From the 4,500 year old Ebla tablets found in one of the earliest Syrian kingdoms, to the legendary libraries at Pergamum, the great Library of Alexandria, and what is believed to be the world’s oldest library, the Library of Ashurbanipal in modern-day Iraq, humankind has been on a constant quest for knowledge.
Like other icons of culture, such as the world’s biggest theatres or the tallest statues in the world, libraries are often seen as a testament to national endeavour. Here are the world’s biggest libraries, including the largest library in the world, as defined by the number of items.
National Library of Sweden
Location: Stockholm, Sweden | Items: 18 million | Annual budget: SKR365.4 million
The Kungliga Biblioteket, or ‘Royal Library’ was established in 1661 from the collection of King Gustav Vasa. Today the library is home to books, posters, photographs, newspapers and manuscripts – some of which date back over a thousand years – as well as around 10 million hours of audio-visual material.
Location: Massachusetts, USA | Items: 20.4 million | Annual budget: $250 million
One of the world’s great universities is also home to one of the world’s biggest libraries. Established in 1638, it is believed to be the oldest and largest private library in the world. Its collection holds over 400 million manuscripts, 10 million photographs, around a million maps and one of only 23 known complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, Europe’s first printed book using movable metal type.
Biblioteca Nacional de España
Location: Madrid, Spain | Items: 33.1 million | Annual budget: €47.3 million
A contender for the title of biggest library in the world, the National Library of Spain was established in 1712 by King Philip V and is located in a beautiful building on the Paseo de Recoletos. As well as books and printed and graphic materials, over 1,000 staff look after 600,000 audio recordings, over half a million music scores and 500,000 maps. The collection includes the manuscript of the 900 year old El Cantar de mio Cid, the oldest preserved Castillian epic poem.
Library & Archives Canada
Location: Ottawa, Canada | Items: 54 million | Annual budget: C$116.9 million
Custodians of Canada’s distant past and modern-day history, Library & Archives Canada may not be the largest library in the world but it’s close. As well as being a legal deposit library, LAC has military records dating back to New France in the sixteenth century, immigration records from the 1860s onwards, documentary heritage pertaining to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nations and personnel records from the First World War.
New York Public Library
Location: New York, USA | Items: 55 million | Annual budget: $302 million
Headquartered at the Stephen A Schwartzman Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (opened in 1911 and once the largest marble building in the USA), the NYPL has 92 branches all over New York. The 23m x 90m Rose Reading Room is one of the world’s great library halls. Amongst the millions of books, manuscripts and maps, the collection includes Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, a lock of Beethoven’s hair and the desk from where Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times.
Library of Congress
Location: Washington DC, USA | Items: 171 million | Annual budget: $368.4 million
A contender not just for the title of world’s biggest library, but also for the title of the most beautiful library in the world. The Library of Congress was established in April 1800 primarily to answer research inquiries raised by members of Congress. While it is available to the public, only its 3,105 employees and the upper echelons of government may check books out.
In addition to the 40 million books, 3.6 million audio recordings, 15 million photographs, five million maps, eight million pieces of sheet music and 72 million manuscripts, it is home to the largest collection of fifteenth century books in the Western Hemisphere.
Location: London, UK | Items: 170 – 200 million | Annual budget: £142 million
The national library of the UK includes artefacts from every age of written civilisation, from 3,000 year old engraved Shang dynasty Chinese bones to today’s newspapers. The vast British Library is the biggest library in the world. Renamed in July 1973, it was previously known as the British Museum Library. As the nation’s legal deposit library it receives 8,000 books a day, requiring an additional 10 kilometres of shelf space every year.
Some of the prized works held by the British Library include an original copy of the epic poem Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a very early copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Captain James Cook’s journal, two original copies of the Magna Carta, an illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, da Vinci’s Arundel Codex, five copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio of plays from 1623, one of 27 surviving copies of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and original, handwritten lyrics of Yesterday, A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Strawberry Fields Forever by The Beatles.