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Bibliotourism isn’t just for bibliophiles

We’ve had agritourism, gastrotourism, sports tourism and volunteer tourism, but could the next big thing in travel be bibliotourism?

Just like any worthwhile tourist attraction, libraries can tell you a lot about a place. It might be a gathering place for the local community, or a hallowed space of hush and grandeur. Their design can vary greatly, from modern domes to historic reading rooms of walnut and gold, depending on the era and place in which the library was built.

In many cities, the library stands as a monument to the history of design and scholarship. The New York Public Library is one of these magnificent buildings. Here, the entry is guarded by lions nicknamed Patience and Fortitude, and grand stone staircases leading to a mezzanine with huge murals on the walls and ceilings, followed by gorgeous, wooded reading rooms, lit by chandeliers. When I visited New York, it was the first time I had considered a library to be a tourist attraction, not only for book lovers, but for any visitors to the city.

This, despite living in Melbourne, where I often strolled through the impressive domed reading room, breathing in the smell of books and basking in the studious atmosphere. When everyone seems to have such focus and concentration, it is nice not to. And isn’t that the luxury of travel?

Living in Oxford about 10 years ago, I was disappointed that the public was not allowed to wander into the outwardly gorgeous Radcliffe Camera, part of the famous Bodleian Libraries (I’m not sure whether this was because I had not booked properly, or visitors were non-students were not allowed entry). However, I believe that there are now tours of the library, as long as visitors recite the traditional Bodleian Library Declaration.

In Italy, while tourists scurry to the Colosseum, San Marco Square in Venice and the Duomo in Florence, few enter the public libraries that are, apparently, magnificent, but without a fraction of the crowds of the cities’ more obvious attractions. I have to admit that I have done just that – lined up in the heat and bustle to gain entry into museums and cathedrals deemed to be ‘tourist attractions’, perhaps in The Lonely Planet. Why, when books are one of my great interests, didn’t I consider a visit to the comparably magnificent and fascinating libraries of these cities?

In the New York Times, David Laskin wrote about the Florentine library designed by Michaelangelo, a Roman library displaying Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus and buildings described variously as ‘small, plush and perfectly faceted’, ‘spartan and muscular’ and ‘majestically realised’.

If you are thinking of taking a biblio-tour of the world yourself, check out landscape photographer Thibaud Poirier, who has taken a series of pictures of the Europe’s most beautiful libraries, with their breathtaking architecture and adornments.

While historic libraries might compete with the grandeur of any cathedral or palace, modern libraries can be just as eye-catching. One of the world’s most striking modern libraries is the Stuttgart City Library in Germany, opened in 2011. The library’s centre follows the design of the ancient pantheon, with a gallery hall that is five-stories high, in the form of a square and surrounded by bookshelves. Its floors, bookshelves and staircases are stark white, giving it a futuristic quality, vastly different to traditional library designs.

Closer to home are equally impressive modern libraries. Perth City Library last week won an Australian Library and Information Association’s Library Design Award for its impressive state-of-the-art circular building, with seven floors, glass facades and stone-clad columns. It has a living Tree of Knowledge under which children can enjoy story time and an outdoor terrace overlooking Cathedral Square.

Meanwhile, the spaceship-like Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, which opened in 2015, won this year’s Member’s Choice Award. The striking building is clad in 332 panels of glass reinforced concrete, and its shape is suggestive of the domed reading rooms of world-famous public libraries, while clearly from a different place and time.

The striking modern designs of these buildings often complement the historic buildings which they sit alongside, highlighting the best of design, then and now.

But it is not just in their eye-catching facades that modern libraries can satisfy the traveller – their charm also lies in the way that their community that uses them.

I have lived in many towns in which libraries were the soul of the place – the Norwich library in the UK stands in pride of place just above the bustling town market. The Ballarat library, while hardly claiming to be any kind of tourist attraction, is a hub for generations of locals, from the young and their parents who attend baby bounce sessions and rhyme time to the elderly browsing books or taking classes on the use of the web. It has become such a community hub that the council has even set up an information desk at its entrance. Far from solely being depositories of books, these libraries are now places of gathering, celebration and community support and information.

Often centrally-located, libraries are cheaper than a café for people-watching (free!), require no bookings, and far more representative of the everyday lives of those who use them.

Writer Anais Nin gave her reason for travel:

“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.”

In libraries, we can find thousands of others souls from yesterday in the books that line the walls, while experiencing the lives of those who visit these places today.

Of course, when referring to libraries, it is impossible to ignore the books. Few bibliophiles can resist the dusty smell and sepia pages of early editions, or the crisp, inky pages of the latest release, and a library is the perfect place for total immersion. Why visit a cathedral when you can kneel down at the altar of literature, surrounded by the words of the world’s greatest writers?

So, when you’re visiting a city and tired of following the well-worn tourist route – whether it’s the churches or ruins of Europe or the beaches of Australia – why not veer away and visit a library? Or even better, create your own biblio-tour. You might discover more than just beautiful or eye-catching architecture, but also the lived reality of the place you are visiting.


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