Libraries have existed for thousands of years, preserving knowledge and entertainment for multiple generations. Humans are nothing if not resourceful, and the strange and unusual kinds of libraries we’ve come up with over the centuries show just how dedicated we are to collecting, archiving, and disseminating information. We’ve created libraries of a multitude of different subjects (and objects), and set them up in all kinds of unexpected places. Here are some of my favourite examples of just how flexible and adaptable the concept of ‘the library’ can be, and how we’ve ensured that many people have access to books and information.
Obviously, when we imagine libraries, we think of books – the full shelves of famous locations like the Bodleian Library or the New York Public Library, or ancient libraries that are sadly no longer in existence. But libraries don’t just have to collect books. The Cartoon Library in London collects two centuries’ worth of cartoons and comic strips, from political satire to classic kids’ comics. With over 200,000 archive examples, the collection is a great resource for researchers and amateur enthusiasts, and they also hold regular cartoon exhibitions for the public. The Feminist Library, also based in London, has been operating since 1975, collecting not only feminist literature but also pamphlets, posters, banners, and zines, keeping a record of feminist activism and preserving it for future generations.
Moving even further away from books and paper artifacts, there are many libraries dedicated to preserving food, plants and other biological products. There’s the Puratos World Heritage Sourdough Library, which collects samples of sourdough starters from all over the world to preserve them for future bakers (I’m sure the 2020 pandemic will have sent many new additions winging their way towards this collection). Similarly, Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library keeps samples of rare-breed vegetable seeds on file, to make sure that endangered and heirloom varieties don’t go extinct.
With bricks-and-mortar libraries closing down, there has been a boom in libraries turning up in unexpected places. The Little Free Library initiative has set up hundreds of thousands of book-sharing boxes all over the world, in places including phone boxes, cabinets, TARDISes and much more. The Amsterdam Airport Library caters for travellers, giving them a place to read and relax before they get on their flights. In Albena, Bulgaria, Europe’s first Beach Library is there to give locals, tourists and holiday makers the chance to access new forms of literature, in a variety of different languages.
A more serious collection of books can be found in Krems an der Donau. The Cemetery Library is based in the town’s Jewish cemetery, which was almost completely destroyed during the Nazi regime. Set up in 2004, the library serves as a memorial and an educational opportunity, designed to encourage learning and reflection.
In some places around the world, it’s difficult to physically access books, due to remote locations, climate conditions, or a combination of both. Luckily, librarians are a resourceful bunch, and have come up with some novel ways to get books to people who need them. In Colombia, ‘biblioburros’ – donkeys carrying saddlebags full of books – help former teacher Luis Soriano to take books to children living in rural villages. A similar programme can be found in Kenya, where librarians use camels to deliver books to remote and nomadic communities. In Norway, some places are easier to access by boat than by road; Epos, a ‘library ship’, sailed the fjords delivering books from 1959 to 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis led to the programme being discontinued.
Libraries are as adaptable as the humans who run and use them, and each one is a monument to our curiosity and love of learning. With the world in flux, it’ll be interesting to see how libraries innovate for the future.
Libraries aren’t just educational resources – to find out other ways they’ve helped their local communities, check out our article on some librarians’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you want to learn about some libraries with unusual (and possibly paranormal) residents, read our list of 5 of the Most Haunted Libraries.