The Most Beautiful Library in the World?

The Austrian National Library

The Austrian National Library

Entering The Austrian National Library

 Millions & Millions

With over 7.4 million items in its collections, the Austrian National Library (German: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), is the largest library in Austria. It may also just be the most beautiful library in the world. Of course that’s all very subjective, but I think you’ll agree after seeing these photographs that this is one incredibly stunning place.

The Austrian National Library’s collections include everything from ancient texts written on papyrus, maps, paintings, manuscripts, ancient and rare books, photographs (yay!) and even works in Esperanto.  The library resides inside the Hofburg Palace which was home to the Habsburg dynasty that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire. Actually it was their winter home. the Schönbrunn Palace was where they spent their summers, and I can tell you that the Schönbrunn is not to shabby a place either. I’ll have Schönbrunn photos to share in an upcoming blog post.

Hofburg Palace Library

Not your typical public library

 Inside the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Hope you have some time to spend at the library, you’ll need it in order to see the following:

  • Department of Broadsheets, Posters and Ex Libris: 330,000 objects (broadsheets, posters and Ex Libris)
  • Austrian Literary Archives
  • Department of Manuscripts, Autographs and Closed Collections: From the 4th century to the present day: late antique, medieval and modern manuscripts from almost every literate culture.
  • Department of Music: Austria’s music archives, and great collection of autographs, it is also one of the largest libraries in the world.
  • Picture Archive <—woohoo! ;)
  • Department of Incunabula, Old and Precious Books:
    • incunabula (books printed before 1500),
    • printed works from the period 1501-1850 and
    • printed bibliophile rarissima of no specific period.
  • State Hall
  • Austrian National Library Museums
  • Globe Museum: 380 globes and scientific instruments including terrestrial and celestial globes made before 1850
  • Archives of the Austrian Folk Song Institute
  • Papyrus Museum:
    • Papyri 137,864
    • Archaeological documents (without papyri) 50,769
    • Museum objects 5
    • Books and serials 14,049
    • Microforms 555
    • Picture documents 16,944
    • Audiovisual materials 2,292
  • Department of Planned Languages and Esperanto Museum
(source: Wikipedia)


Bookshelves at the Austrian National Library

The book I want is on the top shelf… Murphy’s Law!

 A City fit for a King… Or Emperor

Vienna is a majestic city, pun intended. There are so many incredible palaces and other buildings that were built during the Habsburg dynasty, that it was literally impossible for me to begin to cover the ground that I wanted to during my short visit. Take the Hofburg Palace for example, I got lost three times while looking for the Austrian National Library and I was already inside the palace!

From the outside, the Hofburg is not easy to photograph, it’s just too huge and lies in the middle of the city, surrounded on some sides by parking lots and in other places is obstructed by other buildings. If only I had a helicopter, all my troubles would be over. Well okay, not ALL my problems, but it would be a good start. So if anyone has a spare helicopter lying around that they don’t use any more, I’ll take it off your hands.

Art exhibit at the Nationalbibliothek

Art exhibit at the Nationalbibliothek

 Should I stay or should I go?

While I thought that I had gone through the right channels to get the permission to photograph inside the  Austrian National Library, I was to find out quite the contrary upon my arrival. I had a permission letter from the Austrian National Tourism Board and a letter from the Vienna Tourism Board to show to anyone in authority should there be any issues at any of the locations I was going to photograph. The person I was dealing with at the Vienna TB had also called ahead to advise the powers that be, that I’d be there to take photos. Everything seemed to be in order.

After finally finding the right place, I was eager to get to the library and start taking my photos, yet that would not happen any time soon. I asked in at least five places who I was supposed to talk with to get access and I was always sent to some other department. I take some of the blame on this since I do not speak German and it really is not the responsibility of anyone in Austria to speak either English or French so that I can be understood. Finally I was told to wait and that some one would meet me shortly…………………………

Shortly turned into almost an hour and finally just as I was about to give up and leave, I was met by 2 very nice administration people who ended up asking a million questions, making me sign forms, fingerprinted me, took a blood sample, retinal scan, take a full body x-ray and swear to god, hope to die & stick a needle in my eye if I ever use the photos for anything other than editorial use. Okay, I may have exaggerated a tad, but sheeesh! People, people, people… These are nice photos of a beautiful place, it’s not like I’m gonna use them to invade some country for it’s oil reserves. I’m Canadian! ;)

I truly find it baffling why it is such a big deal to take nice photos of a place where hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year, and take marginal photos with their cameras that they don’t know how to use. This is ok, yet taking the time to do some good photography that makes a place look attractive to potential visitors is frowned upon. Sigh. What is most frustrating for me is that I could be out getting some other photos taken rather than sitting waiting for some official to come and meet me AFTER I had already made arrangements.


Statue of Emperor Charles VI. - Prunksaal

Statue of Emperor Charles VI.

 Enough of the bitching, this place is spectacular!

I could have spent a whole day getting detail shots as well as the wide angle views I’m sharing here. Sadly, time is always an issue for these types of shots, and I just consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to get as many photos as I did. Lucky again to find that there were not a whole lot of visitors in the library while I was attempting my photos. This made it a lot easier in the post production process s there were just the odd one or two people I had to erase from the photos.

Fresco Central Dome Vienna-Austrian-National-Library

Much like my living room… The fresco in the central dome

The Devil is in the Details

Everywhere I looked there was a new opportunity for another interesting photo and looking up at the ceiling under the central dome was mesmerizing to say the least. The details are just incredible and it is easy to get lost as your eye jumps from one part of the fresco to the next. Thanks to a good resolution file from my camera I’m able to get close enough to really see all those details up close. It’s impossible to see such detail with the naked eye, but it is quite the experience to just stand there, neck craning up towards the heavens in absolute awe of the beauty that lies right there in front of you. Bravo to the brilliant artist Daniel Gran!

Fresco Central Dome Vienna-Austrian-National-Library

Detail of the fresco in the central dome

There’s time enough, but none to spare!

I knew that I would not be able to take all the photos I wanted, so I got what I thought were the most important images and thanked my guide from the administration who was very nice to me by allowing me to spend quite some time doing my thing. I’m so glad that I stuck around long enough to finally be met by the administration people. I was so close to leaving and missing this wonderful opportunity to photograph one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Timing is everything, or at least it sure is something!

Bookcase at Austrian-National-Library

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” ~Ernest Hemingway

Thanks to AirBnB for hosting me in Vienna. I stayed at a great apartment with delightful hosts who were very helpful. I was centrally located and 2 blocks away from a tram station, from where it took 10 minutes to get into the historic centre of the city. Great big room, friendly hosts, safe location and priced to fit a tight budget, it was an ideal place for me to stay.

Check out the AirBnB website to see what you’re missing, you’ll be glad you did.

Comments (47)

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  1. says

    Goodness these are amazing photos! I never think to visit libraries when traveling even though the Library of Congress in DC is one of the prettiest libraries I’ve ever seen. I also really like the main library in San Francisco and NYC. I’ll have to remember to frequent libraries more often.

  2. says

    I want to live here! Amazing photos, thanks for hanging out for 2 hours and going through a crazy process so that you could take these and share them.

  3. says

    Breathtaking. Have you ever been to the baroque cathedral in Einsiedeln, Switzerland? This made me think of it…I was blessed to be able to visit it in May of 1990. Thank you for sharing your beautiful work and the stories to go along.

  4. says

    WOW! Another place added to my ‘must visit’ list! It’s a shame they were so awkward with regards to allowing you to take photos, but it was def. worth it!

  5. says

    That is one gorgeous library. If my husband complains when we’re unpacking my books I think I’ll show him these pictures lol. And now we have one more place to check out in our travels.

  6. Beth Knoche says

    Truly Awesome, and, being a bookwench, this is where I want my ashes scattered.
    But Vienna itself is one of the most magnificent cities in the World

  7. art lover says

    I have a stomach ache. Stop making me want to go everywhere that you post on your blog. Incredible —your pictures———as well as the subject.

  8. wordnrrrd says

    Wonderful photos! I venture a guess that this is also the best-smelling library in the world, what with all of those old books, dark wood and leather. Divine!

  9. says

    oh wow those photos are amazing! I have never seen anything like it – your camera captures the images so well. Actually I have seen images as well as yours…what camera do you use? How long have you taken photos for?

    Thanks for sharing, and thank you for sitting there for that hour before you were able to be approved to take the photos of the most beautiful library in the world.


  10. says

    Wow! Terrific story about how you got permission to make these beautiful images.
    My parents were born in Vienna and escaped in 1938. I have been there once, but never inside this library. It’s on my list for next time. I was too busy eating apfelstrudel last time!

  11. says

    It’s been soooo nice to read all the wonderful comments here about the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek! I’m on the road right now with little time to get online so m apoplgies for not replying sooner. Mexico was beautiful as always and I’m in New York City again and loving every second of it.

    Thank you all so much for taking the time to share such nice comments!

  12. says

    Ken, your post has just made my heart beat a little faster. I have a thing for libraries and am going to be in Austria next year as part of a nine month European adventure. The Austrian National Library is now on the list! Thanks so much for sharing. Nic

  13. says

    This is one of my favorite places in Vienna! I laughed a lot while reading your post. Your experience with Austrian bureaucracy is oh so familiar. :)

  14. says

    Now you made me realize that we really missed out of something when we were in Vienna! What a fantastic inside, those details are so incredible. One could be there for a whole day or more, I’m sure! But what a fuss to get to take the photos, that seem a bit ridiculous actually. I also found it hard to take photos of Hofsburg palace, too big. And I got forbidden to take any at the performance of the riding school. They supervised me very heavily unfortunately…

  15. Jose Silveira says

    National Geographic’s 1923 issue has a photo of this magnificent library. Thank you for providing such lovely photos of what it looks like today. Never knew it was still in existence.

  16. says

    Well some tourists take really good photos. Mine are average to good but several of my children are excellent photographers. We did visit the National Library last December and I took a few photos, one not too bad I think. As a retired history professor, I am very much at home in archives and love the scent of old books and paper. Will be putting up my post on Vienna soon, and you can check my take on a beautiful place.

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