Anna has been posting on her experiences at the University of Cambridge libraries, and it sounds like more posts are to come on what to consider when visiting reference libraries. I'm also fresh from conversations with a visiting friend about the library at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and the frustration of odd hours and cataloging practices in some overseas institutions), so I was in the mood for offering a general reflection on libraries. Feel free to treat this as an open thread.
It's always a joy to read about libraries; the professional importance of these institutions for academics as well as the aesthetic importance of them for bibliophilia makes them a common enough topic on these sorts of blogs, but I think it's always valuable to read about new perspectives... especially when advice is given for libraries where the process of application and entrance is more complicated than simply walking through the front doors. Most all of my experiences in towering research libraries of the sort that Anna mentions have been with the Library of Congress, where I try to hole myself up whenever I'm back in Arlington to visit. As a cataloger I've also learned to appreciate the library in a special way, from the inside. In graduate school I was advised by a theology professor to pursue work here, and told of the close connections that theologians traditionally share with librarianship as a profession. The advice has served me well, and I think that the benefits of my current work will certainly be taken with me elsewhere. Gaining a new perspective on academic work outside of the concerns of the individual researcher or teacher helps to open one's eyes about how the wider process works, and contributes to more effective use of one's own time as a scholar.
Pelikan's Idea of a University: a Reexamination includes a chapter on libraries that argues (if I recall correctly) for libraries as really the central and binding institution of any university. I think that's about accurate... one realizes when working here that the mission of the library pre-dates and will likely outlast most anything else that is going on around campus. Realizing this helps to put into perspective many of the calls for urgency, hand-wringing about certain standards of relevance, or accusations of antiquarianism that risk confusing what exactly is going on here in academia. Librarians are often much more aware of all of these concerns than most people realize or give them credit for... often it is in the library where the best balance between being one step ahead of the game and cognizant of the distant past is best achieved. The depth of what sits here is just breathtaking, even in a smaller or mid-sized library, let alone an enormous one.
Anna also links to the wonderful pictures at Librophiliac from a few years ago. If you haven't yet seen them, be sure to take a few minutes and scroll through.