A library is simply a collection of resources and valuable information, kept together in a physical or virtual space that can either be accessed by the public. They play an integral role in preserving and reviving the crucial aspects of our culture.
One of the oldest and most historic libraries in the world, the Library of Alexandria, functioned as a major center of research and scholarship in the 3rd century onward. Unfortunately, it was destroyed – a single most significant loss of knowledge in recorded history.
Based on the total number of items (Catalogued size), we have prepared a list of the largest libraries in the world.
15. Boston Public Library
Library’s reading room at McKim Building | Image Courtesy: Brian Johnson
Catalogue: 22.4 million
Annual Budget: US$38.9 million
The Boston Public Library is the third largest and one of the most important libraries in the United States. It receives funds from both the state and private entities and is open for the general public.
The library is known for its extensive public programs that include free lecture series, concerts, and various art exhibitions. Many of its rare collections, such as historical maps and manuscripts, are available online.
14. Berlin State Library
Berlin State Library Fecade | Image Courtesy: Manfred Brückels
Catalogue: 23.4 million
Budget: €16 million
The Berlin State Library (SBB) is one of the most prominent academic research centers in Germany and other German-speaking countries.
Out of its 23.4 million collections, more than 12 million are books (out of which 200,000 are extremely rare), 180,000 newspapers, 60,000 manuscripts, and 2.7 million microfilms.
The library is home to some of the world’s most notable books and codexes, such as a 9th-century copy of the Gutenberg Bible and an 8th-century Buddhist text from Japan.
A large and rather important collection of music manuscripts can be found here, including the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johann Sebastian Bach.
13. Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg | Image Courtesy: Alex ‘Florstein’ Fedorov
Catalogue: 26.5 million
The Library of Russian Academy of Science was established in 1714 by a decree of Peter the Great, the ruler of Russia between 1682 and 1725.
It is one of the largest government-funded libraries in the country and is accessible by the employees of the Russian Academy of Science and high education scholars.
Since 1783, every research institution and private publishers in the country are obliged to provide a copy of every new publication to the library.
12. National Library of Spain
National Library of Spain in Madrid | Image Courtesy: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr
Catalogue: 33.1 million
Annual Budget: €29.2 million
The National Library of Spain, located at Madrid’s Paseo de Recoletos boulevard, is the oldest and largest public library in the country. It was established as Palace Public Library by King Philip V of Spain in 1712.
A law made it mandatory for publishers in the country to submit a copy of every printed book to the library. The library’s name was changed to Biblioteca Nacional in 1836.
Its responsibilities as a national library are to retrieve and archive scholarly resources valuable to the country’s cultural heritage.
The library holds more than 15 million books, 4.5 million images and graphic materials, half-a-million sound records, and other essential documents.
11. German National Library
The German National Library building in Leipzig | Image Courtesy: Trainspotter/Wikimedia Commons
Catalogue: 32.7 million
Annual Budget: €52.3 million
The German National Library (DNB) was established in 1912 specifically to collect and archive all scholarly materials, including journals and books published in the German language since 1913.
It involves all German-language publications in Germany as well as abroad. And German books that are translated into other languages.
The library, as of now, has two operational facilities, one in Frankfurt and another in Leipzig. Both specialize in different areas. There was a third facility in Berlin, responsible for archiving audio materials. It was, however, merged with the one in Leipzig in 2010.
10. The Royal Library of Denmark
The Royal Library in Slotsholmen, Denmark | Image Courtesy: Arne List/Flickr
Catalogue: 35.4 million
Annual Budget: 385.9 million DKK
Denmark’s Royal Library is the largest in the Nordic region (Nordic countries). It was founded by King Frederik III in the 17th century. Since then, a copy of almost every printed work in the country is kept here.
Due to several high-profile donations over the years, the library now has almost every known publication in Denmark’s history, including the very first printed book (sometime in 1482) by Johann Snell.
As of 2015, the library’s collection totaled 35.4 million items, of which nearly 20 million were documents and images, 6.4 million books and journals the remaining were historical pamphlets, corporate publications, and other artifacts. The library’s digital collection has reached 791 terabytes.
9. National Library of Russia
The new building of National Library of Russia | Image Courtesy: Alex “Florstein” Fedorov
Catalogue: 36.5 million items
Annual Budget: 570 million Rubles
The National Library of Russia, located in St. Petersburg, is the first and oldest public library in the nation (though it’s not the largest). It, along with the Russian State Library (Moscow) and Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, serves as the legal deposit for publications in the country.
The library holds an extensive amount of documents, journals, and manuscripts concerning the nation’s cultural and national heritage. Of the 36 million items, 15 million are just books. Other collections include magazines, newspapers, official documents, sound recordings, databases, maps, and other media.
8. National Library of China
South side view of National Library of China
Cataloged Size: 37.7 million items
The National Library of China (NLC) is the largest in Asia (by catalog size) and one of the largest in the world. Though the library was initially established in 1909 under the Qing dynasty, it was formally inaugurated three years later in 1912.
In 1928, its name was changed to National Peiping Library before being officially renamed to the National Library of China in 1987.
NLC shelters many valuable pieces of Chinese literature. It also features rarities such as inscribed bones and shells dated back to the 16th century BC, the oldest surviving journal on Chinese medicine, and various ancient maps and diagrams.
Most recent publications include the works of the United Nations and other foreign governments in more than one hundred different languages.
7. Bibliothèque nationale de France
Image Courtesy: Vincent Desjardins
Catalogue: 40 million items
Annual Budget: €254 million
As the national library of France, the BnF is entitled to a copy of every single publication in the country. It also features an extensive collection of historical materials.
The library’s digital repository, Gallica, provides its users access to more than 4.2 million documents, 500,000 books, and close to 2 million newspaper articles and magazines.
The origin of BnF can be traced back to the Royal Library established at the Louvre Palace by Charles V in 1368. Most of the library’s modern premises were built during its 1998 expansion under President François Mitterrand.
6. National Diet Library
One of the two main facilities of National Diet Library, Tokyo | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Catalogue: 41.9 million items
Annual Budget: ¥21.8 billion
The National Diet Library or NDL is the national library of Japan. It was established in 1948 following the merger of two state-owned entities, the library of the House of Representatives and the House of Peers (now House of Councillors), to better serve the elected members of the Japanese legislature.
As the largest library in the country, NDL maintains a vast collection of national and international publications in foreign languages. It accommodates a staggering 30 million documents from the post-war occupation of Allied forces in Japan, about half-a-million advanced science books, and close to 500,000 maps.
The library has two main facilities, one in Tokyo and another in Kyoto. Several smaller ones are scattered throughout Japan.
5. Russian State Library
Image Courtesy: Vladimir Tokarev
Catalogue: 47.2 million items
Annual Budget: 1.6 billion Rubles
The Russian State Library, situated in Moscow, is the largest in the country. Founded on July 1, 1862, it is also the oldest library in the Russian capital.
This historic library accommodates an astonishing 44 million items, of which 17 million are books, 13 million are journals, and documents in over 247 different languages. It also features about 350 thousand audio and 150,000 pieces of maps.
It is one of the three legal deposit libraries in the country. From the 1920s to 1991, the fall of the USSR, a copy of every book published in the former Soviet Union is kept here. This practice is still in use.
4. Library and Archives, Canada
Library and Archives Canada Headquarters | Image Courtesy: Padraic Ryan
Catalogue: 54 million items
Annual Budget: C$116.9 million
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is a Canadian national institution responsible for preserving its cultural heritage and making it easily accessible.
It was established after the merger of the National Archives and the National Library of Canada under the Library and Archives of Canada Act in 2004.
LAC houses more than 20 million books, 24 million images, and a staggering one petabyte of digitized content. Some of the most significant collections available on the library’s online repository are the proclamation of the Canadian Constitution Act and the British North America Pact.
3. New York Public Library
The New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)
Catalogue: 55 million items
Annual Budget: US$302 million
The New York Public Library (NYPL) is a chain of public libraries operating in the City of New York. Based on the total number of cataloged items, the NYPL is the third largest library in the world and second-largest in the United States.
Due to its open nature, about 18 million people visit the library each year, making NYPL the most visited library in the world.
At the moment, there are 89 branches of NYPL operating throughout the city, with 41 in Manhattan, 35 in the Bronx, and the rest on Staten Island. A new branch in Manhattan was inaugurated in June 2016. It also has four open access research libraries.
NYPL’s digital collection contains more than 700 thousand images digitized in recent years. In 2006, the website was listed as one of the 50 Coolest Websites of 2005 by Time Magazine.
2. Library of Congress
Image Courtesy: loc.gov
Catalogue: 168 million+ items
Annual Budget: US$642.4 million
Perhaps one of the world’s most iconic libraries, the Library of Congress, is the national library of the United States. It is situated in Capitol Hill, a historic neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
The library’s collections are universal – more than 168 million items that include 39 million books are in 470 different languages. Furthermore, it houses about 70 million rare manuscripts, more than 14 million visual materials, 5.6 million maps, and 4 million audio and sound materials.
Each year, the library receives $6-8 million funding specifically for the digitization of its most significant collections. About 15 million library items are digitized so far; they, however, represent less than 10% of the library’s total items.
The LOC also gives online access to U.S Congressional proceedings, which includes summaries, bill text, and the U.S Constitution.
1. British Library
View of British Library from a nearby piazza
Catalogue: 170 million items
Annual Budget: £141 million
The British Library, situated on Euston Road in London, is currently the largest in the world. Before 1973, the library was part of the much renowned British Museum and was separated only after the Library Act of 1972.
For a few years after that, all its collections were located in different facilities around central London before finding its current location.
Some of the most important collections of the library include rare manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Hans Sloane. It also features the King’s Library (a collection of books and scholarly articles assembled by King George III) as well as other Royal manuscripts.
The British Library has a significant online presence as well. Its online image gallery gives you access to more than 30,000 pictures from ancient and medieval books, including a unique “turn the virtual pages” facility of a few famous books and documents like Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.