In the 16th century, the dons at Oxford University had a rather cavalier attitude to the valuable documents in their care. Books were routinely sold to raise funds to pay the librarian, and in 1555 everything with even the faintest whiff of Popery was removed, the precious manuscripts sold to a bookbinder for the price of the vellum alone. It was only in 1598, when Thomas Bodley established the library that bears his name, that this tide of philistinism abated.

The Bodleian is one of the 23 institutions categorised, with bizarre “translationese” grammar, as The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World. They are private and public, academic and religious. The decorative styles, too, are wide-ranging: sepulchral Gothic at Manchester’s John Rylands Library, eye-blistering Rococo in the monastic library at Wiblingen, and frescoed Renaissance grandeur at the Escorial. The Vatican is unique among those featured, in that its books are kept hidden in locked cupboards – highly appropriate for a library containing a hall known as the “Secret Archives” and which was notorious for centuries as a place where books were kept not for reference, but to be suppressed. Even so, it is commendable that the Vatican chose to squirrel away the works of the great heresiarchs rather than burn them – who would have expected the Pope to own a translation of Aesop’s Fables in Martin Luther’s handwriting?

The collections, of course, are a major component of the libraries’ aesthetic appeal. Antique, leather-bound tomes provide a sense of continuity, of amassed knowledge, which newer volumes cannot equal. The perspectival majesty of the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin, for example, would be somewhat diluted if its lettered shelves were stocked with faded-orange Penguins and acid-pastel Chick Lit. It is a shame that de Laubier’s lavish photos do not also show the peerless Book of Kells, donated to that library by Archbishop Ussher (the 17th-century Primate who confidently predicted that the world would end on 23 Oct 1997). This may well be because the illuminated gospel that is seen by countless gawping tourists is in fact a Swiss-made replica dating from 1990, the original being too fragile for display.

Saint Columba, to whom the Book of Kells is traditionally attributed, was exiled from Ireland for copying a book without its owner’s permission. (Since copyright law did not even exist in the 6th century, this punishment seems a little harsh.) Such dissemination of knowledge, later intensified by the printing press, was the foundation on which all the libraries depicted in this book were built. And it is the electronically enhanced ease with which information can now be copied and distributed that most threatens them.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the New York Public Library, a place where, according to Bosser’s text, “the reader forges an almost ritualistic distance between the bustling street and the simple, pure and auspicious act of opening a book”. Today, however, its echoing halls resound to the clacking of a thousand laptop keyboards. Few visitors look up at the Beaux Arts frescoes on the ceiling, let alone look up any of the 12 million items in its collection (including both the first Gutenberg bible brought to North  America and the scenery from West Side Story); they value the library’s free internet access far more than the books on its shelves. It seems that the heirs of those Oxford dons are alive and well and logging on.

First published in World of Interiors issue 257. Reproduced with permission.

The Most Beautiful Libraries
of the World

by Jacques Bosser & Guillaume de Laubier  (Thames & Hudson)

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