The Newberry Library was officially founded in 1887. By this date, the Chicago Public Library had been established, so the executors of Newberry's will decided that his library would not operate as a lending library but rather serve as a repository for rare books and manuscripts to support research in the humanities. Walter Newberry’s private book collection had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, so the new library had to acquire its own collection through donations and purchases. By 1894, the library had amassed 120,000 books. William Frederick Poole, who had also served as the first librarian of the Chicago Public Library, was hired as the first librarian of the Newberry.
During the first several years of operation, the library moved locations three times. The library was first located on La Salle Street before moving to Ontario Street, then moved to the corner of State and Oak Streets. The library moved to its present location at West Walton Place in 1893. The location was chosen for its close proximity to public transportation, and for the amount of sunlight owing to a lack of tall buildings compared to more central locations in the city center. The building was designed by Henry Ives Cobb in the Romanesque style. The building was constructed with pink granite from Connecticut and has been expanded and renovated several times in the past century.
The Newberry Library continues to promote the humanities and research. The librar has offered public exhibitions since the 1890s and offered fellowships to scholars for advanced research since the 1940s. It also hosts a variety of conferences, seminars, lectures, and performances. The library’s ever-expanding collection consists of over 1.5 million books and 600,000 maps that date back over five centuries.
The primary subjects of the collection are Native Americans; American history; European history; genealogy and local history; music and dance; and religion. Some of its most interesting items include a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio; Thomas Jefferson’s Federalist papers; letters written by Alexander Hamilton; and a first edition of Alice in Wonderland. It is currently home to four research centers; the Center for American History and Culture; the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies; the Center for the History of Cartography; and the Center for Renaissance Studies. The library also holds an annual book fair, in which more than one hundred thousand donated used books are available for sale.
In January 2018 the Newberry Library began a six-month, $11 million renovation of the first floor. When completed, it will feature a new orientation center; remodeled bookstore; a permanent exhibition space; digital signage; and restored architectural details.