For book lovers around the world, secret libraries hold the promise of mysteries and hidden knowledge. So where can you actually find them?
The destruction of the ancient library of Alexandria still prompts a sob from book lovers today. Losing so much knowledge and wisdom certainly pains scholars. But books aren’t just important to academics.
We’ve all curled up in our favorite chair, a mug of hot tea or coffee to hand, happy to while away the hours with adventurers that become friends across the course of a book.
But there’s something magical about the quiet reverence of libraries, the hush broken only by rustling pages, or the scratching of pens.
My books feature plenty of hidden archives and secret libraries, holding many riddles among their shelves. And while ARKANE agent Martin Klein works to digitize historical and religious archives in my thrillers, there’s still something special about physical libraries, especially secret ones.
So here are 9 secret libraries–and how to find them!
1) Vatican Secret Archives, Vatican City, Italy
No list of secret libraries would be complete without an entry on the Vatican. Brought to the public’s attention by Dan Brown’s thriller Angels and Demons, the archives opened to selected groups in 2010. Previously, only approved academics could gain access.
You can find the archives in a wing of the Vatican behind St Peter’s Basilica. There are more than 52 miles of shelving below ground, and the oldest document dates to the 8th century.
The archives also hold letters about King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon, trial records for the Knights Templar in the early 14th century, and correspondence between the Vatican and figures like Michelangelo and even Hitler. The archives also feature in my ARKANE thriller, Destroyer of Worlds.
The Vatican like to claim the archives are private, rather than secret. But there is still a section inaccessible to academics. What hidden treasures might lie within?
2) Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
The Bodleian isn’t so much a secret library as one that might be overlooked on a trip to Oxford where there are so many beautiful buildings to explore. But it’s well worth the visit.
The Bodleian is older than the British Library and dates back to the days of Elizabethan magician John Dee, opening in 1602.
These days, it’s not just one library – it’s a collection of several, covering history, medicine, the law, and music, among other subjects. You can visit and tour some of the public rooms, but mostly, you need to apply for access.
Non-students can apply for a Reader card if you have a research need that the library can meet. Find out how to get access here. Just don’t expect to get in if you only want somewhere quiet to work.
When I was a student at Oxford, I used to work in the Radcliffe Camera, the domed theology library.
The Bodleian is also the starting place for Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, which I really enjoyed.
3) John Hay Library, Rhode Island, USA
Books bound in human skin are rare. But the John Hay Library holds three of them. One is De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius, one of the most famous textbooks on anatomy.
The book was one of the inspirations for my crime thriller, Desecration.
The John Hay Library also has two copies of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death, rebound in human skin in 1898.
If that’s not occult enough for your tastes, then they also hold papers by H. P. Lovecraft, papyri from ancient Egyptian, clay tablets from Babylon, and Napoleon’s death mask. What other ritualistic books might hide on their shelves?
4) The London Library
This private London Library is a secret if you’re not a Member but once you have paid your dues, you have access to the extensive stacks as well as a gorgeous workspace in central London.
Famous members include Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and Agatha Christie, as well as contemporary authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Stephen Fry.
I wrote my second and third novels in one of its many writing nooks.
5) Little Free Library, worldwide
These secret libraries have more than one branch. Run as a non-profit organization, Little Free Library works using principles of community and creativity. Volunteers, known as stewards, build their own Little Free Library they host in their own community.
The concept is simple. Readers may take books to read or leave books behind for others. People can donate books by leaving them in their nearest Little Free Library. It’s a great way for people to share their favorite books with their local community.
Stewards can get access to free and discounted books through the partners of the main organization. Their goal is to increase access to books for all readers but mainly those in their local area. In November 2016, there were over 50,000 registered Little Free Library exchanges around the world.
6) Szabo Ervin Library, Hungary
Budapest is a fascinating city to visit, and it certainly captured my imagination when I wrote One Day in Budapest. But as well as holding the Holy Right Hand, the city is also home to the Szabo Ervin Library, king of the secret libraries.
You won’t find it in many guidebooks, which is a shame because it’s worth seeing. It was originally a palace built in the 19th century, and the library hides within the modern library surrounding it.
The rooms of the beautiful Wenckheim Palace became reading rooms for the new Central Library in 1931. The old Smoking Room is a must-see space, with its gallery and spiral staircase.
7) Book Club of California, San Francisco
A poet, a book collector, a bookstore owner, and a printer founded this safe house of print in 1912. The Club originally only promoted writing from California, but it now covers the West as a whole.
The Club has published over 200 books, and like all the best secret libraries, their clubhouse also holds its own collections of rare books.
Best of all, it’s open to the public during the day. So if you’re a person who still distrusts the Kindle, you’ll be right at home at the Book Club.
8) The Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle, UK
The largest independent library outside of London is affectionately known as the Lit and Phil. A stone’s throw from Newcastle upon Tyne’s Central Station, this gorgeous Georgian-styled building first opened in 1825. It now holds over 160,000 titles and its mission remains the same — to educate the people of the city.
Academics discovered a mistranslation of an Egyptian mummy’s name thanks to forgotten documents hidden on the Lit and Phil’s shelves. You can see Bakt-en-Hor in all her glory at the nearby Great Museum North.
It also provides meeting spaces and hosts regular talks and performances to help raise funds for the library. Members can even borrow books by post!
9) Library of the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, Lima, Peru
The convent’s library has over 25,000 antique texts, some from the Spanish conquest. It includes the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy and a Holy Bible from 1571 printed in Antwerp.
The basilica also has one of the largest catacombs outside Europe with thousands of bones and (possibly) secret tunnels used by the Inquisition. I couldn’t resist writing about the place in Valley of Dry Bones, which follows the path of the Spain Empire across the world in a hunt for ancient relics.
This list just scratches the surface of the world of secret libraries. So next time you visit a new city, see if you can find a hidden treasure trove tucked away.