For avid readers, libraries are a place of sanctuary. They can unlock a world of imagination, investigation, and learning. Much like the books they hold inside, library buildings can also be wondrous creations, boasting magnificent and creative architecture. Others are noteworthy for their quirky designs or the innovative methods they use to inspire their communities to read. Take a journey to six of the most unusual libraries in the world.
Luis Soriano, a teacher from the rural northern Colombia town of La Gloria, was determined to give his students access to books, so he set up an unusual library called Biblioburro. Soriano owned two donkeys, whom he renamed Alfa and Beto — combined, the names form the Spanish word for “alphabet.” Loading the donkeys with about 70 books from his own bookshelves, Soriano saddled up and rode them to local elementary schools to read students stories. Twenty-five years later, Soriano’s book collection has grown considerably, and he is still spreading his love of reading. Even a riding accident that left him with a prosthetic leg hasn’t stopped this determined educator from inspiring young Colombian children with the joy of reading.
Until the pandemic shut down operations in 2020, a library ship called Epos sailed through Norway’s many fjords to deliver books to fjordside communities. Built in 1963, it superseded two earlier ships that had been in service since 1959. Some of the country’s more isolated places are easier to reach by boat than by road, and this service meant that villagers had access to reading material, particularly during the winter months. Epos carried approximately 6,000 books and visited 250 villages two times per year. Given the unusual circumstances, one qualification for taking a job as one of its librarians was not suffering from seasickness. Similar “libraries” exist in Chile’s Chiloé Archipelago and on the Nam Khong River in Laos.
In rural northeast Kenya, camels, nicknamed “ships of the desert,” once carried unusual cargo as part of a Kenya National Library Service initiative. Concerned by poor literacy rates and lack of access to reading materials in and around the town of Garissa, the local government adopted a novel approach. Camels are well-suited to the harsh terrain and hot summer temperatures in the region, so they were an ideal choice to transport hundreds of books along with a tent and reading mat to the area’s nomadic communities. Eventually, after many years of success, improvements to the local road infrastructure meant that the camel library could be phased out and replaced by motorbikes.
Each summer, Lire à la Plage (“Reading at the Beach”) brings the library to more than a dozen of Normandy’s coastal resorts. The colorful beach huts, umbrellas, and deck chairs are easy to spot, and though people are not allowed to take books away from the beach, the librarians are happy to make a note that you’re coming back the following day, mark your place, and put it aside for you. The program has been running in France since 2005, but similar reading initiatives have spread as far as Australia’s Coogee Beach, the tourist resort town of Albena on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, and Tel Aviv, Israel, a city that had previously installed books at bus stops.
The practice of chaining reference books to library shelves was common in medieval times. Though it mostly ended in the 18th century, there are around a dozen chained collections that still exist in England. The oldest is the Francis Trigge Chained Library, founded in 1598 at St Wulfram’s Church in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The largest chained library in England, meanwhile, is located inside Hereford Cathedral; its oldest book dates back to the eighth century. Another chained library at Wimborne Minster in Dorset dates from 1686. The books in these libraries were chained to the shelves to prevent theft, which is perhaps preferable to the methods used in Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland, where three wire alcoves were installed in the 1770s. If readers wanted to look at some of the library’s rarest books, they’d be locked up in these cages so they couldn’t walk off with them.
In 2000, a Filipino man named Hernando “Nanie” Guanlao was looking for a way to honor his beloved parents, who had recently passed away. While some people might pay for a plaque on a park bench or make a charitable donation, Guanlao had a more unusual idea: He decided to set up a library outside his home to thank his parents for instilling in him a lifelong passion for reading. Guanlao initially gathered up his own modest collection of books and placed them on the sidewalk for neighbors to borrow. When his neighbors returned them, they also brought some of their own books, and the collection grew rapidly. Two decades later, Nanie’s Reading Club is more popular than ever, and every inch of space in his home, inside and out, is covered with books. There’s no charge to borrow one, and Nanie even ventures out into other Manila districts on a specially adapted “book bike” to spread his love of reading further.