Visit 15 of the Oldest Libraries in the World

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

I think it’s a rule that every book lover has dreamt of opening their eyes and seeing a gigantic library for them to explore like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. The good news is that there are so many libraries out there that have lasted centuries, that have gorgeous settings and sun-filled reading rooms. But what is the oldest library in the world? Here are 15 of the oldest libraries in the world (and the most beautiful!) that you can visit anytime.

1. Khizanat al Qarawiyyin

We’ve already discussed the Khizanat al Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, which was founded in the 9th century by a woman, Fatima al Fihria, and is being restored by another woman. It was recently reopened to the public. Known as the oldest library in the world, this magnificent place is within what is also the oldest operating university in the world.

2. Haeinsa Temple

The Temple of Haeinsa, on Mount Gaya, is home to the most complete collection of Buddhist texts (the Tripitaka Koreana). The texts were engraved on 80,000 woodblocks between 1237 and 1248.

3. Redwood Library

The distinction of “oldest library in the United States” is highly in dispute, but the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island, considers itself the oldest lending library in America. Founded in 1747, it lost an astounding number of volumes during the Revolutionary War—but starting with a concerted effort in 1947, the library has since regained 92% of the books it lost.

4. Rampur Raza Library

Nawab Faizullah Khan, ruler of the Rampur state over 200 years ago, created the library from his own collection of Indo-Islamic manuscripts. The library now possesses more than 17,000 manuscripts in the Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, and Turkish languages, as well as 80,000 other books.

5. Laurentian Library

The Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy, located in a cloister of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze, was opened in 1571, and is part of the cultural legacy of the Medici family. Michelangelo had a part in its design, and it holds the “Nahuatl Florentine Codex,” a text that contains information of the Aztecs prior to their conquest.

6. Real Gabinete Português de Leitura

Established in 1837 and constructed in 1880, the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (the Library of Portuguese Literature) in Rio de Janeiro has an agreement that it receives a copy of every work published in the Portuguese language.

7. Hereford Cathedral Library

This library in England dates back to 1100 and is still a chained library, where books are chained to the shelves or desks to make it harder for someone to run off with them.

8. Sarasvathi Mahal Library

One of the oldest libraries in Asia, the Sarasvathi Mahal Library is in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Its rare collection of over 60,000 volumes includes a rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi, and other languages native to India.

9. St. Catherine’s Monastery Library

The St. Catherine’s monastery has the largest collection of early manuscripts and codices in the world after the Vatican Library. Located at Mount Sinai in Egypt, the ancient structure is one of the oldest libraries in the world.

10. Tianyi pavilion Library

This library is the third oldest private library in the world, and the oldest private library in Asia. It was built in 1561 by a retired imperial minister. You can visit it in Ningbo City, or “Book City,” and tour its gardens and exhibits. The site also hosts Tianyi Library Museum, which showcases the culture of storing books.

11. The Malatestiana Library

This library in Cesena, Italy, is often cited at Europe’s first public library, as it was the first European civic library (not under church ownership) that was open to the public. It opened in 1452 and is home to 400,000 books.

12. Boston Public Library

While the Boston Public Library is hardly close to being the oldest in the Americas let alone the world, as it was founded in 1848, I thought it deserved a special shoutout for being the first library to establish space designated specifically for children.

13. Biblioteca palafoxiana

The library in Puebla, Mexico has grown from 5,000 volumes in 1646 to more than 40,000 volumes now, the majority of which date from before Mexico’s independence. The library is the oldest in the Americas.

14. Trinity College Library

The library of Trinity College in Dublin was founded in 1592. The library’s Long Room has been extended many times, because the library is a legal deposit library—it gets a copy of every book published in Ireland.

15. Admont Abbey Library

The library at the Admont Abbey is the largest monastery library in the world, and is 70 meters of absolutely gorgeous bookshelves, gold busts, frescoes, and wooden sculptures.


16. Bibliotheca Alexandria

Ok, so technically you can’t visit the Library of Alexandria anymore. The famed ancient library tragically burned in 48BC. But you can visit the Bibliotheca Alexandria, a gorgeous building that sits where the ancient library most likely stood, and which has a light-filled main reading room which can accommodate 8 million books and 2,500 readers under its sloping roof.


[Ed.’s Note: Sarasvathi Mahal Library updated to illustrate correct library.]