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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil

The largest library in Latin America owes its existence to an Old World earthquake and a Napoleonic invasion.  

The Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil in Rio de Janeiro is the largest library in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. But were it not for a devastating earthquake and a Napoleonic invasion, it may never have reached such heights.

On November 1, 1755, a massive earthquake almost destroyed the city of Lisbon, the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal. Between 10,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the city, and countless buildings turned to rubble, in what remains one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.

Also lost in the quake was the 70,000-volume Royal Library inside the devastated Royal Ribeira Palace. At the time, this library was considered one of the finest and most important in Europe.

Soon after the earthquake, King Joseph I of Portugal organized the construction of a new Royal Library, and over the next half century the collection grew significantly with many valuable books and prints. Still, the threat of another major quake loomed over the library, prompting talk of moving the entire collection to the Portuguese colony of Brazil.

The Napoleonic Wars gave the royal collection its final push towards the New World. When an Imperial French corps under Jean-Andoche Junot invaded Portugal in 1807, Portugal’s then Prince Regent John of Braganza (later John VI of Portugal) decided to flee to Brazil, along with the rest of the royal family.

As quickly as he could, John gathered up the collection from the royal library and had it loaded onto the Portuguese fleet. The Prince Regent, along with the first batch of his prized collection, arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808. A second batch, packed in 230 crates, arrived in mid-1810. On October 29, 1810, John founded a new Royal Library on Brazilian soil, which would later become the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil, or National Library of Brazil.

Today, the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil houses a collection of approximately 9 million items, and is considered one of the main national libraries in the world by UNESCO. General works account for some 2 million pieces, occupying about 11 linear miles of shelf space. The collection also contains 21,742 photos from the 19th century; 22,000 maps and about 2,500 atlases; and some 250,000 pieces in its music and sound archive.

And ever since an official decree in 1907, Brazilian publishers are required to send one copy of every title they publish to the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil, ensuring that the collection will continue to grow and grow.

Know Before You Go

The Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil is located at Avenida Rio Branco 219 on Cinelândia Square in central Rio. It’s open to the public Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.