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Library hopping around the world

In Brazil, October 12 is better known as Children’s Day. It’s a date for gifts, playing and having fun with the little ones. Fewer people know it, but it’s also the National Reading Day, created by a 2009 piece of legislation. To celebrate this date and my passion for books, I’ll share with you 3 of my favorite libraries around the world. Include them in your bucket list for when travel is a thing again.

A neo-manueline treasure: Real Gabinete Português de Leitura

Let’s start in Rio, with a true gem: Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (RGPL). Built in the end of the 19th century to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the death of the great Portuguese poet Luís de Camões, RGPL is often listed as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Its neo-manueline architectural style is a revival of late gothic architecture from Portugal.

Photo: Rodrigo.Argenton , Real Gabinete Português de Leitura

por Rodrigo Tetsuo Argenton (01) , CC BY-SA 4.0

RGPL is also a public library with one of the most comprehensive collections of Portuguese literature, including rare first editions and many modern works. Since 1935, the library has received a copy of every book published in Portugal.

If you stop by Rio after this pandemic is over (the library is currently closed because of Covid-19), make sure to drop by. It’s worth it even if you are not much of a book lover: you will feel transported to Hogwarts or the Beast’s library, in Beauty and The Beast. And, since you are in the area, make sure to go to Confeitaria Colombo. The famous patisserie is close by and another must in downtown Rio.

Baroque splendor at Austria’s National Library


In Vienna, the National Library is worth a visit, especially the State Hall (Prunksaal). There is an 8-euro entrance fee, but the beauty and grandeur of the baroque architecture make it worth your while. Built in the end of the 18th century as part of the Court Library, the State Hall boasts a collection of more than 200 thousand books, spread across a hall that is 260 feet long and almost 7 meters high.

Be warned, though: the State Hall attracts its fair share of visitors and sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of the surroundings when there are so many people taking selfies.

Oodi: the Finnish ode to culture

My favorite pick is not a historical gem like the other two. Oodi (“ode” in Finnish) is located in downtown Helsinki and opened its doors only two years ago, on December 5th, 2018. Oodi is Finland’s gift to its people, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the country’s Independence. Do I need to say much more about the love for knowledge in Finland?

It’s no wonder Oodi was soon a favorite spot for Helsinkians. The library was designed with input from residents. Several workshops, events and campaigns provided insight to the design team into what the people wanted to experience in their library. Oodi turned out to be much more than a library: it’s a space for learning, meeting others and experiencing culture in many of its manifestations. Books take up only one of the three floors.

On the ground floor, apart from the café and sitting areas, there are spaces for exhibitions, concerts, events or cinema.

The second floor is my favorite: besides individual and group study rooms, there are meeting rooms, film and music studios, gaming rooms and much more. You will also find all sorts of equipment to aid you in whatever creative endeavor you might fancy: from simple pin/badge press machines to laser cutters, poster-size printers, vinyl cutters, all types of sewing machines, 3D printers and much more. There is even a fully equipped cooking room that you can book for culinary events or classes. There are no fees for using the equipment and everything is available to anyone through an online reservation system.

On the top floor, the book haven is an inviting space. The ample hall is flooded with light from all sides. The curved architecture of the ceiling and the edge of the floor is surprising and fun. That’s where you will find the tourists taking their selfies and walking up and down the length of the floor. This is the space for grabbing a cup of coffee (yes, there is another coffee shop on the top floor) and sinking deep down into one of the couches or armchairs to enjoy a good book. If you are lucky to be around during one of the warmer months, you can enjoy sitting on the terrace and basking on the beautiful views of the Finnish Parliament or the Töölo bay to the side.

Oodi is certainly not as luxurious as my other picks but it synthesizes Finnish culture beautifully. Its clean Scandinavian aesthetic showcases the love for function over form. The value placed on knowledge and culture in all its manifestations is reflected in the wide array of activities available. The love for nature can be seen in the trees spread around the bookshelves (yes, they are real trees). Last but not least, the preoccupation with equality is clear not only on the absence of fees, but also in the architecture: restrooms have no gender labels and are a spacious hall full of stalls, for all people (there are pink and blue sinks you can choose from, if this is too much of a shocker for you). For all these reasons, I have to name Oodi as my favorite library. It’s certainly worth a visit next time you are in Helsinki.

Photos: personal archive, unless otherwise noted.

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