Newberry Library in Chicago

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The Newberry Library is a privately endowed, independent research library for the humanities and social sciences in Chicago, Illinois. Although it is private, non-circulating library, the Newberry Library is free and open to the public. The collections embrace Western civilization from the late Middle Ages to the end of the Napoleonic Era in Europe, from the Era of European Exploration to the Age of Revolution in Latin America, and to modern times in North America. Within this framework are a variety of specialized collections, on such diverse topics as North American Indians and the history of printing. The Newberry Library houses a large collection of maps, manuscripts, sheet music, and other printed material.


The Newberry Library was established by a $2.15 million bequest by Walter Loomis Newberry, an early Chicago resident and business leader involved in banking, shipping, real estate, and other commercial ventures. Newberry died at sea in 1868, while on a trip to France. Following the death of his widow, Julia Butler Newberry, in 1885, Newberry estate trustees, William H. Bradley and Eliphalet W. Blatchford, established the library in 1887. Initially, the Newberry Library was located in three temporary locations.

The Newberry's first librarian, William Frederick Poole, was a primary force behind the library's noncirculating research and rare book collections, as well as conceptualizing the facility to house them. The present building, designed by Poole and architect Henry Ives Cobb (1859–1931), opened in 1893. It is located at 60 West Walton Street, across from Washington Square.

Stanley Pargellis, the fifth Newberry librarian (1942–1962), broadened the library's mission, launching scholarly outreach programs (such as fellowships, conferences, and the Newberry Library Bulletin) to publicize the library's holdings and encourage their use.

Between 1962 and 1986, the library was greatly expanded under the leadership of president Lawrence William "Bill" Towner. During this time, the Newberry acquired many important collections, a stacks building was constructed, and the library's emphasis moved from the old world to the new, especially as to Native American and early North American settlers. Towner also inaugurated a number of initiatives, including research centers in the fields of history of cartography, American Indian history, family and community history (now American History and Culture), and Renaissance studies.

In 1994, the Newberry continued to expand its reach, by establishing its Center for Public Programs to coordinate a variety of humanities offerings, including exhibitions, seminars, lectures, and performances of the Newberry Consort.

David Spadafora has been the president of the Library since 2005. Previously, Spadafora served as president of Lake Forest College, where he also taught history. Spadafora holds a PhD in history from Yale University and a BA from Williams College.

Current services

The Library houses more than 1.5 million books, 5 million pages of manuscripts, and 500,000 historic maps. Collection strengths include materials on the European Renaissance, genealogy, American Indians, early music, cartography, the history of printing, Chicago history, railroad archives, Luso-Brazilian history, and Midwestern authors' manuscripts. The Newberry's manuscript holdings include work by Mike Royko, Elmo Scott Watson, and Ben Hecht. Among its most valuable works are a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio, Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Federalist Papers, and the only copy in existence of the Popol Vuh.

The Newberry Library also offers a variety of exhibits, lectures, classes, concerts, teacher programs, seminars, and other public programming related to its collections. Recent exhibits have featured architect Daniel Burnham and the history of children's literature. In addition, the Newberry makes available a variety of highly-acclaimed fellowships and programs to scholars, teachers, and undergraduates.

The Newberry Library's Research and Education Division offers programs for local, national and international scholars, in addition to teachers at all levels of instruction. The four research centers generate and disseminate scholarship in their areas of focus: Renaissance Studies, American Indian History, American History and Culture, and the History of Cartography.

Reference staff are available in the Newberry Library's three reading rooms whenever the library is open to readers. Reference librarians work with all readers, and offer orientation, in-depth bibliographical instruction, and specialized assistance as needed. Although open to the public, researchers and readers under age 16 are prohibited, with some exceptions made on a case-by-case basis.

The Library was the primary institution responsible for the production of the 2004 "Encyclopedia of Chicago," a landmark single-volume work that covered Chicago's history from 1630 to 2000.

The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries Project, a historical GIS project that aims to map every county boundary configuration in the United States from the early 17th century to the present, is also based at The Newberry Library.

In popular culture

The Newberry Library was featured as the workplace of Henry DeTamble, a main character in Audrey Niffenegger's novel "The Time Traveler's Wife;" many scenes in the book are set at the library, and (fictional) members of the library staff play a considerable role in the plot.

1. Davis, Donald G. Dictionary of American Library Biography. "Towner, Lawrence William, 1921-1992."

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