State Libraries: A Surprising Destination!

You know about public and university libraries, but state libraries shouldn’t be ignored as vibrant havens for visiting online and off!

Oleg Kagan
Jan 20 · 4 min read
The New York State Library is located in the Cultural Education Center, a remarkable building completed in 1978. Image Credit: (cc) Matt Wade.

While most people know about the Library of Congress, individual state libraries are an unusual, and potentially exciting, discovery for many people. Similar to the Library of Congress, state libraries typically started as either purchased or donated collections that were kept on-hand to give legislators ready access to research materials. Since their genesis, however, many state libraries have expanded their purview to include serving as historical archives, resources for public and university libraries and library workers, administrators of grant funding, service providers for people with disabilities, and repositories for various government documents, and more.

What you may not know is that many are also lovely places for locals and tourists to visit; besides their collections (which occasionally contain some truly weird items), state libraries host entertaining and educational programs, display fascinating exhibits, and may be housed in building of architectural interest. Here are some wonderful examples of experiences found in state libraries across the United States:

As a California resident, I have a soft spot for our California State Library which I visited in 2019. While there, I saw an exhibit called “Images of the Industrial Revolution: From the Crystal Palace to the Locomotive, 1851–1895,” viewed a number of beautiful historical murals, and briefly got to touch some of the items in the American Haiku Archives, which is housed there. You might not be aware that the California State Library also administers grant funding for programs like “Lunch at the Library,” which “…provides children and teens with free summer meals, summer reading programs, and other activities that support learning, health, and wellness.”

Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth outside of the Hawaii State Library. Image Credit: (cc) Wally Gobetz.

Hawaii is the only state that contains a true statewide library system. That system is administered at the Hawaii State Library, a grand building funded by Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1913. There, you’ll find a fully-functioning public library with a complete range of programming for all ages and interests open every day of the week except for Sunday.

Not all state libraries serve the general public, or even the state legislature. In Idaho, the Idaho Commission for Libraries, with their attractive website, is a clearinghouse of excellent resources and grant-funding intended to assist local libraries in serving the public. I include them here to give you a sense of how through institutions like the Idaho Commission for Libraries, town libraries are able to continue doing so much how despite being chronically underfunded! Also, because I’m impressed by their stylish publications…Whoever came up with the name “SPLAT Curiosity Report” deserves a raise, or at the very least, a hearty handshake!

The Lorenzo De Zavala State Archives and Library Building at night. Image credit: (cc) Texas State Library and Archives Commission via Flickr.

The Texas State Library is a full-service institution offering in-person and online exhibits, historical documents (many available online), services to libraries, events, research assistance, talking books, government documents, and more, in a building of distinct aesthetic qualities (see above). It’s open to the public Monday through Friday 8a-5p, and if I was planning a trip to Austin, it would definitely be on my list.

I’ll end my short romp around state libraries with the State Library of North Carolina, impressive not solely for its stylish website, but also for the resources contained therein, including NCpedia, an encyclopedia covering North Carolina history and culture created with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). It’s certainly worth a click if you have an interest in the region. I browsed to the interactive timeline of North Carolina symbols and learned that their state motto, “Esse Quam Videri” (To be rather than to seem) was adopted in 1893. Elsewhere on the site, I discovered that their current building, shared with several other departments, was described as “North Carolinians’ three hundredth birthday gift to themselves,” since the funds to build it were appropriated in 1963, 300 years after the issuance of the 1663 Carolina Charter.

Note, this was a mere five out of fifty state libraries out there, which is all the more reason to look up your state library and see if it’s worth a visit when you find yourself in a state capital. If you’re a library lover like me, it’s best not to resist adding libraries to your itinerary. Happy travels!

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Oleg Kagan

Written by

Writer and librarian. More at


Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

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