Northern California Libraries to Get Lost in

The Last Bookstore
The Last Bookstore
Gwen Purdom

A good book can transport its reader to a particular moment in time, inside the mind of a compelling character, or to the farthest corners of this planet or another. A good library can offer those same rich destinations hundreds or thousands of times over. From hulking campus buildings to intimate volunteer-run archives, here are NorCal libraries worth getting lost in.

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Cecil H. Green Library


Stanford University’s main library is home to nearly three million volumes. Named for Texas Instruments founder and philanthropist Cecil Howard Green, the historic Beaux Arts facade of the structure dates back to 1919, when it replaced the previous university library destroyed by the 1906 earthquake (a major structural overhaul was needed in the 1990s, too). The social sciences and humanities collection is housed in the building, and while serving students and faculty is its primary purpose, members of the public can enjoy the Green’s shelf-lined aisles and public art as well, after obtaining a pass from the building’s information desk.

Burlingame Public Library

After the original library was destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the city commissioned a new library in its place. The new library’s architecture boasts multiple awards and was featured on the cover of American Libraries. The whole place possesses a sophisticated yet relaxed vibe, perfect for diving into a good story. There are big windows and a lofted ceiling, and the building retained its historic Mediterranean-style charm even after reconstruction. In 2008, two lion statues were placed at the library’s front entrance, flanking the door. The “Literary Lions” were a gift to celebrate the building’s centennial year in 2009. If architecture is not your thing, the library offers several classes, seminars and talks on various subjects relating to literature and art.

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco library

Open to the public daily, the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch is consistently filled with tourists and locals looking for shelter from the chill in the air, but it’s an ideal place for bookworms to duck into as well. The Main Library serves as the primary resource center for the entirety of the SFPL system, hosting a variety of collections like the San Francisco History Center, the African American Center, the Chinese Center, the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, the Steve Silver Beach Blanket Babylon Music Center, the Wallace E. Stegner Environmental Center, and the Marjorie G. & Carl W. Stern Book Arts & Special Collections Center. Look for the dramatic Beaux Arts granite Sierra White granite facade and on Grove and Hyde streets, a more contemporary look. With seven floors and 376,000 square feet of space, the building likely requires a map, and lucky for visitors there are tours held the first Tuesday of every month.

Doe Library

With soaring ceilings and plenty of natural light, the University of California at Berkeley’s main library is a striking place to study. It’s not a bad spot for plain old exploring, either. Students and visitors will find workshops, lectures, exhibitions, and several smaller library collections within its walls. The Heyns and North reading rooms are lined with long tables and seating for up to 400 in a peaceful, historic setting. The hulking structure, named for its benefactor Charles Franklin Doe, opened in 1911 with an initial selection of more than 160,000 volumes. The building’s neoclassical style was the design of campus architectural contest winner Emile Bénard. Today, the pillared library, home to the university’s Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, and International and Area Studies resources, is linked to the Moffitt Library with the underground Gardner Stacks.

Mill Valley Public Library

About 15 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, Mill Valley is a cozy community of about 15,000. Its inviting, light-flooded public library was built in 1966 and houses more than 115,000 items, plus hand-crafted furniture by Art and Tripp Carpenter and several pieces of art, including oil paintings by Ray Strong and Ludmilla Welch. Beneath its peaked ceiling, the library hosts regular community events, film screenings, lectures, and classes alongside its comfy fireplace and towering windows. Outside, a deck overlooks a thicket of redwood trees and a babbling creek. Inside, its monthly gallery program showcases established and emerging local artists. It’s also the site of Mill Valley’s Lucretia Little History Room, a space that stores and displays historical documents, photos, and other materials.

Prelinger Library

If you find yourself in SoMa, be sure to check out Prelinger Library, open to anyone looking for ‘research, reading, inspiration, and reuse.’ An independent research center founded in 2004 by Rick and Megan Prelinger, the library prides itself on housing a community of artists, writers, activists, and other creatives, and it shows. The space is crowded with donated maps, books, and historical ephemera that would be hard to find elsewhere. The atmosphere is just as funky. Colorful walls and neon signs make for a different take on the traditional library (the sometimes wacky hours add to that uniqueness, be sure to check the website before visiting). Prelinger hosts a collection of print memorabilia from the the 1800s and 1900s, primarily consisting of works published in the United States, giving visitors a taste of the corners of American culture at those times that didn’t stick to the mainstream.

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