Montreal libraries may not be at the top of a tourist’s to-do list, but there are more than a few worth bookmarking for your next trip. Settled into repurposed heritage buildings and deconsecrated churches, many of the city’s libraries are an open-book testimony to the architectural might and storied past of previous generations. Book lending may be in decline elsewhere, but attendance in la belle ville is on the rise, with Montréalers borrowing more than 10 million books a year to enjoy in Montreal parks or over a bottle at one of the city’s best wine bars. From a chapel-turned-reading room to hidden book havens, these are the best libraries to check out in Montréal.
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Where to find the best Montreal libraries
As its name implies, Grande Bibliothèque is the largest national public library of the 10 BAnQs located throughout the province. Spread across 33,000-square-metres on six levels, the meticulously designed building contains thoughtful references to Quebec culture. The yellow-birch lined reading halls, for instance, were inspired by Anne Hébert’s novel Les Chambres de bois (The Silent Rooms). There are no less than 3.5 million items—be it books, music or movies—and 2,520 chairs to curl up in with them. In fact, everything from books to video games, vinyls, and museum passes are available to be borrowed. No joke about that last one: Patrons can check out a pass for three weeks’ worth of visits to Centre d’histoire de Montréal, the McCord Museum and the Stewart Museum.
When Quebec’s first public library opened its doors in 1899, there were already nearly 700 members jostling to borrow one of the 1,992 books on its shelves. Since then its collection has grown to include more than 170,000 books, films, and other miscellany. The red brick Victorian building topped with a gabled roof and peaked tower has also expanded over the years, adding a dollhouse-like Children’s Library and postcard-perfect greenhouse to its grounds (currently under renovation). There’s also more than 40,000 postcards in its stacks, which means this library’s stewards know a thing or two about deltiology—including where to place a stamp to say “I’m dying for your love” (ask them about that last one).
A favourite among historians, genealogists, lawyers and bibliophiles alike, the BAnQ Vieux-Montréal location houses more than 15,000 reference works, 100 periodical titles, and 20,000 microfilms, some of which date back to the 17th century. Located in the Beaux-Arts-style Gilles Hocquart building, the library’s white spiral staircase, delicate wrought-iron filigree and columned balconies have courted many a photographer over the years, which makes it fitting that the library is also home to a repository of more than 8.5 million images taken by professional and amateur photographers.
Though founded in 1952, it wasn’t until 1983 that the Islamic Studies Library moved into its current location in Morrice Hall at McGill University. The centerpiece of the library is its two-floor Octagonal Room, so named for the eight wood-trimmed walls that frame the room’s large round table and study carrels with stained-glass windows. As for its collection, an illuminated copy of Man lâ yahduruhu al-faqîh by Ibn Bâbûyah and a calligraphed collection of prayers by Sufi master `Abd al-Qâdir al-Jîlânî are among its treasures, along with more than 100,000 monographs, lithographs and early printed works on Islamic civilization.
This museum and research centre may be best known for exhibits and events featuring starchitects and scholars such as Frank Gehry, Sylvia Lavin and Nasser Rabbat, but it also houses one of the most important architectural collections in the world. Located in the palatial Shaughnessy mansion once owned by a railway baron, the archives here contain everything from daguerreotypes to building treatises and drawings dating to the fifteenth century. The split-level study room offers free Wi-Fi and is bright and airy thanks to large windows and skylights. Materials from the collection can be perused via appointment.
Within the Maison de la Culture Côte-des-Neiges complex of art galleries, photo labs, theatres and more, this public library has been serving the west-side community of Montréal for more than 35 years. Under the city’s first green roof filled with plant life you’ll find one of the city’s best selections of thrillers and detective fiction—especially of the Scandinavian variety, which blends in nicely with the Nordic-like skylights and smooth cherry-wood architectural accents. Consider hunkering down with The Crime on Cote Des Neiges by David Montrose on your next visit, a title revived by local publisher Vehicule Press which republishes old crime rags like this one.
Despite the stately exterior of this 100-year-old heritage building, this independent community library welcomes guests with a homey atmosphere inside. More than 40,000 books (mostly in English) fill the wooden shelves between potted plants that flourish thanks to an abundance of grand arched windows. Even the greenery—or at least seedlings of beans, peas, tomatoes, and other verdure—can be ‘borrowed’ from the Seed Library collection. Coffee and biscuits are served during the weekly Lunchtime Series where local authors and guests give presentations and workshops on a variety of topics. Guests can also brush up on their digital literacy here by signing up for computer courses.
This church-turned-library fittingly pays homage to the author who put Mile End on the map with novels like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version. Wooden roof beams, arched stained-glass windows and other architectural features of the original 1910 structure loom large over stacks that stock titles in French, English, Chinese and Spanish. Reflecting the eclecticism of the community, the diverse collection’s specialties range from comic books to travel guides. And for musicians, this neighbourhood outpost recently joined the band of public libraries that loan out guitars, xylophones and other instruments.
One of the tiniest libraries on the McGill University campus, the Birks Reading Room is located on the second floor of the Birks Building and is one of the coziest book nooks in the Ghetto. Adding to the comfort is the library’s well-known no-shoes policy both preserves the refurbished hardwood floors and eliminates the need for tiptoeing around its wooden stacks and Emeralite lamp-topped tables. Formerly known as the Religious Studies Library, it holds more than 20,000 monographs on theological topics with major sections devoted to Hinduism, Buddhism, and religion in Asia.
Originally the city hall for the former municipality of Maisonneuve, this neoclassical edifice has played a monumental role in the history of the HoMa neighbourhood. In fact, Quebec’s first singer-songwriter La Bolduc passed away here during the building’s brief tenure as the Institute of Radium. Ghost stories aside, the library opened nearly 40 years ago and now offers jam-packed programming for children, including storytimes, weekly hide-and-seek games and other hands-on activities. For the grown-ups, a Fake News info session and custom bookmark offer tips on telling fact from fiction. Targeted for completion in 2020, an expansion will add more seating, a coffee shop, and a rooftop garden.
At the heart of McGill University, the six-floor McLennan Library is the largest on campus when combined with the conjoined Redpath Library. Despite its size, seating can be hard to come by, which is partially why a $140 million reimagining of the space is underway. Meanwhile, the current space offers a top floor tranquility zone and Zen Garden and a main level Spin Bike Garden to help students ride out scholarly stresses. For a treat, check out the Rare Books and Special Collections cookbook section, which features oddities like Shark, Sea Food of the Future and Kraft Television Recipes for 1955.
Named after the Nobel-winning author of Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift who was born in Lachine in 1915, the Saul Bellow Library first opened its doors more than 40 years ago but has since undergone a high tech $13 million modernization. Nearly everything in the open concept library serves a dual purpose, from its eco-friendly green roof to heated hardwood floors and indoor bleachers that double as stairs. With chess boards, a permanent 3D printer and a cafe-bistro that opens onto a summer terrace, this community-oriented space is a bright place to hangout or to bury your nose in an e-book.
School spirit is given a holy new meaning at Concordia University’s Grey Nuns Reading Room, a 19th-century chapel converted into a grandiose study space. Long modern tables equipped with dividers and personal lamps replace the wooden pews, and the apse where priests once gave mass is now furnished with red reading loungers. Apart from furniture and Wi-Fi, the original splendor of the now-deconsecrated space is well-preserved, from original stained glass windows and woodwork to the stencil-painted Casavant-Fréres organ on the rear balcony. The study room is open to Concordia students September to May, and enforces a strict thou-shall-not-talk-or-whisper policy, perhaps in reverence to the 276 souls buried in the crypt beneath.
Founded in 1882, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts houses the oldest art library in Canada. Originally called the Reading Room, the museum’s textual repertoire has grown to hold one of the most comprehensive art records in the country, including almost 10,000 files on Canadian creators and more than 68,000 auction catalogues. While visits from the public are not permitted, 60 percent of the works can be explored in its online catalogue. Meanwhile, art and history buffs can visit the museums archive every Tuesday and Wednesday.
Inaugurated in 2013, this Rosemont spot is on the newer end of Montreal’s public library spectrum and has the avant-garde amenities to prove it, from an eco-friendly LEED certification to video games in Zone Ado. Through the building’s glass facade, 22 graphic panels can be seen drifting over the interior garden and open upper walkways. The piece, “Constellation en Sol” by Adad Hannah, pays tribute to the library’s namesake and his famous clown character Sol who’s pictured on the entrance column. Appropriately, there are spaces for all ages to clown around in, like the multimedia Créasphère or toy-filled La Marmaille toddler play place.