The Oldest Libraries Around the World

A selection of beautiful places to start your day.

It’s no secret around here that we’re a little bit obsessed with libraries — their collections, stunning designs, and sometimes playful interiors. After reading news this week about the restoration of Morocco’s Al Qarawiyyin Library, featured below, we knew it was time to take a trip around the world to highlight some of the oldest libraries in existence — repositories of ancient art and architecture, history, and prized books. Here are ten of our favorites.

©Aziza Chaouni
©Aziza Chaouni
©Aziza Chaouni
©Aziza Chaouni

Al Qarawiyyin Library

Fez’s Al Qarawiyyin Library, part of the oldest continually operating university in the world (there’s also a mosque on the site), was founded in 859 by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. It remains the oldest working library in the world and is home to some of the most treasured Islamic manuscripts. “The original manuscript room door had four locks,” library curator Abdelfattah Bougchouf told The AP. “Each of those keys was kept with four different people. In order to open the manuscript room, all four of those people had to physically be there to open the door.” The library has been largely hidden from the public, but the Moroccan Ministry of Culture made a recent effort to restore its deteriorating condition. Read an interview with TED Fellow and architect Aziza Chaouni about the historic undertaking.

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Librije in Zutphen

The Librije hails from the 16th century and is located in the St. Walburga’s Church in the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands. The Church itself dates back to the 11th century. The library’s interior and exterior have remained nearly unchanged, and much of the book collection is still chained to reading desks.

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Hereford Cathedral Library

Hereford Cathedral Library in England is the only chained library to have all of the chains, rods, and locks still intact. The book collection, largely theological and reference texts, dates back to 1100 and features some of the finest examples of ancient handwriting. The library is also home to a preserved antiphonary from the 13th century and features an ancient reliquary of oak.

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Francis Trigge Chained Library

The town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, England is home to the Francis Trigge Chained Library, founded in 1598. The library is named after an Elizabethan Puritan clergyman who was the rector of a nearby village. A supporter of the common people, Trigge founded the library to help increase knowledge of the divinity, liberal sciences, and to help fellow clergy with their studies. The Trigge Chained Library is the first public reference library in England.

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Royal Grammar School

The chained library at Royal Grammar School in Guildford, England was founded in 1575. The current bookcases date back to 1897. The oldest book within the collection dates back to 1480 and was printed in Venice.

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Wells Cathedral

From the official website:

The Chained Library at Wells Cathedral houses books published before 1800. These were collected by the canons in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and reflects their wide-ranging intellectual interests. The core of the collection of some 2,800 volumes is theology, but science, medicine, history, exploration and languages are also well-represented. There are some good examples of manuscript books but the medieval contents of the Library were lost at the time of the Reformation.

The strength of the collection is in printed books, the earliest being a Pliny Naturalis Historiae printed in Venice in 1472 by Nicholas Jenson. Other early books include Vesalius’ De Humanis Corporis Fabrica of 1555, which is the book of anatomy that heralded the advent of biology as a subject, and the earliest complete atlas of the world by Abraham Ortelius which was first published in English in 1606. The set of Aristotle’s works published in Venice in 1497 belonged to Erasmus and has his signature and annotations.

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Laurentian Library

Tucked away in a cloister of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze, the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy was opened in 1571 and holds more than 11,000 manuscripts and nearly 5,000 books. From the official website: “It comprises the most lasting cultural inheritance which the Medici family has passed down to the attention, care and admiration of posterity.” Read about the library’s history with the Italian banking family and Michelangelo’s involvement in its design.

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Malatestiana Library

The Malatestiana Library in Cesena, Italy was the first European civic library (not under church ownership) open to the public. It’s often cited as Europe’s first public library. Malatestiana, which opened in 1452, is housed in a a former Franciscan monastery, home to 400,000 books. The reading room (pictured) looks like a church. From Wikipedia: “The Malatestiana Library is the only one in the world, of the type called humanistic-conventual, which has preserved structure, fittings and codexes since its opening for more than 550 years. The main doorway was the work of Agostino di Duccio (1418-1481). The wonderful walnut door dates back to 1454 and was carved by Cristoforo da San Giovanni in Persiceto.”

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Wimborne Minster

From the official website:

Ascend a left-handed (defensive) spiral staircase in the Minster to find yourself in the Chained Library, founded in 1686. It was one of the first public libraries in the country, and is the second largest chained library; before the Reformation, this room housed the Minster Treasury.

The first donation came from Revd William Stone, who had seen many religious books like his being burnt by the authorities, and wanted to ensure that part of his collection would be kept safe in Wimborne. These theological books (Church ‘Fathers and Commentaries’) were in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and so must have been used mainly by the clergy; they were not chained. When another local donor, Roger Gillingham, gave another 90 books in 1695, he insisted that the books be chained up, but also that the Library should be opened, free, for the people of the town, providing they were ‘shopkeepers or the better class of person.’

©Maciej Brzeźniak
©Maciej Brzeźniak

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Biblioteca Marciana

The Biblioteca Marciana, a 16th-century library, was named after St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice. The library itself is located at the end of St. Mark’s Square, overlooking the Piazzetta San Marco, in front of the elegant facade of Doge’s Palace. The library’s Monumental Rooms contain offices and reading areas, decorated with sculptures and frescos.