Bookcaves: 5 underground libraries from around the world

Bookcaves - 5 underground libraries from around the worldLibraries: these amazing places filled with millions of unique stories draw bookworms like moths to a flame. We just can’t help ourselves. When we see one, the urge to go inside and stroke the books becomes almost unbearable.

Though all libraries are equal, some libraries are more equal than others when it comes to a bookworm’s preferences. Some have the most amazing reading nooks or feature some seriously cool shelving, and others are located in unique places.

Libraries - Magical places where bookworms go to lose themselves in a thousand dreams. A Little Blue Book

The five libraries listed below all have one thing in common: they store the majority of their books underground. So if you’ve always dreamt of going cave exploring, these libraries will let you do it in a bookworm-friendly environment! And what bookworm wouldn’t rather be surrounded by books instead of just rocks?!     

  1. British Library, UK

Bookcaves - 5 underground libraries from around the world   Bookcaves - 5 underground libraries from around the world british library
Photo credit: British Library

The British Library is big. Very big. In fact, it’s so big that when the new main building opened in 1997, it was the biggest public building constructed in the UK during the 20th Century.

Its massive size is needed to house the majority of the 150+ million items in the library’s collection (the rest is located at a building in Boston Spa), making it the second largest library in the world (by most measures, it’s only surpassed by the US Library of Congress).

This huge collection would take you about 80,000 years to see if you viewed five items a day!

Most of the items are housed underground in four deep levels. Combined, they extend more than eight storeys below the surface and feature hundreds of kilometres of metal shelving in double-height levels.

Photo Credit: British Library

Just imagine walking through these giant rooms filled with books and other interesting stuff – more than 23 metres (75+ feet for those of you who don’t like the Metric System) below ground! Unfortunately, access to the basement levels is restricted. However, if you aren’t one of the lucky ones to get a private tour, there’s still lots to see above ground like the world’s earliest dated printed book (the Diamond Sutra) which is sometimes displayed in the exhibition galleries alongside many of the library’s other treasures.

Fun fact: Even though the British Library is the biggest on this list, it’s in fact also the youngest. It dates back to… Wait for it… 1973! I know, right! Who would have thought that a country with such a long history didn’t have a national library until the 70’s! The books and other material, which make up the library’s collection, came from the British Museum and other organisations.

  1. National Library of Sweden, Sweden

Bookcaves: 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: Øyvind Holmstad

The National Library of Sweden is the second biggest library on this list with a collection encompassing more than 18 million objects. The current building, which houses the main collection of the library, dates back to 1871, though the library itself is much older (1661 to be a bit more precise). However, the underground part, which has secured the Swedish library a place on this list, is not nearly as old.

Bookcaves: 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: Sharon Hahn Darlin

In the late 1960’s, the library was so stuffed with books that more space was needed, and it was decided the best solution would be to expand the storage facilities below ground. An underground storage chamber for the many volumes was therefore built, but when it completed in 1970, it had already become apparent that more space was needed if the future of the library was to be secured. In 1997, two large underground caverns were excavated, each containing a five storey space with a combined capacity of 160 km of shelving space. The majority of the library’s physical materials are stored in these underground caverns.

  1. National Library of Finland, Finland

Bookcaves - 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: National Library of Finland

It may not be the biggest library on the list, but what the National Library of Finland lacks in size, it makes up for in age. The National Library of Finland can trace its roots as far back as 1640 to an old gymnasium on the south-west coast of the country. The meagre collection of 20 books has since grown to encompass more than 3 million volumes. Most of these are stored in Kirjaluola (for all the non-Finnish speakers like me that’s the Finnish word for bookcave! Or so I’ve been told).

Bookcaves - 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: National Library of Finland

The name may conjure mental images of a secret grotto filled with uneven stacks of leader bound books, but the reality is less adventurous. The cave is actually a 57,600 cubic metre (or 2,030,000 cubic feet) underground bunker which has been hollowed out of solid rock 18 metres (or 59 ft) below the main library building.

The cave was opened in 2000 and is the newest underground addition to the library. The hunt for more space had already forced the library below ground back in the 1950’s when the first storage caves were drilled out of the bedrock to make room for the growing collection.

  1. University of Stellenbosch Library, South Africa

Bookcaves: 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: Library and Information Service, Stellenbosch University

As with the National Library of Finland (and indeed most libraries around the world), the library at Stellenbosch University started out small. In fact, in 1893 a Professor William Thomson stated, “It would require a very practical imagination to be able to call the small bookcase in the senate hall a library. It is not an inspiring thing to see the students waiting for the next instalment of the professional feeding bottle instead of cultivating habits of independent study and research in a well-appointed library.”

In 1904 the library possessed 1,000 books but in 1945 that number had grown to 97,167. This growth, which continued throughout the 20th century, meant that by 1981 the library had outgrown the previous two buildings which had housed the collection. The new building is the reason why this particular library has made it onto the list.

Bookcaves 5 underground libraries from around the worldPhoto Credit: Library and Information Service, Stellenbosch University

The JS Gericke Library, which was completed in 1983, is located underneath the Jan Marais Square. The reason for this unique location is the lack of central building sites on the university campus. The only space available to build on was the square, but the historical importance of the Jan Marais Square, and the architectural aesthetics of the surrounding historic buildings, meant that this site was not suited for a multi-storey building. The solution was to build underground. The result is one of the biggest subterranean libraries in the world.

Build to accommodate around one million volumes on a total floor space of 17,000m2, the library provides study desks for more than 1,400 students along with seminar rooms, study cubicles and a lecture hall.

  1. Elmer L Andersen Library, USA

Bookcaves 5 underground libraries from around the worldPhoto Credit: University if Minnesota Libraries

The final bookworm sanctuary on this list is also the newest. The Elmer L Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota opened its doors to the public back in 2000.

Its collection of more than 1.5 million volumes of books, manuscripts, illustrations and artefacts is stored in two enormous caverns, each two stories high and the length of two football fields (approximately 210 m/689 ft.).

Bookcaves: 5 underground libraries from around the world Photo Credit: University if Minnesota Libraries

As opposed to some of the other artificial library caves on this list, the caves at the Andersen Library are considered to be “geology-friendly”. This is due to the geological environment at this particular place, which is perfectly suited for excavating caves. Below the 30-foot layer of topsoil, clay and gravel, another 30-foot layer of limestone creates the protective roof of the caverns while also serving as the foundation for the library building above. The caves themselves were easily hollowed out of the softer sandstone below – Pedology, isn’t it great!

Bookcaves 5 underground libraries from around the worldPhoto Credit: University if Minnesota Libraries

The caves are usually closed off from the public, but rumour has it that tours of the facilities are available to inquisitive bookworms every first Friday of the month.

Bookcaves 5 underground libraries from around the world

The primary reason for moving books underground seems to be the lack of available space above ground whilst also benefiting from the constant temperatures and humidity needed to store books in optimal conditions. But does the few libraries on this list predict the future for libraries? Will more libraries in the future store their books below ground and away from the bookworms who desperately love to be surrounded by them?

Something seems to indicate such a move. When the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library in Chicago opened in 2011, all the library’s volumes had been placed in metal bins and stacked in 15 metre (50 ft.) high shelves in an underground storage area. The new storage system requires just one-seventh of the space of regular shelves and can hold 3.5 million volumes. An automated storage and retrieval system collects the books from the underground area using robotic cranes and transports it to the main floor where people can then pick them up. The library has no traditional bookshelves.

Bookcaves 5 underground libraries from around the world

Will the joy of going to a library diminish if there are no books to see or touch? In an effort to make libraries more efficient, the special feeling of being surrounded by thousands of stories may be disregarded as sentimental nonsense, but is it actually much more important than that? I would love to hear your thoughts on the future of libraries and what you think of burying all the books underground without having access to any above ground. Do let me know what you think in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *