Travel to one of the great cities of the world, and you may find yourself playing tourist at a library. Travel through the back roads of America, and you should definitely stop at the local library for access to resources you can’t find anywhere else.
Libraries may seem like a thing of the past, but, trust me, these are not simply historical landmarks. Oh, sure, some of the world-famous libraries listed below are known for their remarkable architecture and for the rare books on display, but when you are on the road or visiting a big city, you’ll find contemporary culture and resources at the library.
A traveler can use a library’s Wi-Fi for free. Or you can just stop in to find a clean bathroom! If you are in a small town with no formal tourist information center, visit the local library and you’ll find librarians who are eager to help you find information about the area. Libraries usually offer resources about the local geography, history, culture and cuisine – just ask the librarian to point you to their local books.
If you are exhausted from a hectic travel schedule, libraries are a peaceful and relaxing refuge. They can also be a small town’s social center. If you’re lucky, you’ll get there just as story time is ending and see little children enthusiastically checking out books with their parents. It will warm your heart and give you hope.
My favorite libraries:
1) Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
A few years ago, when I walked into the Old Library, I immediately felt like I had stepped into Hogwarts. This classic library holds the Book of Kells, a world-renowned medieval manuscript regarded as Ireland’s most important cultural treasure. Take your time viewing the illustrations from the book, and then take even more time to stroll through the Old Library. Purchase tickets in advance on the website.
2) Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
When in Washington D.C., make sure to at least make a stop into the Library of Congress. The primary purpose of the Library of Congress is to serve Congress. This is a closed-stack research library. So, for the average person, this is a tourist site were you can find grand architecture and art, rather than a place to rest and read a book.
The Library is made up of 3 buildings, with the Jefferson Building serving as the main building. Take a walk through the Great Hall and make sure to climb the stairs to the Visitors Gallery of the Main Reading Room. Enjoy the murals, statues, and architectural elements found in the areas open to visitors. You can take a self-guided tour or sign up for one of the regular guided tours or a specialty tour. The Library also offers a wide variety of free events.
3) New York City Library
The New York City Library system is, as you can imagine, enormous (4 major research libraries and 88 brand libraries). The most famous library is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, aka the “main branch.” Its Beaux-Arts architecture is impressive, and after you admire the lion sculptures at the entrance (remember “Between the Lions”?), step inside to visit one of the free exhibitions, take a guided or audio tour, view the visitor film, or see the real stuffed animals that inspired the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
Other libraries worth visiting are the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Jefferson Market Library, the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Bloomingdale Library. Of course, any of the branch libraries provide a place to use wifi, find a bathroom, and poke around to see how the locals live.
4) Denver Public Library
As an historian living in Colorado, I have to give a shout-out to the Denver Public Library, especially the Western History and Genealogy Department. This world-class research facility is in the Central Library across from Civic Center Park. Stop in to view one of the temporary exhibits and look up one of your favorite western-history subjects.
5) Small town libraries in Colorado: Breckenridge, Lake County, Crested Butte
If you find yourself on a road trip through Colorado, check out some of our local libraries. Those who are camping or rv’ing their way through our state will especially appreciate the availability of free wifi, photocopy machines, clean bathrooms, and a cozy place to thumb through guidebooks about hiking, fishing, or camping in our beautiful state. I’ve found all of the librarians to be helpful and friendly.
Having been to many libraries across the state, I can especially recommend the libraries in:
- Breckenridge (aka Summit County Library – South Branch; historic building with art and interesting artifacts on display),
- Leadville (aka Lake County Public Library, visit the wood-paneled Leadville Room where you’ll find lots of local history),
- and the Crested Butte Library (in the historic Old Rock Building).