Even in the digital age, there is a brick-and-mortar library at the center of nearly every U.S. community. Across the country, there are hundreds — some steeped in history, some filled with rare manuscripts, while others boast top-flight modern architecture. What follows is a compilation of our top pick in every state (in alphabetical order). You don’t have to be a big reader to make these destinations worth checking out. While you’re traveling, put them on your agenda.
Alabama: Ben May Main Library, Mobile
Our pick in Alabama — the main branch of the Mobile system — is a true classic, built with Greek design features back in 1928 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. According to AL.com, the city raised the money to build it independently, refusing an offer from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded hundreds of libraries across the country. Then, the economy tanked, and this grand new structure was hobbled, like everything else:
For several years during the Great Depression, the first librarian, Emma Harris, and her assistant, Lottie Perry, kept the building open with zero to little funding, often bringing in personal supplies of coal and oil to power and heat the building.
The building was restored and expanded in 2007.
Alaska: Anchorage Public Library
While you’re in our 49th state viewing glaciers or climbing Denali, check out the modern Z.J. Loussac Library in Anchorage, which opened in 1986. The building hosts the Wilda Marston Theatre and shares a campus with a family park. If you’re visiting Anchorage in winter, don’t miss the Ice Fountain out front. Water sprays and freezes on metal rods, then the ice sparkles as colored lights shine on it.
Arkansas: William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Little Rock
Among other things, the Clinton Presidential Library features a replica of the Oval Office and the former president’s Secret Service car. Like the former president himself, the museum gets some critical reviews, but here’s advice posted on TripAdvisor by a visitor who really explored the place and enjoyed it:
To do the library well (leisurely walking, reading most things) I would budget 2-3 hours. There are a few films and a periodic, free 1hr walking tour… The Oval Office is always a fun stop in these museums, as was the Cabinet Room. The building is beautiful and set in a lovely corner of Little Rock with a great bridge and views. (I’d add 15 minutes to walk across the bridge, too!) The space is well-used, with exhibits (including both personal and professional) sectioned by era and topic, making the great amount of information more digestible and memorable.
It’s open to the public but does charge admission.
Incidentally, Little Rock also has a public library named for former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton — the impressive $12 million Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s and Learning Center.
Arizona: Scottsdale Public Library, Arabian Branch
This Scottsdale library — designed with Arizona’s slot canyons in mind by Phoenix firm Richärd+Bauer — is “part of a new breed of libraries that focuses on engaging readers and drawing in a new generation that relies almost solely on the internet for information,” according to the architecture publication Inhabitat. The Arabian Branch (each branch in the city is named after horses) was designed to get borrowers back in the door after libraries went out of vogue:
[It is] arranged more like a bookstore to make books attractive and eliminate any barriers to sale, or in this case borrowing. In fact, special shelving had to be designed for this new library and is now being sold to other libraries as well.
California: Los Angeles Public Library, Goodhue Building
Pictured here is part of the ornate murals inside the Goodhue Building of the Los Angeles Public Library, a monumental structure designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, who is also famous for designing the Nebraska State Capitol. There’s more on his influence and ideas here. The Goodhue Building is the original 1926 library building, which was joined in 1993 by an addition named for former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley.
California actually has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to libraries — from the UC San Diego Library — a concrete and glass structure of “Brutalist” architectural design named in honor Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka children’s author Dr. Seuss) — to the lavish, crowded libraries of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Colorado: Crested Butte Public Library
This charming library, built of sandstone quarried on the edge of town in 1883, originally served as a two-room schoolhouse in the mountains of central Colorado. Also called Old Rock Community Library, the structure served many purposes before falling into disrepair, but was renovated and reopened as a library in 1993.
Connecticut: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven
Connecticut is rich with libraries, but this collection at Yale University (above) is awesome in the truest sense of the word. Scholars visit the Beinecke Library from around the world to do research, drawing from the library’s massive repository of art, lithographs and photographs, writings from Medieval times, the notes of famous poets and authors, works on papyrus — you name it! You can visit, but unless you’re a scholar with a specific research request, you must join a tour.
Delaware: Wilmington Institute Free Library
This impressive Beaux-Arts style library building was constructed in 1922. But its origins as an institution predate the American Revolution, according to the Wilmington Library website:
There is evidence, in the form of a hand written receipt for dues, that the earliest Wilmington Library was first incorporated in 1754. It is further believed that there was a hiatus in service due to inadequate funds during the Revolutionary War. Service resumed when the Library Company of Wilmington reincorporated in 1788 with the help of John Dickinson, Jacob Broom and Gunning Bedford, three prominent Delawareans who were also original signatories of the U.S. Constitution.
District of Columbia: Library of Congress
We’d be remiss if we didn’t pay homage to the Library of Congress, the oldest federal cultural institution in the country. While you’re in our nation’s capital, be sure to make this a part of your itinerary. You can plan your visit here. As you’ll see, there is a general walking tour that covers the “history, symbolic art and architecture and the Library’s history and work.” But you could spend a lot more time here by joining specific exhibit tours or attending concerts and events. It’s crazy rich.
Florida: Gulf Gate Library, Sarasota
Most likely, you won’t go to Florida with the sole purpose of visiting libraries. Nonetheless, the state has some lovely ones should you need a retreat from all the sun and sand. Gulf Gate Public Library in Sarasota (south of Tampa on the Gulf coast) gets AIA kudos for its Craftsman-leaning architectural style, light spaces and sustainable materials — as well as comfortable reading areas, technology for the hearing impaired and other features.
Georgia: Carnegie Branch Library, Savannah
Georgia has libraries that are far more grand, but this one is awesome for its history. According to Georgia Libraries, it was the inception of 11 African-American businessmen who in 1906 formed the Colored Library Association of Savannah and established the Library for Colored Citizens, after the city opened a small facility for white residents only. The group petitioned the Carnegie Corporation for a grant to construct a permanent home for its collection, and the library was dedicated in 1914. In 1963, it became part of the Savannah library system:
One of only two Carnegie library projects for African-Americans in Georgia, this was the home library to Pulitzer Prize winner James Alan McPherson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The site served as a base for minority education and civil rights activism. According to Connect Savannah:
The Carnegie also had a profound influence on Savannah’s African-American political landscape. At least three former mayors cite time logged as children amongst the wooden shelves, and many recall discussions of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement at Savannah’s “colored” library.
Hawaii: Hawaii State Library, Honolulu
The Hawaii State Library was originally built with Carnegie support in 1913. The classic building in a tropical setting is worth a stop if you are visiting the island of Oahu and the state capital, Honolulu. It’s located downtown next to Iolani Palace, the residence of Hawaii’s former royalty and the Hawaii State Capitol until 1969.
Idaho: Carnegie Public Library, Boise
This Carnegie-funded library building in Boise County, completed in 1905 in the Neoclassical and Romanesque Revival styles, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It now serves as a home to law offices, though.
In case you’re in Idaho and really need a book, here’s another library that gets big kudos from bibliophiles and design critics alike: the Coeur d’Alene Public Library.
Illinois: Chicago Public Library, Chinatown Branch
This library that opened in 2015 offers comfy spaces full of light with an interior style based in “feng shui” — the Chinese design principals used to make a place the most comfortable and auspicious. Check it out when you’re in the Windy City.
Indiana: Willard Library, Evansville
This Victorian Gothic style building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Willard Library, whose construction was begun in 1876, is the oldest library in the state. Apparently, it’s also haunted, so if you’re lucky you may spot “The Grey Lady,” whose presence was first reported in the 1930s. Be alert to “water turned on or off” unexpectedly, the “smell of perfume,” the “feeling of cold” and other signs that the apparition is present.
Iowa: State Law Library, Des Moines
On this one, which visitors will find inside the Iowa State Capitol that was built between 1871 and 1886, we’re going with Best Things Iowa:
Located within the gold-domed State Capitol of Des Moines, the State Law Library holds a dense collection of law and legislation materials amongst grand surroundings. While much of the work found at the State Law Library might be a little dense for a casual read, the brilliant construction, and aesthetics of this library make it worth checking out. Spiral staircases lead to each floor of well-lit bookshelves, and the overall air of intellectualism can make anyone feel smarter who walks into this decadent study space.
Kansas: Lawrence Public Library
If you find yourself in Kansas, follow the proverbial yellow brick road to this lovely example of a public library.
Once a 1970’s structure showing its age, the Lawrence Public Library was renovated with combination of glass, wood and concrete — and a multifunction outdoor plaza park created. The result won the structure a 2016 AIA/ALA Library Building Award.
Kentucky: Lexington Public Library
The Central Library of the Lexington Public Library system claims to have the world’s largest ceiling clock, atop the rotunda of the lobby, which also features a Foucault pendulum. Construction of the library was begun in 1987 to replace the city’s original facility, a Carnegie library, built in 1905.
Louisiana: Rosa Keller Branch Library & Community Center, New Orleans
This library, built to replace one that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is a reminder of the area’s struggle to recover from devastation. Residents fought to rebuild the library in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans, rejecting a proposal backed by some officials that would have left the area as green space.
In naming it for a design award in 2017, the AIA lauded it for sustainability, resilience and community-friendly features. It said:
As public buildings have helped lead the city’s rebirth, Broadmoor’s new library proudly proclaims that the neighborhood is thriving. Inside the community center, the Green Dot Café skewers the earlier call to abandon Broadmoor.
Maine: Portland Public Library
If you’re in this seaside town, check out the local lobster delights and then the library — just a few blocks from the wharf, in Monument Square in the Old Port neighborhood. The Portland Public Library, completed in 1979, took on a new look in 2012 with this glassy new facade. The history of a library in Portland, however, dates to 1826, when one was promoted by supporters including Stephen Longfellow, the father of author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Maryland: George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
The picture above kind of says it all. This architectural masterpiece with five tiers of wrought-iron balconies and a skylight 61 feet above the floor contains 300,000 volumes. Opened in 1878, it is also a prized venue for weddings and other high-brow events. Definitely worth a visit.
Massachusetts: Boston Central Library
How could one fail to soak up inspiration and knowledge in a reading room like this? The Bates Hall reading room in the McKim Building is but one amazing feature of the Central branch of the Boston Public Library. You can read all about this architectural wonder here.
Michigan: University of Michigan Law School Library, Ann Arbor
The imposing architecture of this structure dating to 1931, officially the William W. Cook Legal Library, may make you want to get that law degree after all.
Minnesota: St. Anthony Park Branch Library, St. Paul
We could have chosen to feature the 353,000-square-foot Minneapolis Central Library in all of its glassy modernity … Instead, if you have to choose, visit this great example of a Carnegie Library across the Mississippi River in St. Paul (the other Twin City). The St. Anthony Park Branch Library, built in 1917, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mississippi: Mississippi Library Commission, Jackson
While in the Mississippi capital, which is chock full of historical sites, check out this structure dedicated to the state’s public libraries. The natural materials and open spaces of the Mississippi Library Commission, located on a wooded site, offer a refreshing alternative to some stark modern designs.
Missouri: Kansas City Central Library
It’s amazing, really, that more library designers have not included an element like the one seen above in their buildings. While in Kansas City, check out the Central Library, whose parking structure appears fit for a giant-sized reader. The titles chosen to decorate this Community Bookshelf created in 2004 were suggested by local residents to reflect the wide variety of their reading interests.
Montana: Billings Public Library
Walls of windows make certain patrons don’t miss out on Montana’s big sky while browsing at the Billings Public Library.
Nebraska: Nebraska State Library, Lincoln
Housed within the landmark architecture of the Nebraska State Capitol is the state’s oldest library, dating to 1855, when Congress approved monies to the then-territory of Nebraska for library resources. Originally separated into two sections, law and miscellaneous, the latter collection was eventually dispersed to libraries across the state. The Nebraska State Library is now primarily a reference and research library, serving the needs of courts, attorneys, lawmakers and other state agencies, as well as interested members of the public.
Nevada: Sierra Nevada College Prim Library, Incline Village
The state of Nevada’s not just about slot machines and bright lights. Check out this library on the shores of Lake Tahoe, which boasts a large collection of contemporary poetry. You might become a poet yourself in this setting.
New Hampshire: Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Exeter
This library, at one of the country’s most prestigious private high schools, is known on campus as the Class of 45 Library, because that’s the year the administration started planning it. But when it was finally built in 1972, the concept had changed radically from the original idea of blending in with the schools traditional Georgian buildings, into an iconic modern structure. In 1997, when it won the 25 Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, the AIA described it this way, according to the academy’s website:
An outstanding collaboration of design and technology, this icon of cleanly articulated structure is a cultural center and modern architectural masterpiece for the original quadrangle of the renowned Academy. The massive block of dark-red brick reveals a surprising delicacy. It is artistically ahead of its time and will continue to enlighten as a spiritual touchstone of great design for generations of architects.
New Jersey: Princeton University Firestone Library, Princeton
Speaking of exclusive schools with amazing libraries … Check out the Firestone Library at Princeton University while you’re in New Jersey. Though the university has had a library system for more than 260 years, the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library opened in 1948 as the first large American university library constructed after World War II.
New Mexico: Farmington Public Library
This library in Farmington, located just to the east of the Navajo Nation, features petroglyphs sandblasted onto glass panels, the earthy colors of the desert and lots of sunlight.
New York: New York Public Library Main Branch
There is a free docent-led tour of this amazing Beaux Arts library — familiar for its appearances in many popular TV programs and movies, including “Ghostbusters” and “The Day After Tomorrow” — and we highly recommend it when you’re visiting New York City. Among the city’s most recognizable icons are the two marble lions, dubbed Patience and Fortitude, that have flanked the entrance to the library system’s main branch since its opening in 1911.
North Carolina: James B. Hunt Jr. Library, Raleigh
This library is on the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The $115 million facility opened in January 2013 and is best known for its architecture and technological integration, including a large robotic book storage and retrieval system. See more pictures of this amazing place on this NCSU webpage.
North Dakota: North Dakota State Library, Bismarck
The North Dakota State Library is housed in Bismarck’s Liberty Memorial Building on the Capitol Mall. The building, completed in 1924, originally provided extra space for the government, and paid tribute to men and women in the state who had served in World War I. According to the state government’s website, “the first floor corridor and grand stairway are finished in travertine that was imported from Italy.”
Ohio: William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library, Columbus
This library is located on Ohio State University campus in Columbus. The website of architectural design firm Gund Partnership describes how renovation completed in 2009 transformed this 100 year-old library into a fabulous 21st century destination for students.
Oklahoma: Northwest Library, Oklahoma City
This design of this modern library in Oklahoma City pays tribute to wheat fields, windmills and oil derricks — all features of the state’s culture and history, according to its website. Moreover, it boasts some interesting outdoor artworks:
Oklahoma-themed outdoor art sculptures include a 7′ tall saurophaganax dinosaur, a 7′ long collared lizard, a raccoon, and cowgirl Lucille Mulhall with her shelter dog, Wall-E. These whimsical sculptures by artist Solomon Bassoff of Faducci Studio are constructed of steel armature covered with hand sculpted cement and enhanced with applied Italian glass mosaic.
Oregon: Ashland Public Library
This lovely Carnegie-funded library from the early 1900s is located in the also lovely southern Oregon city of Ashland, a mecca for art lovers that’s famous for hosting the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Pennsylvania: Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library, Philadelphia
Is there such a thing as a Hogwarts style of architecture? If so, that reference to the “Harry Potter” alma mater would describe The Fisher, located on University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. A university website describes this “major masterpiece” of local Victorian-era architect Frank Furness as “seminal library design that expresses function while merging the imagery of cathedral and railroad station.”
The state, rich in history, is also home to the Free Library of Philadelphia opened in 1894, which is also worth a visit.
Rhode Island: Providence Athenaeum
The Greek Revival building housing the Athenaeum was dedicated in 1853, but the history of the organization and some of its collections date to the mid-1700s. This place is steeped in history. Don’t miss it when you’re in Rhode Island.
South Carolina: St. Helena Island Branch Library
South Dakota: Hot Springs Public Library
When you finally take that epic road trip across South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore, stop in at the Hot Springs Public Library at the southern edge of the Black Hills mountain range before jogging north to see the massive granite faces.
Tennessee: Nashville Public Library, Bellevue Branch
It’s much more than a repository for books. This impressive library, completed in 2015, has all the community-oriented features of newer libraries including “a children’s area, teen area, computer space, café style coffee and vending area as well as meeting room space.” The library’s public art and outdoor spaces include a “walking path, reading porch, and a large steel and glass sculpture,” according to its website.
Texas: McAllen Main Library
This former Walmart transformed into the McAllen Public Library’s main branch has been showered with praise and awards for a stunning and sustainable design that managed to create intimate spaces within its giant shell.
The place is huge. According to the website of designer Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle Ltd.:
This project’s primary challenge involved converting a Walmart big box store into a highly functional, flexible, 124,500-square-foot library on a single level. With an area equivalent to nearly 2½ football fields, the building is the largest single-story library in the U.S.
Utah: Salt Lake City Public Library
You don’t need to be a bibliophile to enjoy Salt Lake City’s main library. This six-story open structure has books, to be sure, but it also boasts fireplaces, shops and services, a 300-seat auditorium and stunning views of the city and Wasatch Mountains. The Rooftop Terrace “offers a 360-degree view of the Salt Lake Valley,” according to its website.
Vermont: St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
This historic library is also an art gallery with a large collection of original paintings by American and European artists from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century. The Athenaeum was opened for the residents of St. Johnsbury by businessman Horace Fairbanks in 1871, and designed in French Second Empire style by New York architect John Davis Hatch III.
Virginia: Slover Branch Library, Norfolk
Visitors to this library that’s a merger of older and modern architecture rave about it as a place to explore. (See some of their comments on TripAdvisor.) The structure that opened in 2015 encompasses the renovated historic Seaboard building, a retrofitted Selden Arcade (now called the Selden Market) and a modern six-story addition that connects the Seaboard and the Selden with a three-story glass atrium and tower. When in Norfolk, check it out.
Washington: Seattle Central Library
The city’s public library is just one of the things you must check out when in Seattle. This amazing steel and glass edifice — offering abundant light even in the gloom of winter — is just a 10 to 15 minute walk from Pike Place Market. So after you get your Starbucks coffee at the original location there, drop on by the library to enjoy not just books but also various programs and events.
West Virginia: Charles Wise Library, Morgantown
The library at the heart of the University of West Virginia, part of the institution since its founding in 1867, has been expanded and renovated repeatedly over the decades to emerge as this imposing building. (There’s a detailed history here.)
Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Library, Madison
The Wisconsin Historical Society collects and preserves published and unpublished materials about the state. It also boasts “the largest American Heritage Collection next to the Library of Congress.” Pictured above is the reading room.
Wyoming: Sublette County Library, Pinedale
This Wyoming library is very zen — a perfect place to chill after a day on the long and dusty trail. You’d be forgiven if you’ve not heard of Pinedale. It’s a tiny community that serves as gateway to the Wind River Mountains and the Jackson Hole Ski Resort in the Tetons.
What library would you add to this list? What do you look for in a library? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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