In Italy, as everywhere else, libraries are places to borrow and read books, as well as great spots to host presentations, workshops, exhibitions, public readings, story times, or to simply hang out and relax. The Italian term for library is biblioteca, from the Greek bibliothḗkē, which combines biblíon (book) and théke (treasure chest). It’s one of those cases in which the word’s etymology is self-explanatory. The Italian word libreria is, instead, a false friend for English speakers, since it actually means “bookstore.”
According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, Italy hosts 7,886 libraries. The number includes public libraries and private libraries that are open to the public, but excludes school and university libraries. According to Italian law, libraries offer an essential public service. There are two national libraries in Italy, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, which mainly serve as repositories, and then thousands of various sized libraries all over the territory; 58.3% of municipalities has at least one library, and there is one library for every 8,000 residents.
Remarkable, Not-to-Be-Missed Italian Libraries: An Endless List
If you’re an art lover with a thing for libraries, Italy has a lot to offer. While it is virtually impossible to draft a complete list of historical libraries—and we are not even going to try to rank them—here are some noteworthy libraries you do not want to miss: the Biblioteca apostolica vaticana (the Vatican Library), established in 1475, one of the oldest libraries in the world; the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense, in Milano, one of the largest of the country, located in the Palazzo di Brera (and once you’re there, the Brera Art Gallery is a must); the Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, the only perfectly preserved Medieval library; the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, located in Piazza San Marco (if you ever need an excuse to visit Venice); the Biblioteca Reale in Turin (just look up and you’ll be amazed by its vaults); the Biblioteca dei Girolamini in Naples, with its perfect balance between the opulence of its interiors, the peacefulness of its cloisters. and the sweetness of its view on the city.
Things You Can Do in Your Neighborhood Library
The libraries in the impossible list we just attempted are indisputably amazing, but also might be intimidating if you’re just looking for a chill place to spend an afternoon. Some equally historically places are not so overwhelming, like Salaborsa in Bologna. While located in a historical place—the old Stock Exchange, where you can even visit the remains of an ancient Roman city hidden underneath it—the library itself is a colorful, laid-back space where you can just be.
A special, way more-than-deserved mention goes then to the hundreds of often-underfunded small neighborhood libraries that go the extra mile to offer their invaluable service to their community and well beyond. The Biblioteca comunale IBBY, in the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, has an amazing history, for instance. Inaugurated in 2017 in a pretty anonymous concrete building—later embellished by a mural by famous Italian street artist Blu—and mostly managed by volunteers, it was meant to reach the 800 kids who reside on the island, but has also come to serve the many others who arrive there. Lampedusa is the southernmost point of Italy—it’s closer to Tunisia in Africa, than it is to Sicily—and since the early 2000s, it has become one of the main entry points for migrants coming from Libya and Tunisia. Over time, the library has acquired a big collection of “silent” books, fully enjoyable by kids who do not speak Italian, thus fully accomplishing its mission of “essential public service,” as well as revitalizing the local community. On a smaller scale, this service is also offered every day by hundreds of libraries throughout the country, so viva le biblioteche!
By Claudia Quesito