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The interior of a library in San Francisco. There is a high ceiling with an inlaid design. There are tall windows. There are many rows of desks with reading lamps. Shutterstock

The most beautiful Bay Area libraries

Take a closer look at these bibliophilic beauties

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Bay Area libraries are more than the books they hold. They are central meeting places with architecture that reflects the history and culture of their respective neighborhoods.

In the past few decades, cities like San Francisco have given their libraries extensive makeovers under the Branch Library Improvement Program that have brought the city’s bibliothecas up to date, while at the same time preserving their detailed exteriors and interiors.

Here are 20 of our favorite libraries around the Bay Area.

Want to see some literary stunners outside the Bay Area? Check out Curbed’s 20 most beautiful libraries in the United States, featuring the Geisel Library at University of California San Diego and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Central Santa Rosa Library

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Starting out as a private library, this building has been a vital part of the community since 1859. It was the fourteenth public library built within California, and was funded by the Carnegie Foundation in 1904. The building was torn down in the 1960s to have a newer version created by architect Francis Joseph McCarthy. Architectural highlights include stained glass clerestory windows, stone garden walls, and redwood fences.

Petaluma Historical Library and Museum

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A relic of the city’s past, this Classical Revival building served as the first public library, which opened its doors to the public in 1906. The historic building is one of the few Carnegie libraries still standing in Sonoma County, and currently houses a museum as well as a research library that are both open to the public.

Within the research library, guests can find blueprints of historic homes by prominent local architect Brainerd Jones, who was responsible for designing the original building.

The exterior of the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. The facade is white with columns. Photo by Scott Hess

Mill Valley Public Library

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Nestled in a grove of redwoods, this Marin County library is one of the most scenic in the bay. The current library opened in 1966 and was build by Donn Emmons who took extra care to create a space that complemented the natural settings, along with the help of renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The library has features that make you feel right at home, including an outdoor patio, a wood-burning fireplace, and scenic views of the creek just beyond the building’s perimeters.

Walnut Creek Library-Contra Costa County Library

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Opened in 2010, this spacious suburban library gives off a contemporary feel with its hanging sculptures and tall, wooden ceilings. Replacing an older version of itself, the library features an array of green design strategies including using recycled materials, daylight harvesting, and an advanced mechanical system. An underground parking structure provides a better environmental solution than paving the gravel for above ground parking.

The interior of the Walnut Creek Library Contra Costa County Library in California. There are multiple colorful curved structures going up to the ceiling. Photo by rocor

C. V. Starr East Asian Library: UC Berkeley

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This impressive structure, built in 2008, houses one of the country’s most comprehensive collections of East Asian language materials after the Library of Congress. Located in the heart of UC Berkeley’s campus, it features an overlook with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding Bay Area on a clear day. The exterior features a large sand-cast bronze screen common in Asian architecture that allows light to filter into the interior in intricate patterns.

Morrison Library: UC Berkeley

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The smaller library near the main entrance of the Doe Library, the circa-1928 Morrison Library was made for leisurely reading. Highlights here include the Instagram-ready ceiling and an abundance of comfy sofas and chairs.

Doe Memorial Library: UC Berkeley

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As the main library on UC Berkeley’s campus, the distinct neoclassical-style was built in 1911 and designed by John Galen Howard. It contains both undergraduate and main stacks collections. The Gardner Collection (main stacks) is located underground and houses 52 miles of shelves, and four giant skylights that allow for natural light to flood the space.

The public is welcome to tour the library, except for the main stacks area. Alas.

Chinatown/Him Mark Lai Branch Library

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Originally called the North Beach Library, this Carnegie-funded structure was the third library in the city’s system. Built in the Italian Renaissance style by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, its name was changed in 1958 to better reflect the community it served.

Although the name was changed during the renovation in 2010, you can still see the words “San Francisco Public Library Chinatown Branch” etched into the front.

The exterior of the Chinatown Him Mark Lai Branch Library in San Francisco. The facade is brown brick with multiple staircases running along the front of the building. Photo by Patricia Chang

Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room

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Opening its doors in 1854, the Mechanic’s Institute originally was created as an educational space for mechanics. Currently this landmark building in the Financial District serves a diverse community with resources ranging from fine arts to business. The Beaux-Arts building that the library is housed in features a steel-frame designed by Albert Pissis, of James Flood Building fame. The Mechanics’ Institute is also home to the oldest continuously running chess club in the country and welcomes players of all levels.

Presidio Branch Library

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Located in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, this library is known for its stunning Italian Renaissance-style structure that was carefully preserved in its extensive 2011 renovation. Nearly a century old, the building was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, and funded by Carnegie money. This library makes a memorable first impression with its stone entryway featuring towering columns and a brick exterior, surrounded by a picturesque gently sloping lawn.

The exterior of the Presidio Branch Library. The facade is red brick with white columns flanking the entrance. Photo by Eric E Castro

Richmond/Senator Milton Marks Branch Library

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As the fourth public library in San Francisco, this building has seen the city through various guises. This library was the first one in the city to be built with Carnegie funds in 1914, and was constructed in the Classical Revival architectural style using sandstone and concrete. The outside is adorned with palm trees and sits on a raised mound that elevates the building and gives the illusion that it is taller than it really is.   

The exterior of the Richmond Senator Milton Marks Branch Library. The facade is tan and there are palm trees and a green lawn in front of the building. Photo by Eric E Castro

F. W. Olin Library

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With floor-to-ceiling windows that allow natural light, the student library at Mills College is an ideal place to hunker down and study. The interior was designed intentionally by architect Peter H. Dodge to have a non-institutional feeling with scenic outdoor views that include a nearby creek.

San Francisco Main Library

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Replacing the old main library that was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, this impressive reincarnation opened in April 1996, more than double the size of its predecessor. Its Beaux-Arts style complements the Civic Center buildings around it, and uses the same Sierra White granite that is featured on nearby structures. The interior contains a five-story central atrium that floods the space with natural light and should be viewed from the ground floor to get the full mesmerizing effect.

The ceiling of the San Francisco Main Library. The five levels of the library are all circular in structure and there is a skylight that is letting in natural light. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Sunset Branch Library

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As the third busiest library in the city, this two-story Italianate-style building has gone undergone two renovations since it opened in 1918. Built on the site of an old barn that was considered a neighborhood nuisance, the current structure is a local treasure, with its intricate stone carvings and large columns that grace the entryway. The most recent renovation included preserving the terra cotta facade.

Mission Branch Library

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This historical Carnegie library was the very first one to be built within San Francisco, and was originally housed in a nearby storefront before making its way to the current location. With its high concrete ceilings and distinct rectangular shape, this classic Italian Renaissance building is known for its large Spanish language collection, including literature focusing on Latin American culture and history.

Burlingame Main Library

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Known for its Italian Renaissance architecture, conceived by local architect Col. E. L. Norberg, this library has been nicknamed “the Jewel of Burlingame” by the American Library Journal. It received extensive remodeling in 2004 that allowed it to be updated for the 21st century, while still maintaining its 1920s color and flair. The original library opened it doors in 1909 and was moved twice before coming to its current location.

Rinconada Library

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This 1958 library in Silicon Valley is a treat for anyone who loves modernist architecture. “It’s a beautifully detailed and preserved midcentury modern gem,” says Curbed SF reader keenplanner. Designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone, this page-turner was carefully renovated recently by designers and architects from Group 4, who preserved Stone’s vision while bringing other aspects up to date.

Don’t miss the crimson-colored breeze blocks gracing the exterior of the building.

Cecil H. Green Library

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Known simply as the Green Library, this historical building is part of the Stanford University Library system. There are over four million books on the shelves, mostly of them relating to social sciences and humanity subjects. The former library was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, but was rebuilt in a Beaux-Arts style, using a steel frame, as well as reinforced concrete and hollow clay-tile walls.

The most recent remodel of the library was completed in 1999 with the addition of the Bing Wing.

The interior of the Cecil H. Green Library. There is a large staircase. The ceiling is high and there are columns along the walls. Photo by Justin Kern

East San Jose Carnegie Branch Library

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Designed by San Jose architect Jacob Lenzen, this small Classical Revival building is the oldest library in Santa Clara County. It has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and was renovated in 1974 after the neighborhood rallied to save it from being torn down. The area has seen a diverse range of communities, including Hispanic and Southeast Asian populations that are reflected in the library’s resources.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library

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As the largest library built within a single construction project in the Western United States, this building has over 1.6 million volumes spread over eight floors. The MLK Library is the main library for both the city and San Jose State University; it remains the biggest joint municipal-university library in the country. One of the highlights here include the eight-story atrium that allows natural light to flow into the interior and create a shared sense of space.

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Central Santa Rosa Library

Starting out as a private library, this building has been a vital part of the community since 1859. It was the fourteenth public library built within California, and was funded by the Carnegie Foundation in 1904. The building was torn down in the 1960s to have a newer version created by architect Francis Joseph McCarthy. Architectural highlights include stained glass clerestory windows, stone garden walls, and redwood fences.

Petaluma Historical Library and Museum

A relic of the city’s past, this Classical Revival building served as the first public library, which opened its doors to the public in 1906. The historic building is one of the few Carnegie libraries still standing in Sonoma County, and currently houses a museum as well as a research library that are both open to the public.

Within the research library, guests can find blueprints of historic homes by prominent local architect Brainerd Jones, who was responsible for designing the original building.

The exterior of the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. The facade is white with columns. Photo by Scott Hess

Mill Valley Public Library

Nestled in a grove of redwoods, this Marin County library is one of the most scenic in the bay. The current library opened in 1966 and was build by Donn Emmons who took extra care to create a space that complemented the natural settings, along with the help of renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. The library has features that make you feel right at home, including an outdoor patio, a wood-burning fireplace, and scenic views of the creek just beyond the building’s perimeters.

Walnut Creek Library-Contra Costa County Library

Opened in 2010, this spacious suburban library gives off a contemporary feel with its hanging sculptures and tall, wooden ceilings. Replacing an older version of itself, the library features an array of green design strategies including using recycled materials, daylight harvesting, and an advanced mechanical system. An underground parking structure provides a better environmental solution than paving the gravel for above ground parking.

The interior of the Walnut Creek Library Contra Costa County Library in California. There are multiple colorful curved structures going up to the ceiling. Photo by rocor

C. V. Starr East Asian Library: UC Berkeley

This impressive structure, built in 2008, houses one of the country’s most comprehensive collections of East Asian language materials after the Library of Congress. Located in the heart of UC Berkeley’s campus, it features an overlook with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding Bay Area on a clear day. The exterior features a large sand-cast bronze screen common in Asian architecture that allows light to filter into the interior in intricate patterns.

Morrison Library: UC Berkeley

The smaller library near the main entrance of the Doe Library, the circa-1928 Morrison Library was made for leisurely reading. Highlights here include the Instagram-ready ceiling and an abundance of comfy sofas and chairs.

Doe Memorial Library: UC Berkeley

As the main library on UC Berkeley’s campus, the distinct neoclassical-style was built in 1911 and designed by John Galen Howard. It contains both undergraduate and main stacks collections. The Gardner Collection (main stacks) is located underground and houses 52 miles of shelves, and four giant skylights that allow for natural light to flood the space.

The public is welcome to tour the library, except for the main stacks area. Alas.

Chinatown/Him Mark Lai Branch Library

Originally called the North Beach Library, this Carnegie-funded structure was the third library in the city’s system. Built in the Italian Renaissance style by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, its name was changed in 1958 to better reflect the community it served.

Although the name was changed during the renovation in 2010, you can still see the words “San Francisco Public Library Chinatown Branch” etched into the front.

The exterior of the Chinatown Him Mark Lai Branch Library in San Francisco. The facade is brown brick with multiple staircases running along the front of the building. Photo by Patricia Chang

Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room

Opening its doors in 1854, the Mechanic’s Institute originally was created as an educational space for mechanics. Currently this landmark building in the Financial District serves a diverse community with resources ranging from fine arts to business. The Beaux-Arts building that the library is housed in features a steel-frame designed by Albert Pissis, of James Flood Building fame. The Mechanics’ Institute is also home to the oldest continuously running chess club in the country and welcomes players of all levels.

Presidio Branch Library

Located in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, this library is known for its stunning Italian Renaissance-style structure that was carefully preserved in its extensive 2011 renovation. Nearly a century old, the building was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, and funded by Carnegie money. This library makes a memorable first impression with its stone entryway featuring towering columns and a brick exterior, surrounded by a picturesque gently sloping lawn.

The exterior of the Presidio Branch Library. The facade is red brick with white columns flanking the entrance. Photo by Eric E Castro

Richmond/Senator Milton Marks Branch Library

As the fourth public library in San Francisco, this building has seen the city through various guises. This library was the first one in the city to be built with Carnegie funds in 1914, and was constructed in the Classical Revival architectural style using sandstone and concrete. The outside is adorned with palm trees and sits on a raised mound that elevates the building and gives the illusion that it is taller than it really is.   

The exterior of the Richmond Senator Milton Marks Branch Library. The facade is tan and there are palm trees and a green lawn in front of the building. Photo by Eric E Castro

F. W. Olin Library

With floor-to-ceiling windows that allow natural light, the student library at Mills College is an ideal place to hunker down and study. The interior was designed intentionally by architect Peter H. Dodge to have a non-institutional feeling with scenic outdoor views that include a nearby creek.

San Francisco Main Library

Replacing the old main library that was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, this impressive reincarnation opened in April 1996, more than double the size of its predecessor. Its Beaux-Arts style complements the Civic Center buildings around it, and uses the same Sierra White granite that is featured on nearby structures. The interior contains a five-story central atrium that floods the space with natural light and should be viewed from the ground floor to get the full mesmerizing effect.

The ceiling of the San Francisco Main Library. The five levels of the library are all circular in structure and there is a skylight that is letting in natural light. Photo by Thomas Hawk

Sunset Branch Library

As the third busiest library in the city, this two-story Italianate-style building has gone undergone two renovations since it opened in 1918. Built on the site of an old barn that was considered a neighborhood nuisance, the current structure is a local treasure, with its intricate stone carvings and large columns that grace the entryway. The most recent renovation included preserving the terra cotta facade.

Mission Branch Library

This historical Carnegie library was the very first one to be built within San Francisco, and was originally housed in a nearby storefront before making its way to the current location. With its high concrete ceilings and distinct rectangular shape, this classic Italian Renaissance building is known for its large Spanish language collection, including literature focusing on Latin American culture and history.

Burlingame Main Library

Known for its Italian Renaissance architecture, conceived by local architect Col. E. L. Norberg, this library has been nicknamed “the Jewel of Burlingame” by the American Library Journal. It received extensive remodeling in 2004 that allowed it to be updated for the 21st century, while still maintaining its 1920s color and flair. The original library opened it doors in 1909 and was moved twice before coming to its current location.

Rinconada Library

This 1958 library in Silicon Valley is a treat for anyone who loves modernist architecture. “It’s a beautifully detailed and preserved midcentury modern gem,” says Curbed SF reader keenplanner. Designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone, this page-turner was carefully renovated recently by designers and architects from Group 4, who preserved Stone’s vision while bringing other aspects up to date.

Don’t miss the crimson-colored breeze blocks gracing the exterior of the building.

Cecil H. Green Library

Known simply as the Green Library, this historical building is part of the Stanford University Library system. There are over four million books on the shelves, mostly of them relating to social sciences and humanity subjects. The former library was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, but was rebuilt in a Beaux-Arts style, using a steel frame, as well as reinforced concrete and hollow clay-tile walls.

The most recent remodel of the library was completed in 1999 with the addition of the Bing Wing.

The interior of the Cecil H. Green Library. There is a large staircase. The ceiling is high and there are columns along the walls. Photo by Justin Kern

East San Jose Carnegie Branch Library

Designed by San Jose architect Jacob Lenzen, this small Classical Revival building is the oldest library in Santa Clara County. It has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and was renovated in 1974 after the neighborhood rallied to save it from being torn down. The area has seen a diverse range of communities, including Hispanic and Southeast Asian populations that are reflected in the library’s resources.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library

As the largest library built within a single construction project in the Western United States, this building has over 1.6 million volumes spread over eight floors. The MLK Library is the main library for both the city and San Jose State University; it remains the biggest joint municipal-university library in the country. One of the highlights here include the eight-story atrium that allows natural light to flow into the interior and create a shared sense of space.