THROUGHOUT May, books will be taken from their cramped, dusty confines in the old National Library of Greece and gingerly placed on trolleys. Over 2m items, including a collection of 4,500 manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 19th century, will make the trip through the busy streets from the venerable neoclassical building in the heart of Athens to their new home in the Stavros Niarchos Foundational Cultural Centre. The journey of these books neatly maps what has happened to the architecture of national libraries the world over. The books’ old home, completed in 1903, was designed as a temple of learning to be used by a limited academic elite. Their new one is part of a cultural complex, which includes an opera house, standing at the heart of a new section of the city. 

Unlike the old library, the new site makes little reference to the architectural language of ancient Greece. It seeks to convey the idea of a modern nation, one comfortable with its history but also capable of expressing itself in a contemporary idiom on a grand scale. Instead of a quasi-religious building situated within a 50-acre ornamental park, the park is draped over the angular structure: to enter the library, visitors must go through a sort of glass-fronted cave framed by plantings. Once they do they will be greeted by a cliff-face of books over five storeys high. Literature—and modern literature, in particular—is presented as being a structural support to the state, as the books are to the open park above. 

The new national library in Qatar (pictured, top) also feeds into evolving ideas about modernity, society and democracy in the Gulf state. When the building, which cost at least $300m, was first commissioned in 2006 it was simply as a facility for the expanding university quarter in Doha. One of the architects, Ellen van Loon of OMA, says that they tried to relate the building to the rapidly changing built environment of Qatar. “The design emerged from going to Qatar and thinking about the local condition and realising that the socialising in the country happens in shopping malls or hotels. A library, though, is a public building—a very good building for the social life of local people.” 

The concept touched on the aspirations of the Qatari leadership to be seen as enlightened leaders. The building is a spectacle of transparency and openness: huge steel trusses and concrete columns create a vast space in which the majority of the library’s 1.5m books are displayed. Specialist rooms for conservation and quiet study are tucked under the inclined ramps, but the main space is essentially a marble-clad, air-conditioned public square. And it is being treated like one. With lectures, concerts and events for children, the library is popular and anything but a place of hush. According to Ms van Loon “the client realised as soon as they saw the building that it should be a public building,” and a national one to boot.

The library also manages to articulate tradition in an ingenious fashion. A subterranean section of striated Iranian marble stores and displays heritage publications. In a state that is sensitive to the accusation that it had limited cultural wealth prior to the discovery of oil, this basement of textual treasures is a clear refutation. The most important item in the collection is the Tabula Asiae VI (also known as the Sixth Map of Asia), printed in Rome in 1478, which was the first printed map to mention Qatar. Literary and cultural heritage is again portrayed as a foundation upon which the Arab state, and its evolving relationship with democracy, is founded.

Yet no bolder attempt to convey the significance of a national library by means of geological analogy has been made than at the National Library of Latvia in Riga (pictured, below). Gunnar Birkert, the architect, made it clear that his design made reference to the folktale of “The Princess on the Glass Mountain”, which was adapted in the early 20th century as a metaphor for national awakening. His great glass hill now dominates the west bank of the Daugava river, and is perhaps the key architectural expression of Latvia’s independence from Soviet rule. Those folk traditions it refers to provided nourishment to national identity during occupation, even though those traditions were often banned by apparatchiks loyal to Moscow. As opposed to the rectilinear tower blocks of the communist era, the library, though it matches them in height, is smooth and chamfered.

It has come at no small cost. The state has paid more than $194m for the building since it began construction in 2004; in February the construction company took the state to court, claiming they were owed a further $12.9m in late-payment fees and interest. If they are successful, it would mean that each Latvian will have paid just over $100 towards the building. What they have got for that money is astonishing in the intensity and scale of its symbolism. The atrium is dominated by another familiar trope of modern libraries: a five-storey-high cliff of books, called “The People’s Bookshelf”. Latvia’s citizens have donated tens of thousands of books, conveying the emotional significance of literature as much as its intellectual power. As more and more books are produced, and national libraries increase in size, architects will have greater potential to make such emotive statements about how literature sustains national identity. 

In “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1831), Victor Hugo noted that, in the late Middle Ages, printing threatened architecture as the dominant mode for the church to convey cultural meaning. “The book of stone, so solid and so enduring, was to give way to the book of paper, more solid and more enduring still.” Put the book and the building together, and you have the potential for structures of almost overwhelming significance.