The Story Behind the Stacks: How Newberry Library Came to Be

Learn the story behind Newberry Library, one of the best research libraries for humanities in the world.

This story is featured in Living Landmarks of Chicago, a fascinating book that brings landmarks to life. Get your copy today!

Walter Loomis Newberry was the kind of man who prepared. Before moving to Chicago in 1833, he’d already invested in real estate. The town was barely a town, but Walter went ahead and plunked down some cash for a piece of swamp.

As the town became a city, canal fever inspired speculation and quick riches, but Walter took the steady route, which protected him when the panic of 1837 destroyed less methodical men. Who would’ve thought he’d end up in a rum barrel?

It didn’t take long for the Newberry name to gain prominence. Walter’s brother, Oliver, owned a shipping company out of Detroit. Oliver’s agent, George Dole, opened a slaughterhouse in Chicago in 1834 and made the first shipment of beef aboard one of Oliver’s ships.

Five years later, Newberry and Dole loaded their brig Osceola with 1,678 bushels of wheat, beginning Chicago’s status as the biggest grain exporter in the country. Walter came at it from the other direction, helping to found the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad and serving as its first president. He also kept buying and selling land and got into banking, too.

When Walter wasn’t busy making money, he was giving away his time. The man was a reader, and in 1841 he helped found the Young Men’s Association and became its first president. Not to be confused with the Young Men’s Christian Association, the YM (no C) A was dedicated “to establish and maintain a Reading Room and Library, and to procure Literary and Scientific Lectures, and to promote the intellectual improvement of its members.”

Subscription fees and taxes were low, because even though membership wasn’t free, the founders wanted to bring in all classes of citizens. The association procured newspapers and periodicals and Walter provided the first books. The group would eventually become the Chicago Library Association.

In addition to the YMA, Walter presided over the Chicago School Board, twice. He helped found and was a president of the Chicago Historical Society. At one point, he was an Alderman, city comptroller, and acting mayor. 

On November 22, 1842, Walter, age 38, married Ms. Julia Butler Clapp, age 24. They had a son, Walter, who died. They had another son, another Walter, who also died. Mary Louise was born in 1845 and eight years later Julia gave birth to Julia Rose.

Because Walter prepared, he drafted a will with the help of his Chicago Historical Society co-founder Judge Mark Skinner. The document was set to be your standard divvy-up-the-goods amongst children and relatives. But Mark, recognizing both Walter’s passion for books and the Newberry family’s history of ill health, suggested a contingency clause: if Mary Louise and Julia Rose died without issue, then why not bequeath the money to start a public library? Walter really wanted the Newberry name to continue, and this would make sure that it would.

Walter had never been very healthy. Although he had been accepted to West Point, he couldn’t attend because of his health. He would often travel to Europe, as the rich did in those days, and even married Julia in Paris. His final trip across the Atlantic ended on November 6, 1868, when Walter died of tuberculosis at sea. The captain couldn’t exactly throw him overboard, so the shipmates put him in a rum barrel. (Whether there was rum in it or not is up for debate.)

Related: read about Potter and Bertha Palmer, who also frequently crossed the Atlantic.

His daughters didn’t live much longer. Mary Louise died in 1874, and Julia Rose in 1876. Neither of them married, and their mother, Julia, died in 1885. The contingency clause kicked in: Walter’s nieces and nephews got half of the estate, and the balance of $2,149,201 could be used to start a public library.

Enough time had passed since the will had been drafted that Chicago already had a free public library, established in 1872 in an old water tank. The executors of the Newberry estate, William H. Bradley and the delightfully named Eliphalet W. Blatchford, proposed a non-circulating research institution that would be open to everyone.

Eliphalet, another early member of the Chicago Historical Society and co-founder of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, was installed as the library’s first president, a role  he held until his death in 1914.

William Frederick Poole became their first librarian, leaving his post at the Chicago Public Library which he’d directed since 1873. Poole was pretty much the man for the job. He was president of the American Library Association and an accomplished bibliographer and library administrator who literally wrote the book on indexing. 

Poole had definite ideas on how libraries should be organized, including the notion that each library should have its own system of cataloging. Fortunately, Melvil Dewey was a contemporary and his universal decimal system won out. Poole’s strong opinions also put him into conflict with Henry Ives Cobb. The architect tried to go the standard route of a central stack and a large reading room. Poole wanted small reading rooms, each one dedicated to one subject matter. In the end, they both got their way. Poole got his small rooms and initially books were shelved by subject within those rooms. When the Newberry expanded in 1982, they built a ten-story book-stack tower.

Poole’s early focus was on building the nascent Newberry Library’s collections. The first book the library possessed was a Caxton memorial Bible, number 98 out of 100 copies printed ten years prior. Walter’s books had gone up in flames in 1871, and the library was in the unusual situation of having few books, but lots of money.

Eliphalet donated a few, but most of the acquisitions were purchased. In the first six months they’d acquired 6,457 volumes and 4,907 pamphlets, and only 359 volumes and 742 pamphlets were donated. By the end of 1888, Poole had bought 25,000 books. 

While Poole envisioned a library with broad holdings, the Newberry quickly focused on the humanities. One of the first big purchases, in 1889, was the entire musical library of Count Pio Resse of Florence, Italy. This treasure trove included the first opera ever publicly performed in 1600, Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice.” Maria de Medici signed it herself.

The next year Poole secured the Henry Probasco collection. Poole was intimately familiar with the catalog; since he helped advise the Cincinnati collector twenty years before, he knew the $52,294 price tag was worth it. This collection, which included Shakespeare folios, rare bibles, and early editions of Homer, Dante, and Horace, immediately established the Newberry Library as a destination for scholars.

This valuable and quickly growing cache of knowledge needed a suitable home. Henry Ives Cobb had already been hired to design the Chicago Historical Society’s new building at Dearborn and Ontario. Eliphalet and colleagues liked the young architect’s style, so in 1888 they hired him to design the library as well.

At first, the plan was to build on the site of the former Newberry homestead at Pine and Ontario. But they changed their minds when they realized that the block between Clark and Dearborn on Walton Place would give them 3,000 more square feet. Additionally, it fronted Washington Park and it was also on the Clark electric car line.

It may have helped that the location was charmed: it had been the site of the former home of Mahlon Ogden, brother to Chicago’s first mayor, and the house miraculously escaped the Chicago fire unscathed.

Bonus: Walter used to own it. He’d sold it to Arthur Cowles in 1861 for $130,000. Eliphalet et al used the funds from Walter’s estate to buy it back for only $45,000 more.

In November 1893, the Newberry Library moved in. Poole died the next year, leaving a collection of more than 160,000 items. That same year the library created an in-house bindery.

Another rich Chicagoan left a bequest for a library in his will, so in 1896, the John Crerar Library, Chicago Public Library, and Newberry Library entered into an agreement to make sure there wouldn’t be much overlap. Crerar would focus on the sciences, CPL would provide general literature and Chicagoana, and the Newberry would concentrate on the humanities. Between the time of the agreement and 1913, the Newberry would donate a quarter of its books to Crerar, including John Audubon’s Birds of America

The Newberry would also continue to aggressively expand its own collection. In 1901, they acquired Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte’s 17,000-item linguistics collection. Other significant acquisitions included founding trustee Edward E. Ayer’s donation of approximately 50,000 books and original manuscripts focused on North American Indians.

John Mansir Wing gave the library his personal collection of the history of printing and money. Over the years the Newberry amassed an encyclopedic stockpile of items related to maps and travel, genealogy, local history, American history, religion, Medieval and Renaissance studies, and Midwest journalism, business, and organizational history.

In the 1940s, librarian Stanley Pargellis instituted public programming, and in the ‘60s, Lawrence Towner further developed conservation and research. Incredibly, the first fundraising efforts didn’t happen until 1964.

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Newberry Library Today

Newberry Library in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago

This world renowned research library is like a candy store for scholars, students, and anyone interested in the human condition. If you’re fourteen or older, you can obtain a free reader card. While you can’t check items out of the library, you can get comfortable in one of the reading rooms, and they offer copying services for a fee. 

In addition to exhibitions, the Newberry Library also hosts an annual book sale; it’s the one time you can take books out of the library. The Saturday of the four-day sale, they host the Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Square, the park across the street. 

From the 1910s through the 1960s, Washington Square was given the ignominious moniker Bughouse Square. Why? Because it attracted a bunch of bohemians, socialists, atheists, and other free-thinkers.

Their raucous debates seemed a little crazy to conservative society, so the masses nicknamed the place after the slang word for mental health facility. While the lively discussions ended during the red scare days, Newberry revived them as a one-day annual event in 1986.

Each July, speakers get up on literal soapboxes and try to persuade you to their line of thinking. Heckling is frequent and encouraged. The best “soapboxer” wins the Dill Pickle, an award named for a club/theater/speakeasy that had been located near Washington Square down Tooker Alley. A guest at the Dill Pickle might have heard Carl Sandburg read a poem, seen a play by Theodore Dreiser, or had an illicit cocktail with Ben Hecht.

Newberry Library; 60 West Walton Place, Chicago, IL  60610, (312) 943-9090