For avid readers, libraries are a place of sanctuary. They unlock a world of imagination, investigation, and learning. Much like the books they hold inside, library buildings can also be wondrous creations, boasting magnificent and creative architecture. Others are noteworthy for their quirky designs or the innovative methods they use to inspire their communities to read. Each year, National Library Week in early April marks their importance, so in honor of the occasion, journey to nine of the most unusual libraries in the world.
Luis Soriano, a teacher from the rural northern Colombia town of La Gloria, was determined to give his students access to books, so he set up an unusual library called Biblioburro. Soriano owned two donkeys, whom he renamed Alfa and Beto; combined, the names form the Spanish word for “alphabet.” Loading the donkeys with about 70 books from his own bookshelves, Soriano saddled up and rode them to local elementary schools to read students stories. Twenty-five years later, Soriano’s book collection has grown considerably, and he is still spreading his love of reading. Even a riding accident that left him with a prosthetic leg hasn’t stopped this determined educator from inspiring young Colombian children with the joy of reading.
Epos Library Ship (Norway)
Until the pandemic shut down operations in 2020, a library ship called Epos sailed through Norway’s many fjords to deliver books to fjordside communities. Built in 1963, it superseded two earlier ships that had been in service since 1959. Some of the country’s more isolated places are easier to reach by boat than by road, and this service meant that villagers had access to reading material, particularly during the winter months. Epos carried approximately 6,000 books and visited about 250 villages twice a year. Given the unusual circumstances, one qualification for taking a job as one of its librarians was not suffering from seasickness. Similar “libraries” exist in Chile’s Chiloé Archipelago and on the Nam Khong River in Laos.
Stuttgart City Library (Germany)
Critics might complain that the elegant yet plain cube that houses Stuttgart City Library is nothing out of the ordinary. From the outside, you might find it hard to disagree, but this public library designed by architect Eun Young Yi has a surprise waiting for those who step inside its doors. The central space is an all-white inverted pyramid that is sterile yet stunning. At night, the building is even more remarkable: Blue lights turn this simple structure into a dazzling work of art.
Camel Library (Kenya)
In rural northeast Kenya, camels, nicknamed “ships of the desert,” once carried unusual cargo as part of Kenya National Library Service initiative. Concerned by poor literacy rates and lack of access to reading materials in and around the town of Garissa, the local government adopted a novel approach. Camels are well-suited to the harsh terrain and hot summer temperatures in the region, so they were an ideal choice to transport hundreds of books, along with a tent and reading mat, to the area’s nomadic communities. Eventually, after many years of success, improvements to the local road infrastructure meant that the camel library could be phased out and replaced by motorbikes.
Lire à la Plage (France)
Each summer, Lire à la Plage (“Reading at the Beach”) brings the library to more than a dozen of Normandy’s coastal resorts. The colorful beach huts, umbrellas, and deck chairs are easy to spot, and though people are not allowed to take books away from the beach, the librarians are happy to make a note that you’re coming back the following day, mark your place, and put it aside for you. The program has been running in France since 2005, but similar reading initiatives have spread as far as Australia’s Coogee Beach, the tourist resort town of Albena on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, and Tel Aviv, Israel — a city that had previously installed books at bus stops.
Tianjin Binhai Library (China)
China’s Tianjin Binhai Library isn’t quite as fully stocked as it seems. Opened in 2017, this breathtaking building, nicknamed “The Eye,” is a five-story, architecturally magnificent structure that’s as much a visitor attraction as it is a place to read. Its futuristic atrium has floor-to-ceiling shelves with a capacity of around 1.2 million books, but if you’re wondering how you’d be able to access those right at the top, you can’t. In fact, they’re not books at all — instead, they're images printed onto aluminum plates as part of the building's design.
Chained Libraries (England)
The practice of chaining reference books to library shelves was common in medieval times. Though it mostly died out in the 18th century, there are around a dozen chained collections that still exist in England. The oldest is the Francis Trigge Chained Library, founded in 1598 at St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The largest chained library in England, meanwhile, is located inside Hereford Cathedral; its oldest tome dates back to the eighth century. Another chained library at Wimborne Minster in Dorset dates from 1686. The books in these libraries were chained to the shelves to prevent theft, which is perhaps preferable to the methods used in Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland — where three wire alcoves were installed in the 1770s. If readers wanted to look at some of the library’s rarest books, they’d be locked up in these cages so they couldn’t walk off with them.
Weapon of Mass Instruction (Argentina)
What do you do if you want to raise the profile of reading in your city? If you’re artist Raul Lemesoff, you buy a used 1979 Ford Falcon, turn it into a tank, and fill it with books. In 2015, the artist created a temporary exhibition he dubbed the “Weapon of Mass Instruction” and drove it around Buenos Aires. It had space for 900 books, which he dished out to people across the Argentinian capital and beyond with only one requirement: If they accepted his gift, they had to promise to read it.
Nanie’s Reading Club (The Philippines)
In 2000, a Filipino man named Hernando “Nanie” Guanlao was looking for a way to honor his beloved parents, who had recently passed away. While some people might pay for a plaque on a park bench or make a charitable donation, Guanlao had a more unusual idea: He decided to set up a library outside his home to thank his parents for instilling in him a lifelong passion for reading. Guanlao initially gathered up his own modest collection of books and placed them on the sidewalk for neighbors to borrow. When his neighbors returned them, they also brought some of their own books, and the collection grew rapidly. Two decades later, Nanie’s Reading Club is more popular than ever, and every inch of space in his home, inside and out, is covered with books. There’s no charge to borrow one, and Nanie even ventures out into other Manila districts on a specially adapted “book bike” to spread his love of reading further.