Chile’s National Library: a historical and cultural destination in Santiago

There is a dramatic contrast between the solemn, cavernous halls of Chile’s Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and the relentless urban traffic just outside on Santiago’s modern Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins.

Approaching the celebration of its 200th anniversary next year, the Biblioteca Nacional is a modern source of information within a historically- and architecturally-magnificent structure.

A cultivated history

Founded in 1813, the library has been a repository of Chilean scholarly and literary works and important records for 199 years, and the institution itself was representative of Chile’s transition from a monarchy to an independent republican government.

Over the years, the Biblioteca Nacional has acquired numerous priceless collections, from works of literary greats like Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda to entire personal libraries of celebrated patrons such as José Toribio Medina and Andrés Bello.

The Biblioteca Nacional was originally housed in several other locations in Santiago before moving to its current building in 1925, where it has continued the library’s mission of preserving and conserving Chile’s cultural and intellectual heritage.

Visiting the library

If you are nostalgic for mazes of shelves laden with books, you won’t see them in the Biblioteca Nacional. The library’s resources are carefully protected, and most materials must be requested through the various collections located in designated rooms throughout the library.

The elegant library building naturally imparts a sense of literary reverence and inspiration, however. Built in the era of Chilean “palacios” – palace-like structures – the Biblioteca Nacional is a creative example of neoclassical architecture combined with intimations of baroque and rococo styles.

Throughout the Biblioteca’s numerous distinct rooms and areas of interest, visitors can appreciate the grace of the place through simple details like the nebulous perfume of decaying paper, or sunlight leaking through stained-glass skylights onto the creamy walls, lavish frescoes and stately art.

For a special treat, visit Sala Medina on the first floor, which contains the diverse collection of José Toribio Medina, a world traveler, book-lover, historian and library benefactor. Sala Medina’s aristocratic wooden design, colonial chandeliers and historical contents are reminiscent of a regal seafaring vessel or a distinguished university chapel.

Salón Bicentenario, also on the first floor, contains a station of public computers, a conundrum of technology beneath the ornamental architectural embellishments of the antique building, and an example of the library’s modern relevance and historical legacy.

A small coffee shop is located adjacent to Salón Bicentenario, and a friendly and approachable information desk is also available nearby to assist and direct library guests as necessary.

In the midst of the pretty gardens outside the library, a cozy train car containing a convenient mini-library provides popular literature and computer access.

When to go

The Biblioteca Nacional regularly displays art and cultural exhibits and sponsors various activities. On Thursday September 6 at 7:00 pm, for example, the public is invited to the library for the inauguration of a new exhibit of photographs from Chile’s National Archive.

2013 will be a big year for the library, as well, and the celebration of the library’s 200th anniversary is sure to be filled with exciting activities.

The Biblioteca Nacional is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, and on Saturday from 9:10 am to 2:00 pm.

For more information about services and collections, visit the library’s website.

How to arrive

The Biblioteca Nacional is located in the center of Santiago, at 651 Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, near metro Santa Lucia.

Before arriving to the library, consider familiarizing yourself with a virtual tour of the exquisite rooms, or search the library’s digital collection for instant access to certain materials from the comfort of your home.

By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel

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