have been replaced with a sleek 21st-century west façade. An old mechanical room on the top floor is now a study area with a sweeping view of campus. And the re-exposed 30ft ceiling in the "grand reference hall" gives the library a retro-restored feel, like an aging stadium whose classic features are kept up to date.
University of Washington
Year opened: 1926
Notable fact: The library is home to one of the world's largest books, a 7ft-by-5ft volume of photos of Bhutan by Michael Hawley. The 133lb book has its pages turned about once a month.
Above the entrance to this vast stone cathedral stand 18 terra cotta statues of the world's greatest contributors to learning and culture, including Dante, Plato, and Adam Smith. Inside, the building is a palace of Collegiate Gothic style, its main feature the 250ft-long, 65ft-tall reading room. Its leaded-glass windows are adorned with medallions that represent Renaissance watermarks. And each end includes a hand-painted globe dedicated to one of the world's great explorers. In all, it's a spectacular monument to higher learning.
Henry Madden Library
California State University, Fresno
Year opened: 2011
Notable fact: The library has more than 20 miles of compact shelving on one floor, the largest concentration of compact shelving in the world.
Who says Fresno is just Modesto without the American Crime film crews? The city is home to this gem of the Golden State's public schools, a modern marvel designed to resemble a Native American basket. The elliptical tower at the entrance is a woven mass of wooden lattice and zinc sunscreen that floods the library with natural light and gives the building an intriguing shape. The Native influence -- funded in large part by a $10 million donation from the Table Mountain Rancheria tribe -- is also seen in patterns on the furniture, inspired by those found on tribal baskets.
Rhode Island School of Design
Providence, Rhode Island
Year opened: 2006
Notable fact: The third through 11th floors of the library contain dorm rooms. Students for once aren't exaggerating when they say they "live at the library."
Only one design school has a library so exquisite it made our list. This former home of the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Bank was converted to the RISD library in 2006, and though three bank vaults lie dormant in the basement and a round clock still hangs from the center dome, the rest is completely different. Double stacks of books fill the floor, which students can gaze down upon from the second-story mezzanine lined with movable desks. After-hours, the library hosts live performances, with students sitting on the stairways in the middle to watch theater, live music, and lectures on the floor below.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
New Haven, Connecticut
Year opened: 1963
Notable fact: The library houses a Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed in movable type.
This shrine to 780,000 rare books is one of the most impressive and extensively studied feats of architecture in America. The outer walls are the truss of the building, supported only at the corners and made up of 1¼-inch-thick marble panes. These panes allow natural light to filter into the library so as not to damage the books, yet still allow them to be displayed in the central glass tower. The tower stands in the center as an accessible monument to the collection, surrounded by two stories of exhibit space on the mezzanines.
Washington University Law Library
St. Louis, Missouri
Year opened: 1997
Notable fact: The library houses one of the largest collections of books on East Asian law, with more than 4,700 titles and 12,500 volumes dedicated to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean law.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this library is that while it looks like it could have easily been constructed when the university opened in 1853, it was actually completed in 1997. Architects from Hartman-Cox -- who also designed Georgetown's law library -- set out to design a library to fit seamlessly with the older buildings on campus, taking inspiration from other academic areas. The result is the Tudor-style reading room, with wooden arches and 19th-century-style lamps, all set in a brick castle.
George Peabody Library
Johns Hopkins University
Year opened: 1878
Notable fact: The library made an appearance in Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan goes to visit her brother at his office.
Though the five-story, iron-wrought stack room -- with its imposing railings leading to a rooftop skylight -- makes for some magnificent pictures, pictures are all you can take. This 300,000-title library is only for reference, as was the request of George Peabody, the philanthropist who created the institute in 1857. The library was originally gifted to the city of Baltimore, changed hands several times, and now is part of the Special Collections Department of Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries. And if you're looking for info on any subject other than music, you can probably find it here.
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