Although the Chicago Public Library was founded in 1873, two years after the Great Chicago Fire, a wealthy Chicagoan named Walter L. Newberry decided to leave $2.2 million dollars upon his death to fund another free public library in Chicago. That led to the creation of the Newberry Library in 1887. This is not to be confused with the Newbery Medal awarded to American children’s literature each year. The latter Newbery is named after the English publisher, John Newbery, and only has one “R.”
Today, the Newberry Library has approximately 1.6 million books, 600,000 maps, and 5 million manuscript pages. Like the Chicago Public Library, the Newberry Library is free. However, unlike the Chicago Public Library, it is primarily a research library, and is not owned by the city of Chicago. Anyone can receive a reader’s card to use the Newberry, but nobody can take the items home. Because the Newberry’s collection contains rare books and papers, you need to specifically request which items you would like to see, and then a librarian will bring them out to you in a reading room. I have never done this before but know someone who did.
The Newberry Library’s collection primarily focuses on materials from the Western Hemisphere and Europe, with an emphasis on Chicago and the American Midwest. The collection includes Medieval and Renaissance-era manuscripts from Europe, American postcards, a strong genealogy collection, American Indian and Indigenous resources, and even a collection about the history of the book. Most of the collection comes from both purchases and generous donations. In addition to providing resources to researchers, and fellowships to scholars since the 1940s, the Newberry Library also offers a variety of seminars and classes that people can register to take.
I hope to one day take a tour of the Newberry, or use its reading room at least once, but in the meantime, I have visited the Newberry for other reasons. Frequently the Newberry Library changes its exhibits on its main floor, so in 2017, I went to an exhibit called, “Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700.” The year 2017 was the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, so this exhibit was in honor of that anniversary. It displayed 150 objects that helped tell the story of the Protestant Reformation. My colleagues and I went on a wonderful tour of this exhibit.
The other two times that I have visited the Newberry Library were for its annual Book Fair in July. Unfortunately, the Book Fair was cancelled last year, due to COVID-19, and I believe it will be cancelled again this year (2021) for the same reason. Throughout the year, the Newberry Library receives thousands of book donations, which it then sells at its annual Book Fair. The books are organized in different rooms by genre and include many old and unusual books. Although it can be a bit crowded, the experience is worthwhile for anyone who loves books.
Sources and Further Reading
“About.” The Newberry. https://www.newberry.org/about (accessed April 17, 2021).
“Core Collections.” The Newberry. https://www.newberry.org/core-collections (accessed April 17, 2021).
“History.” The Newberry. https://www.newberry.org/history#:~:text=The%20Newberry%20was%20officially%20incorporated,of%20the%20Chicago%20Public%20Library. (accessed April 17, 2021).
Newhart, Elizabeth. “A Brief History of the Newberry Library, Chicago.” Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/illinois/articles/a-brief-history-of-the-newberry-library-chicago/ (accessed April 17, 2021).
“Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700.” The Newberry. https://www.newberry.org/religious-change-and-print (accessed April 17, 2021).