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5 Libraries to Check Out Across America

Discover rare collections, incredible art and striking architecture at these cultural institutions.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Libraries to Check Out Across America

"The Free Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA"

Set your sights on unique artifacts and historic manuscripts at these literary landmarks.(Getty Images)

School may be out of session for summer, but libraries are great attractions to visit year-round. The New York Public Library and the Library of Congress are must-see libraries – not just for books but also for their history, architecture and exhibits. The New York Public Library, a Beaux Arts-style building on Fifth Avenue, beckons to visitors the world over. And the Library of Congress, America's oldest cultural organization, was founded in 1800 but was destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol in 1814. A year later, it was reestablished with Thomas Jefferson's personal library of almost 6,500 books. Today, it reigns as the world's largest library. Here are five other beautiful libraries you'll love, even if you're not a bookworm.

Folger Shakespeare Library
Washington, District of Columbia

The Folger Shakespeare Library, which houses the world's largest Shakespeare collection and is one of the finest Shakespearean-focused museums, sits only a block from the Library of Congress. Now is the perfect time to plan a trip to the Folger with "The Wonder of Will," an exhibit commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger established their library in 1932 as a gift to the American people. Today, you'll find an Elizabethan theater that stages plays, early-music concerts and literary readings, as well as an Elizabethan Garden filled with flowers and plants Shakespeare penned in his plays, plus unique exhibits like "Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity" opening on Aug. 6. Don't skip arranging a guided tour of the reading room with its "Seven Ages of Man" stained glass window of scenes in Shakespeare's plays.

The Morgan Library & Museum
New York City

Financier J.P. Morgan collected rare books, manuscripts, drawings, prints and ancient artifacts and housed them in a palatial Italian Renaissance mid-19th century marble building known as "Mr. Morgan's Library." His grandiose 30-foot-tall library is just as he left it, lined floor-to-ceiling with books encased in bronze and walnut bookcases that reach up to the graceful arched ceiling. At the museum, literary buffs can check out exhibits that focus on Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson. And today, the library, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, covers half a New York City block along Madison Avenue.

If you want to continue the literary theme after your visit, stay at the Library Hotel, which is conveniently located a few blocks from the Morgan Library and the New York Public Library, along East 41st Street between Fifth and Park avenues. At the hotel, you'll find 10 guest room floors are dedicated to one of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System; on the 10th floor, you can even check into room "1000.001 Libraries." What's more, the hotel offers amenities such as daily breakfast, a wine and cheese pre-theater reception, plus tea, coffee, cookies and fruit in the Reading Room. The hotel's "Guilty Pleasure Package" includes two tickets to the Morgan and two literary-inspired cocktails at the hotel's Bookmarks Lounge.

Free Library of Philadelphia
Philadelphia

The Free Library of Philadelphia is in the epicenter of the City of Brotherly Love. The grand Beaux-Arts style building is on Philly's Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city's so-called Champs-Élysées, lined with a variety of cultural institutions. The central Free Library has a rare book collection containing about 100,000 volumes dating back to medieval manuscripts. First editions abound, with works by famed authors such as Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. You can even catch sight of his stuffed pet raven named "Grip," who inspired Poe's iconic poem, "The Raven." Another must-see is the Free Library's Rosenbach Museum & Library, which showcases the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin's first "Poor Richard" almanac, James Joyce's "Ulysses" manuscript and even Bram Stoker's "Dracula" notes. Brothers Philip and A.S.W. Rosenbach, major dealers in rare books, manuscripts and fine art, contributed works from their own collection plus their two 1860s brownstones near Philadelphia's historic Rittenhouse Square to create the museum in 1954.

Julia Ideson Library
Houston, Texas

The 90-year-old Julia Ideson Library (named for the city's first professional librarian, Julia Ideson, who served for more than four decades), a red-tile-roofed Spanish Renaissance Revival building, serves as a stark contrast to downtown Houston's glass and steel skyscrapers. The National Register of Historic Places building has the city's largest installation of murals completed under the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Meanwhile, the Reading Room is replete with its original wooden tables, copper lamps and brick floors. And its former children's reading room showcases hand-carved furniture featuring nursery rhyme characters. When you're not browsing vintage books, you can check out elegant temporary exhibits.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, California

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a three-in-one treasure, set among 120 acres of Southern California's San Gabriel Valley. Among the library's 420,000 books are some of the world's rarest publications, dating back to the Middle Ages. It has one of the few Gutenberg Bibles, the first substantial book printed with movable type in the Western world, in the mid-15th century. The Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," created from 1400-1405, is elaborately decorated with 22 miniature paintings. And Henry D. Thoreau's handwritten original manuscript of "Walden" is here, too. Get back to nature in the Huntington's eclectic variety of gardens that contain about 15,000 different kinds of plants. They range from Chinese- and Japanese-inspired green spaces (each with its own teahouse and bridge) to striking desert gardens. This world-class art collection in the 1911 Beaux Arts-style mansion of railway and real estate magnate Henry Edwards Huntington has famed masterpieces like Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy."

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Edited by Liz Weiss.

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