Famed Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson once wrote that a great library contained “the diary of the human race.” With that definition, very few libraries come as close to greatness as the Morgan, which contains examples of the written word from the beginning of recorded time—pictorial Mesopotamian cylinder seals (4th millennium b.c., a precursor to writing); to papyrus rolls from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; to brilliantly colorful medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Its crowning jewels are three editions of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be created using movable type. (This is the only collection in the world to boast three editions; scholars come from across the globe to study them, as each is unique). Also in the collection today are manuscripts by Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Galileo, Bob Dylan, Alexander Calder, and James Joyce. One of the 25 known surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence is another highlight, along with a First Folio of Shakespeare. (The fragility of these treasures means that they cannot be constantly on display, but you’ll usually see one of the Gutenbergs when you visit, along with other exquisite books.)
The Morgan in the name of the library was 19th-century billionaire J. Pierpont Morgan (1837−1913), and he collected more than just books. But many of his greatest artistic acquisitions were donated to the Wadsworth Atheneum (in Hartford) and the Metropolitan Museum after Morgan’s death.
When you visit, be sure to set aside at least an hour and a half to take in the ever-rotating special exhibitions, along with the exquisite architecture. The original library, a marble villa in High Renaissance style, was designed by Charles Follen McKim (of the famous firm of McKim, Meade, and White). An expansion by lauded architect Renzo Piano, completed in 2006, added massive steel and glass pavilions, doubling the size of the facilities without diluting their Italianate flair. Along with a gift store, a good cafe and restaurant were added (so you may want to combine your visit with lunch).