Libraries have an immovable place in history as rich reservoirs of information, both present and ancient. It can be argued that without libraries, we would not have civilization as we know it today. So what are some of the largest treasure troves of knowledge in the world?
1 Library of Congress
With a catalogue size of over 160 million items and budget of over US$600 million per year, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. It is officially meant for use by the Congress of the United States, but it is also open for academic research to anyone with a Reader Identification Card, although books can only be used on the premises.
US libraries can borrow items through interlibrary loaning, but as with the Library of Congress, they can only be used inside the borrowing library. It is a standard go-to source of high quality MARC records via Z39.50 for libraries all over the world.
Its impressive holdings include the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and one of only three perfect vellum (parchment made out of calf, or animal, skin) copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the world. The Library of Congress offers free guided tours and is certainly worth the visit if you are ever in Washington D.C.
2 British Library
The British Library collection currently stands at more than 150 million items. It acts as a legal deposit library and therefore automatically receives a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland, adding 3 million new items every year (both local and international).
Access is open to the public (it is located in London), provided they have a Reader Pass, obtainable from the library. Over 16 000 people use the library on-site and online on a daily basis. Its collection include the Magna Carta, the Beatles manuscripts and the recording of former South African president Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia Trial Speech.
The British Library also makes available MARC records via Z39.50 search on an authenticated basis– to get access, you can email a request to email@example.com (you must agree in writing to the full terms and conditions listed here).
3 Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada was established in 2004 (it combined the functions of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada founded in 1953) making it a relatively young library. However, its 54 million plus items secures its place as the third largest library in the world, which is no small feat.
The oldest surviving document ever printed in Australia, a July 30 1796 playbill (a poster announcing a theatrical performance), was discovered tucked into a 150 year-old scrapbook by one of the library’s rare book librarians and presented by the Canadian Prime Minister to the Australian people in 2007.
The library is located in Ottawa and you can find service and opening times here.
4 New York Public Library
The New York Public Library has featured in several films and literature works including A Boy Named Charlie Brown(1969), Ghostbusters (1984), Sex and the City (2008) and Lynne Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005).
It has nearly 52 million items serving 17 million patrons (excluding online users) in 92 locations per year. It is a participant of the Google Books Library Project and its digital collection is available online here.
Some of its popular services include a reference question service called ASK NYPL, which provides answers by phone, online chat and email 24 hours a day every day. It also offers free events, exhibitions, computer classes and ESL (English as a Second Language) lessons.
5 Russian State Library
Located in Moscow, the Russian State Library has over 275km of shelves lined with more than 43 million items. It was founded in 1862, and re-organized by Vladimir Lenin, who had studied libraries in Russia and Western Europe. It is the national book depository in Russia, and interestingly, its initial collection incorporated books from confiscated public libraries.
Access to its reading rooms is open to anyone over the age of 18, both residents and non-residents.
6 Bibliotheque Nationale de France
The National Library of France has a fascinating history as intriguing as the nation itself. It traces its origins to 1368 and moved location several times until its inauguration at the current location in Paris in 1996. You will also be surprised to know that even though it has good internet, it has no Wi-Fi access.
It has over 40 million items and offers guided tours of its branches. Membership is open to the Reference Library is open to anyone over the age of 16.
7 National Library of Russia
The second Russian library to make this list, the National Library of Russia is located in St. Petersburg and is the oldest public library in the nation, having been established by Empress Catherine the Great in 1795. It has over 36.5 million items, and began a large-scale digitization effort at the end of the 20th century. Along with the Russian State Library, it has about 80 000 electronic titles available.
8 National Diet Library
Like the Library of Congress, the National Diet Library of Japan was established in 1948 to assist members of the National Diet in their study and research.
It has a collection size of about 35.6 million items, including major collections of Japanese political history documents, map collections, rare and old books up to the Japanese Edo dynasty and the Chinese Ch’ing Dynasty, as well as Science and Technology materials. The entire collection is searchable via an Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) and materials can be borrowed by overseas users through interlibrary loan.
It is Japan’s only national library but it has two main facilities in Tokyo and Kyoto, and several other branches throughout Japan. It is open to the general public, which is the largest consumer of its services. Membership is available to anyone 18 years or older, via request either by post or in person.
9 National Library of China
The National Library of China is the largest library in Asia, boasting a collection of over 33.78 million items. It is a legal depository for copies of domestic publications, a role which it has had since 1916. As expected, it also holds the largest collections of Chinese literature and historical documents in the world.
It is open to members of the public and even has a Children’s Library, accessible to children aged 15 and below (minors below school going age need a guardian).
10 Royal Danish Library
The Royal Danish Library is the national library of Denmark, the university library of the University of Copenhagen and largest library in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and their autonomous regions).
It has an impressive 30.2 million items, which include a 1350 manuscript of a medieval “Wikipedia” by Jacob van Maerlant and copies of the first world Atlas. It holds nearly all printed Danish works dating back to 1482, including the first Danish book produced in the same year.
It has been a legal deposit library since 1697, extended to electronic publications (over 500 terabytes) including harvests of the Dutch internet.
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