It's hard to resist the allure of a beautiful library—warm and solemn, their quiet spaces and towering shelves of books evoke a certain kind of transquilty, like afternoons spent absorbed in a novel. Luckily, Chicago is home to a number of premium libraries, from our robust public system to expansive archives housed within some of the best museums in Chicago. Whether you're in need of top-notch primary sources or are just looking for a suitable place to crank out a day's work, here are Chicago's most beautiful libraries.
Recommended: The best Chicago attractions
Check out these stunning libraries in Chicago
The impressive Romanesque revival-style facade of the Newberry Library—an independent, non-circulating research institution—has presided over the leafy expanses of Washington Square since the building opened in 1893. Once inside you'll find a comfortable and mostly mundane space, but the real draw is the Newberry's massive humanities-centered collection: Any reader over the age of 14 can access the library's books and archives, which include maps, rare books, modern manuscripts and more, for free.
Harold Washington Library, the sprawling flagship of the Chicago Public Library system, manages to make an impression even among the South Loop's towering skyscrapers. A strange marriage of postmodern and Beaux-Arts architecture, the structure features red brick and arching windows, plus a roof topped with five gargantuan barn owls—a (somewhat imposing) tribute to wisdom and learning. The library's nine accessible floors have plenty of public services to offer, but we recommend stealing away to the glass-domed Winter Garden on the ninth floor to find a sun-dappled reading nook.
Local artist and philanthropist Theaster Gates bought this former community bank from the city in 2012 for $1, turning the beaten-down building into a cultural institution that's part library, part gallery and part community center. The first floor galleries are open to the public, but researchers can also schedule an appointment to the view the center's volumious archives. Hightlights include the record collection of Chicago house music icon Frankie Knuckles or books acquired by the company that published Jet and Ebony, which are housed on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the Johnson Publishing Library.
The only poetry library in the Midwest is located in Chicago's sunny Poetry Foundation building, where visitors can browse an archive of more than 30,000 journals, chapbooks, audio recordings, prose works and other poetry-related documents. The space is open to the public Monday through Friday from 11am to 4pm.
Dive into the history of art and architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago's two research libraries, which have a special focus on Midwestern archives pertaining to topics like the Bauhaus in Chicago and the history of the city's urban planning. Equally alluring is the Franke Reading Room, a grand and spacious atrium which serves as the main research area. The reading room is open to anyone who is at least a high school-level reader—look up to spot an 19th-century skylight designed by the renowned stained glass artist Louis Millet.
The University of Chicago's newest library houses 3.5 million volumes in a subterranean storage space that lives beneath a low-slung, glass-domed reading room. Designed by Helmut Jahn—the architect who created the similarly glass-plated Thompson Center in the Loop—the library's elliptical dome uses specially-coated glass to maintain even lighting and climate control throughout the structure. Its 180-seat reading room is open to members of the public for up to seven days a year when they obtain a day pass.
Newly designed in 2015, the Chinatown outpost of the Chicago Public Library system features a curved design meant to mimic the Feng Shui principle of fluidity—its perimeter subtly traces the length of property, allowing for increased pedestrian space and clear views of the building from the surrounding intersection. The interior of the library centers around a spacious atrium room and also includes a mural by CJ Hungerman called “Universal Transverse Immigration Proclamation,” a tribute to the neighborhood’s history and character.
The Blackstone Branch of the Chicago Public Library, originally opened in 1904, was designed to evoke a temple atop the Athenian Acropolis called the Erechtheion, a fact reflected in the library's opulent detailing. The facade is flanked by marble columns; inside, the building becomes even grander with a gigantic Tiffany-style dome, mosaic flooring and a series of lush overhead murals painted by the muralist for the World Columbian Exhibition. The mahogany furniture within the library's reading room serves an appropriately luxe place to curl up with your book.
Take in sweeping views of the downtown cityscape from the windows of the Pritzker Military Museum's library, which boasts a collection of more than 65,000 titles related to history, culture and branches of the U.S. military. You can access the library's central area for $5 (that also nets you entrance to the museum), but make an appointment in advance if you'd like to peruse its rare books room—there, you'll find roughly 3,000 works dating back to the Civil War and earlier.