The American Library, Paris

The American Library in Paris has a 100,000-book collection
The American Library in Paris has a 100,000-book collection © Krystal Kenney

Nestled on a quiet side street under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, this was originally founded as part of an effort to get millions of donated books to American soldiers serving in the first world war, and has been a haven for expats ever since. Edith Wharton was among the library’s first trustees, while Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein both contributed reviews to the library’s still existent newsletter, Ex Libris. Today, the not-for-profit institution draws English speakers and Parisians alike with its illustrious literary pedigree, enticing programme of author talks and events (past speakers include David Sedaris and Ottessa Moshfegh) and expansive collection of more than 100,000 books, each of which bears the library’s motto: “Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux” (“After the darkness of war, the light of books”). Sara Semic

Membership €12 a month, €9 for students;

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

The modern incarnation of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The modern incarnation of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina © Bibliotheca Alexandrina

What’s your favourite library in the world?

Do you have a favourite library that we’ve missed? Let us know at, and we’ll publish your nominations in a forthcoming story…

The Library of Alexandria was, for the 1,000 years after it was established around 285BC, the most important library in the ancient world, believed to have housed between 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls (equivalent to about 100,000 books). In its long history, it was burned down multiple times – first in a civil war between Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII – but its final fate remains hotly contested to this day (one theory goes that the books were used as fuel for the city’s 4,000 bathhouses for six months). In 2002, 200m from the original site, a reincarnation of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened. Characters from 120 languages, both spoken and dead, are carved into the stone façade, while the circular structure was designed to symbolise the revolution of time. Its 11 floors house the world’s largest reading room (with space for 2,000 readers), around four million books, four museums and a planetarium. Baya Simons

From E£60 (about £2.50) a year for Egyptians, E£330 (about £13.80) for non-Egyptians;

Boston Athenæum, Boston 

The fifth-floor reading room at the Boston Athenæum
The fifth-floor reading room at the Boston Athenæum © Anton Grassl. Courtesy of the Boston Athenæum

Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum holds half a million volumes ranging from the Nuremberg Chronicles to the personal library of George Washington and Paul Revere’s engraving The Bloody Massacre. Set just off Boston Common, its five galleried floors have drawn writers including Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Pulitzer Prize-winning David McCullough – some of whom wrote in the top-floor Silent Reading Room, overlooking the brood of red-tailed hawks gathered on the ledge outside. The Athenæum remains a cultural hub with a speaker series that has featured authors Susan Orlean, Nathaniel Philbrick and Charles Spencer, and continues to be a zen place to read, write and research. Christina Ohly Evans 

$460 a year,

Bromley House, Nottingham

Bromley House library is home to around 50,000 books
Bromley House library is home to around 50,000 books

Housed in a pink 18th-century townhouse in the centre of Nottingham (described as “the best house in town” when it was built), this establishment has been in the business of book lending for more than 200 years. It opened in its first location on nearby Carlton Street in 1816 with 169 members (radically including nine women) and later upgraded to Bromley House, where a Newsroom and Billiard Room were installed, and rooms were let out to a chess club, a Ladies’ Bible Society, and a Literary and Scientific Society. Today, members have use of three floors connected by spiral staircases, high-ceilinged reading rooms, a children’s library featuring a mock “Narnia” wardrobe and some 50,000 books, as well as book clubs for all tastes (classic crime, vintage fiction, “spooky”), and an idyllic Georgian walled garden. It’s still as integral to city life as it was when it was created. Library director Melanie Duffill-Jeffs remembers how before the 2020 lockdown, they “gave members 48 hours’ notice to take as many books as they wanted to get them through. We had more members through the library in those two days than probably ever before in our history – some brought suitcases to pack with books. We issued more than 1,000 books, said goodbye to our members – there were some tears – and then shut the doors. The shelves had never looked so bare. They’re now full again, of course.” BS

£132 a year;

Circolo dei Lettori, Turin

The palazzo courtyard at Circolo dei Lettori, Turin
The palazzo courtyard at Circolo dei Lettori, Turin

Concealed within one of Turin’s many courtyards, the Circolo dei Lettori (Circle of Readers) is the seat of both dignified study and fun. To enter requires an approving nod from the bouncer, whereby you ascend a grand staircase to the palazzo. Once a seat of Napoleonic government, it later became a meeting point for the post-Risorgimento artist group founded by Count Camillo Cavour. The interior is rich with portraits and antique furniture, the sala filosofia dense with books. Long curtains are drawn around an old-fashioned salon where Turin’s literati – heirs to Italo Calvino and Primo Levi – come for talks, live readings and music performances. During the day the Circolo is a quiet haven for study, but when the 6pm church bells chime, the aperitivi start to flow. Camilla Bell-Davies 

Membership €45 a year for under 30s, €90 for over 30s;

Forum Groningen, the Netherlands

Forum Groningen – “a pleasant ‘third space’ that isn’t home”
Forum Groningen – “a pleasant ‘third space’ that isn’t home” © Stella Dekker

Envisaged by Dutch architect Kamiel Klaasse as “a comfortable place for its residents to hang out without the obligation to consume”, Groningen’s Forum combines an exhibition space, cinema, museum, café and rooftop terrace as well as a library, which is spread across all 11 floors of the trapezoid building (so designed to reduce visual impact and make it look friendlier). As well as the requisite armchairs and table seating, a large section of one floor is made of rope netting, creating a kind of giant mattress where visitors can lie back with one of the 92,000 books, or a magazine from the news kiosk on the first floor. “We wanted to make a place where people like to be, like to spend time, that people use as a meeting place,” says managing director Dirk Nijdam. “A pleasant ‘third space’ that isn’t home.” BS 

Membership €4.75 a month,

Girolamini Library, Naples

The baroque Girolamini library
The baroque Girolamini library © Alamy

Museums and libraries were often closed in the Naples of my childhood, for reasons that later became clear. The Girolamini library – a vaulted baroque hall, set in the wing of a monastery – was one of these. Every time we tried to visit, a lurking monk shunted us away, always with the words, “No no no, è in restauro” (“It’s under restoration”). Meanwhile, the director of the rare and sacred collection – the oldest in Naples – was quietly siphoning off the library’s contents and selling them on the black market, removing the seals from the books so they were impossible to trace. The library catalogue was destroyed too. It was the largest antiquarian plunder for decades. But remarkably, just 18 months after the looting was revealed, most of the stolen books had been tracked down with help from bibliophiles around the world. Centuries-old editions of Galileo treatises, Machiavellian texts and medieval music scores were recovered from private collections as distant as Japan. The place is currently undergoing restoration works before it will reopen. Certainly a library with more stories than just the ones that it shelves. CB-D

Some services open by appointment

Long overdue: the charity restoring Nairobi’s libraries

By Baya Bimons

Book Bunk was established in 2017 with the aim of restoring Nairobi’s libraries to their full architectural glory, and updating their collections to make them relevant for today’s residents. Many of the Kenyan capital’s libraries were established by 19th- and 20th-century colonisers and were open only to white citizens until the country gained independence in the 1960s. The collections reflect their founding fathers’ values – one journalist observed that you were more likely to find a guide to Shropshire in the McMillan Memorial Library in downtown Nairobi than a novel by a Kenyan writer. Through grants and donations, Book Bunk is working to buy new books, establish an arts programme and carry out much-needed restoration work. Donations can be made at

Harold Acton library at the British Institute, Florence

Housed in the 16th-century Palazzo Lanfredini overlooking the Arno, this library is at the heart of the British Institute in Florence. Acton, a moneyed poet raised in Italy and educated at Oxford, set it up to promote English language learning in Italy. It now contains the memoirs of British writers captivated by Italian life, a large collection of travel writing as well as works of Italian literature and history. There is something of the London club in its armchairs, warm wood and folded newspapers. British Italophiles come to wade through Dante and grapple with irregular verbs before clocking off for an aperitivo in nearby piazza Santo Spirito. Local and visiting linguists and art historians come to study each other’s culture. Sometimes they succeed. Mostly they sit, with piles of books on their desks, gazing across the glowing river Arno. CB-D

Membership €75 a year, €60 for students;

Het Predikheren, Mechelen, Belgium

The vaulted, oak-beamed ceilings and arched raw-brick corridors of Mechelen library in northern Belgium were originally built by the city’s religious community in 1650 to serve as a monastery and chapel, later adapted into a military hospital and barracks. The baroque building’s latest incarnation is as a library, fitted out in sumptuous custom woodwork, but maintaining many of the original 17th-century design features. What served as the monastery library – a high-ceilinged brick chamber – now houses novels, newspapers and audiobooks, while the attic, with its enormous wooden beams, is home to a children’s library. BS

From €10 a year for locals, €15 for non-residents;

JN Petit institute, Mumbai

The reading room of the JN Petit Institute is the crowning glory of this south Mumbai library. Light filters through the stained glass of the high, gothic windows. Pale pistachio walls showcase portraits of the Petit family, for whom the library was named in 1891, after it was founded in 1856. Propeller fans suspended from the lofty stuccoed ceiling keep a cool breeze flowing through the rows of tables and chairs. The 150,000 books span fiction and non-fiction, art, culture, history and religion, as well as rare titles such as an original copy of Persian poet Ferdowsi’s 11th-century work The Shahnama – one of the longest poems ever composed by a single writer. BS

Life membership Rs10,000 (about £100) with a Rs500 (about £5) admission fee;

The London Library, London

The London Library in St James’s
The London Library in St James’s © Simon Brown
The Art Room at the London Library
The Art Room at the London Library © Simon Brown

Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill and future prime minister Lord John Russell were among the first members of the St James’s library, the first lending library in London when it was founded in 1841. Its membership has maintained its lustre over the years, since hosting Virginia Woolf (whose father opened the Reading Room here), Joseph Conrad, Agatha Christie, EM Forster, Winston Churchill and Bram Stoker (“discovering the 27 books that Stoker used to research Dracula was certainly very special”, says library director Philip Marshall). Current regulars include Kazuo Ishiguro, William Boyd, Lady Antonia Fraser and Andrew Marr. “Our members publish around 800 books a year,” Marshall reveals. Literary stars aside, the institution is beloved for its collection of more than 1mn books dating from 1500 to the present day, many of which are rare leather-bound editions, and which readers can hang on to for as long as they please so long as there are no other requests. Its tardis-like interior also holds appeal. What at first glance appears to be a single slim townhouse on St James’s Square is actually seven, knocked into one reading and writing emporium. BS 

£525 a year;

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York 

Mr Morgan’s Library at The Morgan Library in New York
Mr Morgan’s Library at The Morgan Library in New York © Graham Haber. The Morgan Library & Museum

Stepping off Madison Avenue in the bustling Murray Hill district of Manhattan and into The Morgan, you enter a serene campus reminiscent of an Italian piazza – one that melds the architectural styles of the original McKim, Mead & White library built in the early 1900s with the steel and glass of Pritzker Prize-winner Renzo Piano’s pavilion. Once the private collection of financier and collector Pierpont Morgan – “Mr Morgan’s Library” as it was known – holds a vast array of illuminated, literary and historical manuscripts, rare books, old master drawings and prints, and artefacts from 4000BC to the present – all for perusal throughout the library’s reading rooms, the Thaw Conservation Center, and in the Drawing Study Center.

Representations of luminaries and signs of the zodiac on the ceiling of The Morgan Library, New York
Representations of luminaries and signs of the zodiac on the ceiling of The Morgan Library, New York © Graham Haber. The Morgan Library & Museum

Collection highlights include Mozart’s handwritten Haffner Symphony, Henry David Thoreau’s journals, Milton’s Paradise Lost (the only known manuscript), Coptic papyri, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Rembrandt prints, a 13th-century Crusader Bible… and the list goes on. With robust programming – concerts, talks with medieval art historians, poetry readings – as well as a vibrant café, The Morgan Library offers an Italianate urban escape to New Yorkers. COE 

First-time members, $75 a year;

New York Society Library 

Don’t be put off by the name: “society”, in this case, connoted community when the library was founded by civic-minded New Yorkers in 1754. Set on the leafy Upper East Side, the landmark institution counts Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Willa Cather and Tom Wolfe among its historic members, while modern-day writers flock to the quiet fifth-floor Hornblower Room and individual study rooms to work on the next Great American Novel. Rotating exhibitions are open to the public: Black Literature Matters, which highlights remarkable books by black writers from the 18th century to the present, is on view until 22 May. COE

Membership $270 per year;

The Portico library, Manchester

Manchester’s 19th-century Portico Library
Manchester’s 19th-century Portico Library

When it was founded in 1806, Manchester’s Portico was open only to men for its first 60 years. “I can see all the quarterlies three months after they are published. ’Till then they lie on the Portico table, for gentlemen to see,” wrote Elizabeth Gaskell in a letter to the publisher George Smith. “I think I will go in for Women’s Rights!” As one of the local women excluded from the library, Gaskell relied on her husband, who served as its longest-serving Chair, to bring home her reading materials. The library is now open to all, and runs a lively programme of talks and literary prizes from its Greek Revival building. It also houses a first edition of Gaskell’s fourth novel, North and South, in its collection of 25,000 books. BS

Membership £157 a year, £70 for students;

Senate house library, London

A librarian at Bloomsbury’s Senate House was understandably offended when I mused that I hadn’t studied in a dusty archive since leaving university. “On the contrary,” she insisted, “books at the Senate House Library are kept impeccably clean.” Plenty of dusting does indeed go on across its five reading rooms, home to one of the UK’s largest humanities collections, where books on social sciences, protest movements or Russian history are neatly ordered. The library was used as the Ministry of Information during the second world war, a period from which the classics section is yet to recover, with tomes stacked at jaunty angles threatening to tumble from their shelves. Its looming ivory tower, topped with a pyramidal structure known as a ziggurat, inspired the edifice of the Ministry Of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 and played the part of the City of Gotham State Courts in the Batman films. But the imposing exterior is deceptive: inside, light floods over faded, varnished bookshelves and across softly carpeted stairs. In the evening, seated in a warm, wood-panelled recess, the satisfying “pli-plunk” of a lamp’s pull chain signals the start of a working night. CB-D

Membership £210 a year, free for most students in London universities

Stuttgart city Library, Germany 

The stepped galleries in the reading room at Stuttgart City Library
The stepped galleries in the reading room at Stuttgart City Library © Alamy

Stuttgart City Library appears as a perfect white cube from the outside. Inside, five floors of reading rooms sit in concentric circles overlooking a ground‑floor fountain, connected by long flights of stairs. The design, completed a decade ago by Köln-based architecture firm Yi Architects, drew inspiration, variously, from the Pantheon, the 1785 Bibliothèque Nationale de France proposal, Noah’s ark, and Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey. Its creator was given a brief to focus on “centredness”, with the aim of providing a meditative space in Stuttgart’s busy city centre. Sofas scattered throughout the floors provide a place to settle down with the curation of bestsellers, fiction and non-fiction. When night falls, the 600 windows glow electric-blue, symbolic of the continued thrum of activity within the cuboid. BS 

€20 for 12 months;

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