Most Beautiful College Libraries

January 13, 2023

The Rhode Island School of Design faced its own makeover challenge in 2002: how to transform an imposing bank building into a design-forward library. The solution was a living-room-like setup of contemporary Knoll chairs below a gorgeous clock that dangles from the vaulted glass ceiling.

While college libraries traditionally bring to mind visions of cathedral-like spaces for quiet study, they now function at least as much as community hubs with cafés, Wi-Fi, and event spaces. As a result, says Tom Hotaling, a principal at Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, “academic libraries are attracting a broader range of users than ever before.”

UCLA’s intimate Clark Library, for instance, has baroque interiors modeled after the Doge’s Palace in Venice, with wood paneling, fireplaces, and a gilded frescoed ceiling that set the scene for chamber music concerts by the likes of the Leipzig String Quartet. On the shelves, you can browse a collection of books by and about Oscar Wilde and important editions of Shakespeare. Travelers to Chicago, meanwhile, should add the University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library to their architecture tour; Helmut Jahn’s modern glass-and-steel dome creates a light-filled reading room.

These distinctive libraries, like the others that we selected, are designed to stand the test of time. As Robert Siegel of New York–based Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman & Associates puts it, the library “has to have a presence, this sense of impressive volumes and grand spaces. It’s a fundamental tool for a university to make a good impression about its commitment to learning.”

The Linderman Library at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, is keeping up its appearance thanks to a painstaking renovation of the Victorian stained-glass rotunda and grand reading room—14 shades of gold paint were tried before one was selected as a match for the original hue on the ceiling. The result is a gleaming, worthy home for rare books like Darwin’s Origin of Species and John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

Other historically significant libraries are upgrading facilities, emphasizing electronic storage and modifying spaces to accommodate group learning and new technology. But it’s still the architectural flourishes, whether stained glass or a six-story tower of books, that inspire all comers.

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