07/25/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World (PHOTOS)

The ingeniously simple concept for the library at Tokyo's Musashino Art University speaks volumes: it's made entirely of wood bookshelves, with a glass exterior.

Inside, architect Sou Fujimoto's spiral-shaped design naturally spurs the visitor onward and features light-filled, comfortable corners for reading and easy access to volumes. It's a reminder that even in the digital age, libraries can be inviting public spaces--and that their beauty extends beyond the gilded, frescoed libraries of old.

Libraries often act as such cultural gathering places, whether enshrining masterpieces or hosting present-day events. If you prefer your library to look like something out of Harry Potter, set your sights on the medieval reading room at Oxford University's Bodleian library. Kings and Nobel Prize winners have studied beneath its intricate wood-paneled ceiling. The collection includes beautiful rare maps, a Shakespeare First Folio, and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

Read on for more libraries that are beautiful inside and out.

  • George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore
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    The Peabody Stack Room’s five-tier soaring atrium has wrought-iron balconies and columns so graceful that Nathaniel H. Morison, its first provost, called it a “cathedral of books.” It’s one of America’s most beautiful college libraries, with a setting so gorgeous that weddings and special events are often held here. Bibliophiles come not only for the design but to browse 18th- and 19th-century volumes of archaeology as well as British and American history and literature.

    Photo: Johns Hopkins University
  • The Royal Library Copenhagen, Denmark
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    Known as the Black Diamond, this neo-Modernist building was built in 1999 as an addition to the Royal Library’s original complex. Its striking steel, glass, and black granite structure contains a concert hall, a popular café, and exhibition spaces. The Black Diamond treats visitors to spectacular harbor views and a ceiling fresco by one of Denmark’s most famous artists, Per Kirkeby. Guided tours are available on Saturdays.

    Photo: The Royal Library / Photographic Studio Karsten Bundgaard
  • Clementinum, Prague
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    The baroque Library Hall, with its rare gilded globes and spectacular frescoes depicting science and art, is just one building in the vast Clementinum complex. Legend says the Jesuits had only one book when they started building the library in 1622; when they were done, the collection had swelled to 20,000 volumes. Labels on the bookshelves are original to the library’s opening, as are volumes with “whitened backs and red marks,” markers left by the Jesuits. Tours run daily.

    Photo: Dreyer s.r.o.,
  • Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro
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    A group of far-from-home Portuguese immigrants banded together to create a Portuguese library in 1837, although construction on the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura didn’t get going until 1880. The neo-Manueline building’s limestone façade showcases Portuguese explorers like Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Pedro Álvares Cabral in sculpture. The cathedral-like reading room has a stained-glass dome and wooden galleries. Its ornate bookshelves hold the largest collection of Portuguese literature outside of the motherland. Open Monday to Friday.

    Photo: Ingolf Pompe 57 / Alamy
  • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
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    When the original library burned down in 1814, Thomas Jefferson seeded a new one with his own much broader collection of books. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, stands guard in mosaic form above the main reading room, and scrolls, books, and torches pop up throughout the Library of Congress. Highlights include the main reading room, the Gutenberg Bible (one of 42 left in the world), and free classical concerts. Open Monday to Saturday.

    Photo: Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy
  • Musashino Art University Museum and Library, Tokyo
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    Presenting the most library-like library ever: Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto designed the Art University’s 26,900-square-foot space to be constructed from light-wood bookshelves walled in with glass. Even the stairs have built-in shelves, though they’re currently empty. Compared by Fujimoto to “a forest of books,” the building stands as a powerful visual testament to the bound book’s enduring power. The museum and library are open to visitors; hours vary.

    Photo: VIEW Pictures Ltd / Alamy
  • New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)
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    A grand hall lit by massive windows and imposing chandeliers, the Rose Main Reading Room stretches approximately two city blocks. It’s a required stop for visitors, who can also peek at murals by New York artist Richard Haas in the Periodicals Room. Free one-hour tours of the library are available 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day except Sunday; rotating exhibitions have included an original Bill of Rights and “Why Children’s Books Matter.”

    Photo: The New York Public Library

-- Diane Selkirk

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