10 Inspiring American College Libraries

The Alexandria Library may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find an inspiring space of your own.


Just ask Euclid, who is considered the father of geometry. He spent his days studying in the Great Library of Alexandria. Not to mention Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, or Oscar Wilde, all of whom chose to work in the magnificent British Museum Reading Room. For these great thinkers, inspiring spaces inspired the mind.

The Alexandria Library may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find an inspiring space of your own.

Lots of people have heard about the great libraries at Harvard University, which,  in addition to boasting 18.9 million volumes in the largest academic collection in the world, also have their own Twitter channel. Beyond Harvard, the U.S. has lots of academically and architecturally rich libraries that inspire students every day.

Here are 10 college libraries (and a few library systems) boasting not only accessible and comfortable study spaces, but also the resources you need to put together a treatise on geometry, a revolutionary book of economic philosophy, a biting farce…or just to pass some time between classes.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library at The University of Pennsylvania

(Philadelphia, PA)


The UPenn library system consists of 15 libraries, and the school’s first stacks were hand-picked by Benjamin Franklin, who would be extremely proud of the online catalog database that now bears his name. The Fisher Fine Arts Library,  located in the University City section of West Philadelphia, was designed by the architect Frank Furness in 1888.

The lava-red Gothic building is made of brick with ornate terracotta and red sandstone details, and can make you feel like you are studying inside of the Grand Canyon. Furness’s plans, interestingly enough, were influenced by family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who inspired engineers and architects to define a distinctly American style. The designs for this building are novel; a rectangular four-story reading room sits opposite a two-story rounded reading room — the juxtaposition was considered strange in the 19th century.

With more than six million printed books, a vast digital collection, 24-hour undergraduate study rooms, and an online catalog that connects all 15 libraries, the University of Pennsylvania library system inspires and assists more than 24,000 students every year.

Butler Library at Columbia University

(New York, NY)


With a stately, column-lined Neoclassical exterior inscribed with the names of great (European, male) authors and speakers from Homer to Shakespeare, Butler Library houses the university’s humanities collection. The building was designed by James Gamble Rogers beginning in 1931, who was also commissioned to design buildings at Yale University (his alma mater), Northwestern University, and Connecticut College. After about  a million dollars were spent on its construction (which equals roughly $15.3 million in 2014 terms), it was completed in 1934.

In addition to pulling all-nighters in the library’s 24-hour reading rooms, students can take advantage of the dozens of subject specialists who are available to guide research in areas ranging from Indo-Buddhist studies to Yiddish literature and language. The library system also includes the Columbia Center for Oral History, which has made more than 10,000 interviews accessible in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Linderman Library at Lehigh University

(Bethlehem, PA)


At the Linderman Library, students can study in close proximity to rare books, such as elegant early pressings of texts by Charles Darwin and John Audubon. Though the building has been renovated over the years, its grand Victorian Rotunda, ornamented with stained glass, has been a part of the structure since Addison Hutton’s original plans in the 1870s. The Philadelphia-based Hutton also designed buildings at nearby Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College.

Linderman houses 30 collections relating to Lehigh Valley history — mostly its industrial past and important role in the steel industry. The forward-thinking institution was the first in the U.S. to use a new library management system designed specifically to handle electronic resources.

The Joseph Mark Lauinger Library at Georgetown University

(Washtington, DC)


Since the mid-19th century, the library system at Georgetown University has tried not only to amass one of the most expansive collections in the country, but also to adapt to meet the scholarly needs of changing times. The Lauinger Library (nicknamed “Lau”), designed by John Carl Warnecke and built in 1970, replaced the ornate, cast-iron stacks at Riggs Library, which could no longer house the university’s expanding collection. The structure itself is considered brutalist, part of a movement in 20th-century architecture named for the French term for unfinished concrete (béton brut). As part of a five-year plan, the library vows that by 2020 it will be recognized as an “icon of transformation.” In order to meet this goal, Lauinger and other Georgetown libraries will soon open access to digital portals containing more than 1.26 million e-books, and they will connect students to other library holdings, including those in the Bioethics Research Library and the Woodstock Theological Library.

The library’s award-winning staff also keeps detailed records of interactions with students. For example, in 2014, 19,397 reference questions were asked and answered. One of the most popular of these (viewed more than 50,000 times) was, “How do you cite the Declaration of Independence?” Thomas Jefferson would be very proud.

Shapiro Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan

(Ann Arbor, MI)


While the soaring ceilings of the Reading Room at the University of Michigan’s Cook Legal Research Library are beautiful — seemingly fit for a medieval monarch — undergrads will most likely spend much more time in the Shapiro Library, which is open 24 hours a day. The University of Michigan Library system has a mission that includes “collecting, organizing, preserving, communicating, and sharing the record of human knowledge.” With more than 80 subject specialists whom students can communicate with every day, the library is well able to realize this mission.

The library’s vast holdings include the Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive, which contains a collection of American culinary history from the 16th through the 20th centuries. The archive’s online exhibition, “Jell-O: America’s Most Famous Dessert,” is just one of the system’s online features, which include 262 digital collections ranging from 20th-century American poetry to University of Michigan Museum of Zoology mammal division maps.

Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

(Chicago, IL)


At the Mansueto Library, students can study in a reading room situated under a magnificent 35-foot elliptical glass dome. The unusual structure also boasts an elaborate underground book-holding and -storage system that uses about one-seventh the space of typical stacks.

Think of it as the library equivalent of the transporter platform from “Star Trek.”

The automated system uses up to five robotic cranes that reach deep into the underground storage bins — which hold 3.5 million volumes — every time a student requests a book via the library’s online catalog. A student can call up a volume online and have it waiting in the same amount of time it takes to get a cup of coffee (the average retrieval time is five minutes).

The university also possesses a massive archive collection that includes the Chicago Jazz Archives, which contain recordings and publications documenting more than 80 years of Chicago music history. In the near future, the university’s library system will also house President Obama’s library.

Baylor University Library System

(Waco, TX)


Baylor University’s libraries provide round-the-clock services, including a 24-hour study area and access to the university’s extensive and ambitious electronic library (which includes the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and the university’s Athletics Archive). The school’s so-called central libraries are Moody Memorial Library and Jesse H. Jones Library, which are connected via walkways.

Baylor students also have access to the Armstrong Browning Library, a research center that houses archives formerly belonging to the Victorian poet couple Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Romantic students can scribble notes on wooden tables lit with vivid color — the library holds perhaps the world’s largest collection of secular stained glass — hoping to come up with something as good as Elizabeth Browning’s famous opening to “Sonnet 43”: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford University

(Stanford, CA)


The Stanford University library system (technically known as Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources, or SULAIR) may have more components than the Sunday edition of The New York Times. The school’s main library, however, is Green Library, whose construction was completed in 1919 after the school lost its previous library to the 1906 earthquake. Though it had to be overhauled to incorporate additional safety features in 1999, Green was designed to withstand seismic activity — with lightweight hollow clay-tile walls, reinforced concrete, and a steel frame.

Other Stanford libraries are equally impressive: The Lathrop Library specializes in tech services and boasts 24-hour study spaces, specialized collections for 14 different academic departments (including mathematics, statistics, and marine biology, to name a few).

Luckily, students do not even need to put on shoes to access most of this treasure trove. All of the libraries within SULAIR are connected through an online tool called SearchWorks. Using SearchWorks, students can search through dissertations and theses in Stanford University’s collection, as well as the 400,000 items — from wax cylinders to vinyl records — that are in the Archive of Recorded Sound. Another great resource, especially for students of history, is the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, which are dedicated to documenting the political upheavals of the 20th century.

Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University

(Provo, UT)


For avid readers who also happen to be ultra-marathon runners, the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU claims to have over 98 miles of book shelving collecting about six million volumes. The building, framed by the Wasatch Range, stands out like a glass tent (or perhaps a greenhouse) in the middle of Provo, Utah. It was designed by Lorenzo Snow Young and Keyes D. Metcalf, who were adding onto (and also below) an existing structure. The library was dedicated in 1977.

Striking appearance aside, the library’s greatest strength may be its award-winning, user-friendly website, which offers streamlined access to all of the library’s resources, along with live help via online chat. The innovative website not only allows students to access its collections virtually, but also to pore over more than 120 curated research subject guides including articles, links, and e-books — and if they still have questions, there is contact information for on-call subject librarians.

Sheridan Library System at Johns Hopkins University

(Baltimore, MD)


Johns Hopkins University’s Sheridan Library System is buoyed by its principal research branch, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. This building (located on the school’s Homewood campus) is relatively unimpressive on the outside, perhaps because of an unwritten rule that nothing may rise higher than the lovely Georgian Revival Gilman Hall. Still, it packs nearly four million volumes into 30 miles of shelf space.

While Sheridan is the university’s main library, students may find themselves using the resources next door at the Brody Learning Commons even more frequently. This is a 24/7 study area with a café, study rooms, and quiet areas filled with enough natural light to grow palm trees.

The Sheridan Library System also includes one of the most beautiful places to study in the world, the George Peabody Library, which was designed by Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind in 1878. With five stories of ornate iron stacks that rise up like a literary Tower of Babel, it is no wonder how this library got its nickname, “the cathedral of books .”

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