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The Newberry Library is a private, independent research library in Chicago that began operations in 1887 thanks to an endowment from Walter L. Newberry. Newberry amassed a fortune in real estate and railroads and donated a portion of that fortune to create a substantial library for the city of Chicago. The research library specializes in materials related to the humanities and supporting the work of humanities scholars with programs, grants, and a collection of over million books and documents. The library's collection is known to scholars around the world and its non-circulating collection includes many rare materials dating as far back as the Middle Ages. The library holds thousands of rare books and millions of original documents related to early American history, European history, and Western culture. The library operates a wide variety of programs to encourage public engagement and research. These programs include lectures, classes, and fellowship opportunities opportunities for scholars.

  • Aerial view of the library, facing Washington Square Park. Image obtained from the Newberry Library.
  • Newberry Library shortly after its completion in 1893. Image obtained from the Newberry Library.
  • The library contains over one million books and hundreds of thousands of other documents available for research. Image obtained from the Newberry Library.

The Newberry Library was established with an endowment from Chicago businessman and investor Walter Loomis Newberry. Newberry moved to the relatively new settlement of Chicago in 1833 and amassed a fortune through successful ventures in real estate, banking, and railroads. Newberry was also very active in the development of the city and was a founder of the city’s Young Men’s Library Association as well as the president of the Chicago Historical Society. Newberry also served on the boards of education and health and supported a number of charitable causes. 

Walter Newberry passed away while returning home from France in 1868. In his will, he set aside a $2.2 million estate for the establishment of a free public library (which Chicago did not have at the time) in the event that his two daughters died without heirs. By 1885 Newberry’s wife and two daughters had passed away, so the trustees of his estate, William H. Bradley and Eliphalet W. Blatchford began the process of establishing the library.

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.

Briggs, Martha T. and Cynthia H. Peters. “Newberry Library.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Accessed March 1, 2018.

Di Nunzio, Miriam. “Newberry Library to undergo $11 million renovation.” Chicago Sun-Times. June 9, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2018.

“History of the Newberry Library.” Newberry Library. Accessed March 1, 2018.

Johnson, Steve. “Newberry Library set to undergo $11 million renovation.” Chicago Tribune. June 14, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2018.

Newhart, Elizabeth. “A Brief History of the Newberry Library, Chicago.” Culture Trip. August 10, 2016. Accessed March 1, 2018.

Spadafora, David. “Newberry Library.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014. Accessed March 1, 2018.

thenewberrylibrary. “The Newberry Story: A Short Film” (video). Posted October 24, 2011. Accessed March 1, 2018.

Wetherald, Houghton. “The Architectural History of the Newberry Library.” The Newberry Library Bulletin. November, 1962. Accessed March 1, 2018.

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