Monday, November 25, 2019

The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World by Jacques Bosser. Photographs by Guillaume de Laubier

Palatial library architecture of Europe and America
Published in 2003, The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is an attractive 11.5” x 11.5” photographic study of some of the world’s most lavish palaces devoted to reading, research, scholarship, and the preservation of cultural heritage. Given the coffee table format, the photographs by Gillaume de Laubier are likely the book’s main selling point, but the text by Jacques Bosser is equally valuable and quite informative. Through image and text, this duo gives the reader a brief tour of 23 stunning cathedrals to knowledge. The architecture depicted in this volume is all at least a century old, in styles including the baroque, neoclassical, and a touch of art deco provided by the New York Public Library. You won’t find any modern architecture here. (I state that merely as a clarification, not a criticism.) Contrary to its hyperbolic title, the libraries included in the book are all located in Europe (20 of them) and the United States (3 of them). No libraries from Asia, Africa, South America, or Australia are depicted. (That is both a clarification and a criticism.) At the very least they could have included a few Muslim libraries from the Middle East, since they helped keep Western thought alive while Europe was in the Dark Ages. You can’t tell me there are no beautiful libraries in Turkey or Iran, for example.

Both Bosser and de Laubier are more interested in the architecture of these libraries then their contents. Each of the libraries covered is depicted in about seven to ten of de Laubier’s photographs, depending on whether they are full page or of smaller size. There are usually one or two photographs of the main reading room and then several pictures of architectural details such as murals, sculptures, or decorative reliefs. Very few of the photographs show any of the actual treasures held by these libraries. The exception is the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, which for some reason is treated differently from the others, with more pictures of documents rather than architectural shots. In addition to the lovely photos, each library gets two or three pages of text by Bosser, who has clearly done his research and delivers a lot of interesting information. He crams so much detail into such a small word count that at times it is difficult to follow his prose. Brevity requires that he assume a fair knowledge of European history on the part of the reader, and he uses architectural terms with which most readers will not be familiar. He really provides a great deal of insight into the history of these important institutions, however, and he also gives a brief description of the prize holdings in their collections. While de Laubier is an excellent photographer, it is really Bosser’s text that makes this book worth its asking price.

A better book on this subject is photographer Massimo Listri’s The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, published by Taschen in 2019, but that is a mammoth, large-format twenty-pounder that costs four or five times as much as this book. It also suffers from the same myopic favoritism toward Western civilization, but at least it includes a few libraries in South America. For library lovers not willing to spend a fortune on a photography book, Bosser and de Laubier’s The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World is a very good volume that at least serves as a reasonably satisfying substitute for the experience of touring these amazing libraries in person.
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