Collection History

Pullman Record Minute Books, from the Midwest Manuscripts Collection.
Pullman Record Minute Books, from the Midwest Manuscripts Collection.
Ordnance Survey materials for use in cartographic and genealogical research.
Ordnance Survey materials for use in cartographic and genealogical research.

The Newberry has actively collected research and reference materials since its foundation in 1887. From the mid-1890s on, its collecting activities have focused on the humanities, with an emphasis on original sources for the study of European and Western Hemisphere history, literature, and culture since the late medieval period. The Newberry has also continued to build its collection of secondary books – including reference works, monographs, periodicals, and other serials – and more recently digitized reproductions to support the use of its original sources.

Today, the library’s evolving collections include more than 1.5 million books, five million manuscript pages (15,000 cubic feet), and 500,000 historic maps. Look at Recent Acquisitions to see examples of what has been added to the collection during the last few years. Our History and Timeline pages offer further details on individual collections and people in the Newberry’s past.

As the collection has been built by a combination of gift and purchase across the past century and a quarter, the following special areas of strengths have developed. (See Core Collections.)

  • American Indian and Indigenous Studies
  • American History and Culture
  • Chicago and the Midwest
  • Genealogy and Local History
  • History of the Book
  • Manuscripts and Archives
  • Maps, Travel, and Exploration
  • Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern Studies
  • Music
  • Religion

The Newberry’s founding donor, Walter L. Newberry, did not leave any books for the library because his personal goods were destroyed by the Chicago Fire of 1871. But his financial legacy made it possible for the Newberry to buy much material in its earliest years, including Florentine Count Pio Resse’s great music library (1889), the magnificent collection of rare books and manuscripts assembled by Henry Probasco of Cincinnati (1890), and the 17,000-volume collection of language and linguistic material of Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (1901). Genealogical resources began to be purchased regularly before 1900. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Newberry year after year purchased incunabula, a process that has continued into the present.

The largest single expenditure to acquire a collection came in 1964, with the purchase of the Louis H. Silver Collection of English and Continental early and first editions. Other notable purchases of entire collections in that era included the Franco Novacco Collection of European maps and views and the Francis Driscoll Collection of American sheet music, as well as a 35,000-item collection of French Revolution-era pamphlets. Among the most notable recent purchases of large collections have been the Klaus Stopp Collection of printed German-American birth and baptismal certificates and a substantial group of maps and books with maps from the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

The gift of two major collections in the years after 1910 permanently shaped the Newberry. In 1911, Edward E. Ayer began giving the library his extraordinary collection of materials related to American Indians. In 1918, John M. Wing left the Newberry his equally exceptional collection related to the history and printing and the book arts. Both men bequeathed funds that have allowed their collections to grow mightily since that time. The same was true of William B. Greenlee and Everett D. Graff, who gave both extremely important collections related, respectively, to Portugal and Brazil and to the American West, and funding for future purchases. The Rudy L. Ruggles Collection, focusing on key elements of American constitutional history and literature, was also supplemented by a purchase fund.

One of the most active areas of collecting at the Newberry since the mid-twentieth century has been manuscript materials and archives related to Chicago and Midwest businesses and journalism and cultural organizations. Major railroad companies are especially well represented, as are the history of dance (the Ann Barzell Collection), news organizations (Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, City News Bureau), and Chicago clubs.

Maps and map-related materials have come to the Newberry in abundance in recent decades. These materials have included the maps and atlases published by the Rand McNally Company since 1876, as well as the archives of Rand McNally, the General Drafting Company, and the H. M. Gousha Company. From the Roger S. Baskes Collection of books with maps have come some 10,000 items already, with support for cataloging.

During the last two decades, the Newberry has worked closely with other Chicago-area institutions to bring items from their collections into ours. Thousands of items related to European and American religion, which are today part of the Sister Ann Ida Gannon Collection, have come from Mundelein College, the Divine Word Society, the Dominican Friars of the Province of St. Albert the Great, Concordia University, the Passionist Monastery of Chicago (Northside), the McCormick Theological Seminary, and the Catholic Theological Union.

Today the Newberry’s curatorial and professional library staff and the representatives of our Research and Academic Programs Division, including research center directors, work collaboratively to develop the collection further, in partnership with our Society of Collectors, other individual donors of materials, and those who give funds for the purchase of materials.