Saturday, August 5, 2017

LIBRARIES: World's Greatest

Duke Humfrey's Library, the oldest Reading Room
 at the Bodleian, in Oxford.
What are the greatest libraries in the world?

The head of the Bodleian at Oxford once said in a speech I attended that the five greatest libraries are in New York City (the New York Public Library), Washington, D.C. (the Library of Congress), London (the British Library), Oxford (the Bodleian), and Paris (the Bibliothèque Nationale). I have library cards for all five of these libraries.👍

Size. Wikipedia says, and I dispute, that the NY Public Library's 53 million books rank it the third-largest cataloged collection in the world after the Library of Congress (more than 160 million items) and the British Library (more than 150 million items). 

If Archives Canada in Ottawa is correctly listed as having 54 million volumes or items, then Ottawa ranks third and NYPL only fourth in the world in collection size Рstill not shabby for the NYPL. Russia (Moscow Library) is at 44 million items and France (Biblioth̬que National) has 40 million items and therefore ranks 6th.

A spokesperson at the Library of Congress told me when I visited in 2016 that libraries disagree on how to count items other than book volumes. The British Library allegedly counts some individual stamps as items equivalent to a book, whereas the Library of Congress combines stamps into albums.

Usability. I would rank the Weston Library, the main reading room of the Bodleian, as the most accessible, followed by the NY Public Library main building, behind the two lions ( The NY Public Library is surely the most used, with annual visitors of 10-18 million (depending on how you count). In second place, at 1.7 million people per year, are the British Library and Library of Congress.

To my mind there is no question that the Bibliothèque Nationale is the most difficult of the five greatest libraries to use, certainly for someone pressed for time. The first day at this library is consumed by paperwork and walking from place to place through fortress-like gates and passageways. It may have just been my bad luck, but I don't think so. have commented on this (

Most Beautiful. Two sites seem to focus on the sheer beauty of the libraries. One list is at, which posts a list of great libraries of the world ( in the hope that you will book a tour of them! Two of the libraries on their list are among the great libraries of the world I have listed above, the Bodleian and the New York Public Library. The three World-Class Libraries that are missing from their list are the Library of Congress (oversight!), the British Library (oversight!) and the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The other list of the most beautiful libraries is by a Huffington Post writer ( It includes only one of the five great world-class libraries, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which is (yes) a great collection, but, as I have noted, can be a nightmare to try to use. So I take it that this list is for looking at the architecture and not the contents.

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