A correction to an earlier version of this article has been appended to the end of the article.
Whatever ideas anyone may have had about the internet making libraries passé were erased as the 21st century got under way. Today’s libraries are still places to read, study and borrow the latest best-sellers, of course. But many Bay Area cities, towns and organizations have turned their libraries into architectural showplaces and thriving cultural and community centers. Here are 10 of the region’s most beautiful libraries and reading spots.
Rinconada Library, Palo Alto
At first glance, you might mistake this building for another low-slung suburban library. But look more closely, and you’ll see an interesting terra cotta screen wall. Then step inside — it’s a midcentury marvel.
This 1958 stunner by noted modern architect Edward Durell Stone was renovated in 2018 by Group 4 Architecture, which wisely retained the metal spoke chandeliers that resemble a model of the solar system; the massive freestanding brick fireplace (with analog clocks); and Stone’s circle-and-grid motif, versions of which can also be seen in his work at the Stanford Medical Center and other iconic projects around the world. New are the Eames-style chairs, another nod to the period.
Just how cool is this architecture? Branch manager Alex Perez and his wife knew little about midcentury modern until he took the job here. Now they are such fans that they regularly head to Palm Springs to check out the modernism decor and culture there.
One more vintage touch to appreciate while visiting this library: There’s a working pay phone outside the entrance. A call costs 50 cents these days.
What to read: Check out the library’s international collection, with books, movies and children’s books in Hindi, Chinese and Spanish, plus wide offerings in Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Russian, German and more.
Details: Open Wednesday-Saturday at 1213 Newell Road, Palo Alto; www.library.cityofpaloalto.org/locations/R/.
Mechanics Institute, San Francisco
Nestled quietly amid the towering office buildings and glitzy designer boutiques of downtown San Francisco, the Mechanics Institute library continues its cerebral tradition of promoting culture and intellectual growth.
Tucked inside a nine-story building on Post Street, the institute is a private membership library, one of many formed before the advent of public libraries in the 19th century to satisfy an increasingly literate population’s hunger for reading and learning. San Francisco’s institute opened in 1854 to cater to the city’s booming Gold Rush labor force. After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed its original quarters, the institute moved to its current Beaux-Arts building, designed by architect Albert Pissis, in 1910.
The library includes two stately reading rooms, where members, who pay a relatively egalitarian $120 a year, can plant themselves in one of the comfortable leather chairs to read, write or reflect.
It’s especially easy to lose hours browsing through the five floors of bookstacks, filled with 160,000 books and connected by narrow staircases that almost feel like secret passages. The institute hosts literary events and classes, as well as the oldest continuously operating chess club in the country.
What to read: The library houses thousands of books, maps, photographs and journal entries on the history of California, including the 1906 earthquake.
Details: Open weekday afternoons at 57 Post St.; www.milibrary.org.
Walnut Creek Library
Before opening in 2010, this library system was at the center of a fierce local debate about whether libraries were needed in the age of Google and Amazon. But city and library leaders pushed forward, tearing down its cramped 1961 predecessor and replacing it with a 43,000-square-foot building designed by Group 4 Architecture that could fulfill a more modern role as community hub.
The building includes a cafe, meeting rooms, cutting-edge technology and expansive reading areas for kids and teens. But its most striking aspect is its art. A portion of the library’s construction funds were earmarked to buy or commission artwork, primarily from Bay Area artists.
Arrive at the main entrance, and you’ll be greeted by “Shhh…,” Christian Moeller’s 26-foot-tall portrait of a librarian holding a finger to her lips. There’s a floating sculpture of colorful glass bottles riding a metal tidal wave. Skateboards-as-art adorn the teen area, while playful sculptures of bees, dragonflies and flowers dance across the children’s area.
What to read: Go old school and pore through one of the actual, physical newspapers or magazines in the periodical section on the second floor, where cozy chairs face a fireplace or look out onto the park.
Details: Open Monday through Saturday at 1644 N. Broadway; https://ccclib.org/locations/26/
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, San Jose
This sleek, eight-story public and university library may reign as the largest library west of the Mississippi to have been constructed as a single project. What’s really impressive, however, are the special collections. And many Bay Area residents have no idea what’s housed here:
— The largest collection of Beethoven works and memorabilia outside Europe. The rotating displays at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies feature original manuscripts, early musical scores, the last quill pen Beethoven used and locks of the composer’s hair. Listen to live clavichord, harpsichord and fortepiano demos on Wednesdays.
— The world’s biggest publicly accessible John Steinbeck archive, with more than 40,000 items. Scholars and fans can view first editions, original letters, photos, screenplays, movie posters and more at the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.
— The California History Room, with tens of thousands of documents, maps and factoids available in the physical and digital collections. It’s an array that includes not just city directories and newspaper clippings but also yearbooks, postcards, Silicon Valley company archives and ever-increasing archives that tell the story of the state’s Spanish and Mexican heritage.
Where to read: The amazing views from Floors 6, 7 and 8 are currently limited to students, faculty and staff. But library officials are currently in discussions over future access to those floors, a university spokeswoman said. So stay tuned and, in the meantime, check out the panorama view you get from the 5th floor of the East San Jose foothills, South San Jose and the ever-changing downtown.
Details: Hours vary for special collections. The library is open Monday-Saturday at 150 E. San Fernando St.; www.sjpl.org/king.
Burlingame Main Library
This library is no stranger to compliments. The current Italian Renaissance-style library building, designed by architect Col. E.L. Norberg, opened in 1931 to great praise, with one local newspaper calling it “one of the most beautiful buildings on the entire Peninsula.” Decades later, the periodical American Libraries dubbed it “the jewel of Burlingame.”
Not surprisingly, civic pride is on prominent display here, with extensive collections on local history, from a bust of Anson Burlingame to early maps of Burlingame and Hillsborough.
The Italian Renaissance exterior gives way to a three-story interior furnished with pieces from the Arts and Crafts Movement — period-style lamps, carpet that evokes William Morris designs and signage that hints at Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Lovely touches abound. Vintage wooden card catalogs provide recognition for library donors. And a massive, unabridged Webster’s sits on display, its pages just waiting for the next wordsmith to wander by.
What to read: In 1958, in response to the controversy over Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Burlingame City Librarian George P. Lechich said: “People should be allowed to read what they want.” Not a Nabokov fan? The library is known for its sizable collections of poetry, large-print books and out-of-print mysteries.
Details: Open Monday-Saturday at 480 Primrose Road; www.burlingame.org/library.
San Francisco Library, Presidio Branch
When counterculture author Richard Brautigan used this small, but stately Andrew Carnegie-funded building as inspiration for his novel, “The Abortion: An Historical Romance,” he imagined patrons weren’t just stopping by to borrow books. Brautigan described the 1901 Italian-Renaissance-style building standing in a large lot, sloping down from Clay to Sacramento streets, as overgrown “with tall grass and bushes and flowers and wine bottles and lovers’ trysts.”
These days, there are no wine bottles or lovers’ trysts in sight, probably because the library’s well-heeled Pacific Heights neighbors wouldn’t approve. The tall grass has been replaced by a manicured lawn and carefully tended gardens, but Brautigan’s description nailed the “ancient electric lamps, friends of Thomas Edison, mounted on tall asparagus stalks.”
Today the library, designed by Bay Area architect G. Albert Lansburgh, stands as a beautifully restored example of the 2,400-plus libraries built around the world during Carnegie’s library philanthropy effort in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Presidio branch, with its tall, arched windows, high ornamental ceilings and book collections, is one of the few Carnegie buildings to retain its library function, thanks to a $4.1 million renovation project completed in 2011.
What to read: Catch up on Brautigan memorabilia in the basement.
Details: Open Tuesday through Saturday at 3150 Sacramento St.; https://sfpl.org/locations/presidio.
African American Museum and Library, Oakland
A $50,000 Carnegie grant gave Oakland its first main library in 1902 at the corner of 14th Street and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The Carnegie building was deemed outdated a few decades later, and Oakland replaced it with a new main library in the early 1950s. But by 2002, the old library had gained a vital new purpose as the city’s African American Museum and Library.
The expansive second floor, with its tall windows and elaborately decorated ceilings, houses the museum’s displays of photos, documents and oral histories sharing nearly a century of local history. The first floor library holds a unique collection of nonfiction that focuses solely on American and world history, culture and the arts, written by or about the perspectives of Black people.
What to read: Books can’t be checked out, but visitors can browse through the beautiful shelves and find a large selection of books on jazz, dance, film and legendary performers such as Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters. The history section is filled with books on Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther Party and more.
Details: Open Monday-Saturday at 659 14th St.; https://oaklandlibrary.bibliocms.com.
Mill Valley Library
As you enter Mill Valley’s library, it’s easy to imagine these book-filled rooms being overtaken by an enchanted forest. The building stands in a large grove of towering redwoods in Old Mill Park.
Built in 1966 by the San Francisco firm Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons, the building itself has an even more Old-World feel, with a fireplace in the main room that could belong in a medieval castle. A more recent addition extends the building further into the redwood grove, creating picturesque fiction and children’s reading rooms that feel like you are floating above the trees.
Bolinas master woodworker Arthur Espenet Carpenter created more than 100 bespoke pieces for the library, including bookcases, reading tables and lounge chairs. His son added more original pieces, including a love seat, for a 2009 remodel.
Where or what to read: The Lucretia Little History Room offers an extensive collection of photographs, personal papers and city records that document Mill Valley’s history, including the Mill Valley Film Festival and Dipsea Race. Need book ideas? The librarians post their staff picks online.
Details: The building is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 375 Throckmorton Ave; www.millvalleylibrary.org.
Exquisite campus reading rooms at UC Berkeley and Mills College
While serious scholarship is supposed to take place in university libraries, these colleges also have created beautiful, relaxing spaces for students, faculty and the public to relax and enjoy a respite from the rigors of academia or daily life.
Visitors are expected to leave their laptops at home before entering Cal’s Morrison Library, which is inside the campus’ main Doe Library. The Morrison space features vaulted ceilings, long wooden reading tables, softly glowing lamps and overstuffed chairs and sofas. You can check out popular new books or enjoy copies of hard-to-find poetry books and literary journals. One modern device is allowed — headphones — in case visitors want to listen to one of the LPs from the library’s extensive collection.
At the Heller Rare Book Room at Mills College’s F. W. Olin Library, serious scholarship still takes place. But non-academic book lovers also can visit this intimate, light-filled space and get a look at any of the thousands of historical volumes, manuscripts and photos in Mills’ collection. Among them: a 1481 Florentine edition of Dante’s “La divina commedia” and volumes produced by faculty and students in Mills’ Book Arts program.
What to read: At the Morrison Library, curl up with McSweeney’s quarterly, the beautifully designed journal of fiction, essays and comics produced by the San Francisco publisher. At Mills, you can view a leaf of a bible that was probably printed by Gutenberg, a 1906 edition of “Peter Pan” or a visually stunning 1923 book of Russian poetry.
CORRECTION: November 22, 2021 This “10 beautiful Bay Area libraries” article that was published in the Nov. 14 Bookish magazine incorrectly reported that members of the public could enjoy the view from the Martin Luther King Jr. Library’s eighth floor. The sixth, seventh and eighth floors of the joint San Jose State/City of San Jose library are currently limited to students, faculty and staff. However, university officials are in discussions about future access to those floors, an SJSU spokeswoman said.