Your corner library probably feels old, but the tradition of maintaining books in buildings is one of humanity's oldest. Most of these libraries aren't the kinds of places you can pull grubby hardcovers off well-worn shelves and wait in long lines to check them out. Instead, these libraries are the kinds of places where you can look at some of the oldest and prettiest books ever written in the world. Your hands will, of their own volition, reach out to spines kept uncracked for over a century, confident that no one will notice if you pull just the smallest title out from its carefully carved out crevice.
New York is steeped in more literary history than a Victorian teahouse. Its libraries are probably the smartest place to start: the New York Public Library, a marble empire overlooking Fifth Avenue and barely contained by 42nd and 43rd Streets, is probably one of the Western Hemisphere's most storied and recognizable institutions of book-lending. Built on top of an obsolete water reservoir, the main branch of the New York Public library was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century. Everything about the building became iconic of New York life ―from the two lions that guard the front entrance, designed by the beloved equestrian sculptor Edward Clark Potter and popularly nicknamed "patience" and "fortitude" to the backroom bookshelves that were immortalized in the opening scene of Ghostbusters. So take a step inside, go through the glow of its hushed reading room, and read the perfectly preserved spines of the last century.
The Great Study Hall, tucked inside the New York Public Library (DEA/Getty)
Other libraries to stop by in the city: The Center for Fiction was called the New York Mercantile Library back when it opened in 1820 and was inside the riotous Astor Place Opera House. Now it's a center for struggling novelists of all stripes but still contains its legendary private collection of English literature just a few blocks away on 47th Street. And, named after the famous banking baron, the Morgan Library & Museum over on Madison Avenue will make your hands desperately reach out to the life work of the city's most celebrated book collectors. Everything from three original Gutenberg Bibles to Charles Dickens' original manuscript for A Christmas Carol.
Over in London, one of the largest piles of books in the world might catch your eye. The British Library, just a stone's throw away from the Harry Potter-approved Kings Cross, is the second largest library in the world. A majestic modern palace, it was designed by Colin St. John Wilson in 1962 and recalls, more than anything else in the containment, Beijing's Forbidden City, imagined in the nest of a Florentine piazza. Among the literary prizes contained inside: King's Library, a six-story glass skyscraper at the library's center containing everything from King George's collection of rare cartography to original handwritten copies of Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. Elsewhere in the city is the far older London Library, an institution that was founded in the 1840s and has been run by everyone from Tennyson to T.S. Eliot. Its main reading room is still decorated in the Victorian fashion with elegant furniture and one of the world's largest manuscript collections to boot. For an even more Harry Potter experience, take a quick train over to Oxford where the cast-iron doors of the Bodleian Library have been waiting for you since the 17th century. It will come as no surprise that all of those scenes of flying books from Sorcerer's Stone were filmed here.
Familiar-looking environs at Oxford's Bodleian Library (Carl Court/Getty)
But if the sleek modernist bent of The British Library has you hooked, hop on a quick plane to Stuttgart, Germany, where the imposing nine-story monolithic cube of the city's Stadtbibliothek will catch your eye. Inside, you'll find Escher-like staircases to guide you through an almost blinding all-white interior that turns an extraterrestrial blue after sunset. If you've come to Germany for the famous late-night scene, you'll be glad to find out that parts of the library's collections are kept open at all hours. Or if you're looking for something a little less, um, concrete, slide on over to the other side of the world where noted wood-craftsman Sou Fujimoto bears credit for designing the library at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, a glass enclosure populated entirely by wooden bookshelves. Fujimoto calls them a "forest of books," but, for me, recalled more walls jetting out of a perfect lost Windows 95 screensaver maze.
Over in the wooden walls of the Musashino Art University (Getty)