Best Library Systems in the US

Red book cover on cream background, with embossed gold text reading "Best Library Systems in the US"
Written by Lily Rogers

Libraries are a precious resource. They've helped advance culture and knowledge for thousands of years. They've moved from ancient archives of the written word to sources of free multi-media information. You might say they—and the knowledge they hold—are Made to Keep.

Part community gathering grounds, part educational mecca, part architectural wonder, libraries often reflect the heart and soul of a city better than anything else. They serve as safe spaces, lead conversations on human rights, provide thoughtful assistance, organize learning events, and give access to digital resources.

We've chosen to explore some of the best libraries in the U.S. that not only do all of the above but go beyond. From unique events to rare books, a multitude of services to community involvement, these libraries represent and help shape the values of the cities they serve. Each one deserves to be cherished, preserved, and celebrated.

1. San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA

map of california and location of the san diego public library

With San Diego Central Library at the core, this system of libraries serves the many neighborhoods of the sprawling city, with 36 branches. The central library opened in its new location in 2013—a nine-story building that houses a charter high school, innovation lab with free computer classes, an art gallery, and the OliverMcMillan I Can! Center for patrons with disabilities. Notably, one of their librarians, Azalea Janel Ebbay, was chosen as a 2019 American Library Association Emerging Leader. And the community love shows, too. Support from groups like Friends of San Diego Library help fulfill their mission: To inspire lifelong learning through connections to knowledge and each other.

Other notable San Diego libraries
The San Diego State University Library is architecturally stunning and has an impressive collection and resource center.

2. Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, MO

kansas city public library exterior giant bookshelf
Photo via Dean Hochman/Flickr

The Kansas City Central Library stands out with its giant "bookshelf" parking garage, featuring 25-foot-tall book spines. This library has won various awards, including consistent 5-star ratings from the "Library Journal." It's easy to see why. They host events like ESL classes, storytimes, and film screenings, and have study rooms and an in-house café where patrons meet and share ideas. With a little help from the Friends of the Kansas City Public Library, this group of 10 branches is able to start programs like the Community Reference Team, which connects people with resources to find jobs, start businesses, grow nonprofits, and manage personal finances. Now that's taking care of business.

Other notable Kansas City libraries
The Mid-Continent Public Library system comprises 31 branches, including some in Kansas City, and serves about 810,000 people over 1,400 square miles in three counties, 56 cities, and 21 school districts. They have an extensive collection, inter-library loaning, online classes, and lots of educational and fun events. The Midwest Genealogy Center collection has over 150,000 volumes on family histories along with other print volumes like year books, oral histories, city directories, local histories and the like and thousands of resources on microform and online.

3. New York Public Library, New York, NY

map of new york and location of the new york public library

One of the most-visited public libraries in the world, New York Public Library is at the forefront of what libraries can do. Innovative campaigns such as Insta Novels, promote reading to new generations. From the beautiful Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, famously featured in many movies and TV shows, to other distinguished sites like the Jefferson Market Library and Yorkville, this world-renowned library system includes four major research libraries and 88 branches. The children's center is home to the real Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, and the calendar of free events—including those of the Library for the Performing Arts—is packed year-round.

Other notable New York libraries
Don't ignore the Brooklyn Public Library, which is also one of the most-visited in the world and is a breathtaking Art Deco experience. Independently run Poets House is a love letter to the genre and a must for any aspiring poet.

4. District of Columbia Public Library, Washington, D.C.

washington DC public library exterior
Photo via Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library holds several special collections, including 1.3 million photographs from the "Washington Star" and the documents of the Black Studies Center. It's also home to a 3D printer and the Espresso Book Machine, which collates, covers, and binds a single book in a matter of minutes. The system also added a social worker to engage with the homeless population, a move made possible with support from groups like Friends of the D.C. Public Library. Neighborhood branches include architecturally distinctive Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library.

Other notable D.C. libraries
Though the Library of Congress is open to the public, only some government officials and library employees may check out books and materials. However, as the de facto national library of the United States, its importance is clear. The symbolic art and architecture alone are worth a visit.

5. Seattle Public Library, Seattle, WA

map of Seattle and location of the seattle public library

The principal branch in this system is the Central Library with its ultra-modern steel and glass exterior. Unique to this structure is the four-story-high Books Spiral, where patrons can peruse the whole nonfiction collection without using stairs. There are 26 branches in the system, with programs that include free passes to local museums, kid's storytime, job resources, personal reading recommendations, and free writing and publishing classes. 

Other notable Seattle libraries
Visually impaired patrons and others unable to read standard print material are top priority at the award-winning Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, in operation since 1931. University of Washington Libraries system is one of the largest academic research libraries in North America and has been honored with the Association of College and Research Libraries Excellence in Academic Libraries award.

6. Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

philadelphia public library exterior
Photo via Jim, the Photographer/Flickr

The worthy mission, "To advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity," guides this system of libraries. Its Parkway Central Library has been doing as much since 1927 and greets visitors in grand Parisian Beaux-Arts style. Areas like the Marie and Joseph Field Teen Center and the Robert and Eileen Kennedy Heim Center for Cultural and Civic Engagement were designed to promote engagement, interaction, and discourse. It's also had measurable community impact, with one study showing it helped nearly 25,000 people learn to read or teach someone else to read.

Other notable Philadelphia libraries
Housed in a National Historic Landmark, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia specializes in architecture and interior design history and contains a museum collection of early-to-mid 19th-century American arts.

7. Ann Arbor District Library, Ann Arbor, MI

map of ann arbor and location of the ann arbor public library

This library system has received 5-star ratings the past 11 years by the "Library Journal," and it's highly regarded among its peers. The main Downtown Library in Ann Arbor has been in operation since 1957, and has a local history section, genealogy reference materials, a large folklore and fairytales collection, as well as various electronic resources. AADL events include film screenings, gaming nights, poetry readings, storytimes, workshops, and crafts. 

Other notable Ann Arbor libraries
As the third-largest research library in the U.S., University of Michigan Library is consistently ranked in the top 10 by the Association of Research Libraries. With librarians like Sheila Garcia, who was named a 2019 ALA Emerging Leader, it's no wonder.

8. Boston Public Library, Boston, MA

boston public library reading room
Photo via Yuefeng D/Flickr

Home to the third-largest public library in the United States, the city of Boston enjoys riches beyond most book lovers' dreams. Boston Central Library in Copley Square is headquarters to the 24 branches in the system, and the reading room in the McKim Building would turn anyone studious. The libraries host thousands of free programs every year, including author talks, concerts, daily children's events, and therapy dog storytimes.

Other notable Boston libraries
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum holds permanent collections like the gifts from heads of state in the White House Corridor and Ernest Hemingway Collection, which features his personal papers. And then there's nearby Harvard Library, the oldest library system in the U.S., which needs zero introduction.

9. Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL

exterior of the chicago public library central branch

The American Library Association is headquartered in Chicago, so you know this city likes to read. The CPL, which boasts 80 locations and some of the best public libraries in the U.S., includes the central library, Harold Washington Library Center. There, the ninth-floor Winter Garden is a beautifully unique feature, and the Maker Lab includes multiple 3D printers, CNC machines, and laser cutters. It's also the largest public library in the U.S. to eliminate fines for overdue items, forgiving all existing fees. Services include a free lecture series, the Words and Music Program, and free homework help.

Other notable Chicago libraries
The Newberry Library is an independent research library with materials spanning over six centuries, and the University of Chicago Library is the tenth-largest academic library in North America. Chicago is also the future grounds of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, which will include a branch of the CPL.

10. Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis public library exterior

This network is a vast library system with 41 locations, including impressive suburban libraries with art collections, outreach services for at-home patrons, and other innovative programs. Its largest location, the Minneapolis Central Library, features special historical collections, technology labs, gallery art, a piano room, and energy efficiencies, including a roof garden and substantial daylight. Partially supported by groups like Friends of the Hennepin County Library, these branches are essential parts of their communities and the county as a whole.

Other notable Minneapolis libraries
Featuring many specialized and unique collections—including the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes-related materials—the University of Minnesota Libraries also support rising talent like Kalan Davis, special collections metadata librarian, who was picked as a 2019 ALA Emerging Leader.

11. McAllen Public Library, McAllen, TX

Minneapolis public library exterior

When Wal-Mart moved out, the library moved in to become the largest single-floor library in the United States. This remarkable place wins awards for online presence, architecture, and services and believes in "free access to information [that] connects a culturally diverse population with the global community." Though a small system, these libraries receive rave reviews, and events like the South Texas Book Festival and regular programs bring the community together through the power of books.

Other notable McAllen libraries
The Hildago County Library System has 13 members that coordinate to provide services to all area residents, with digital and physical resources.

Lily Rogers

Lily is a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her curiosity spans genre, from travel to pop culture to food, and she writes about all that and more. She's also a social introvert, literature nerd, and (slight) hoarder. When not in pursuit of her next adventure, she's most likely at home with her wife and two cats.

About the author

Lily Rogers

Lily is a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her curiosity spans genre, from travel to pop culture to food, and she writes about all that and more. She's also a social introvert, literature nerd, and (slight) hoarder. When not in pursuit of her next adventure, she's most likely at home with her wife and two cats.

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