The Newberry was founded on July 1, 1887 and opened for business on September 6 of that year. The Newberry’s establishment came about because of a contingent provision in the will of Chicago businessman Walter L. Newberry (1804-68), which left what later amounted to approximately $2.2 million for the foundation of a “free, public” library on the north side of the Chicago River, if his two children died without issue. After the deaths of Mr. Newberry’s daughters and then, in 1885, of his widow, the trustees of his estate, Eliphalet W. Blatchford and William H. Bradley, with the counsel of Chicago business and cultural leaders, moved to establish the library as a research and reference institution. In 1887-88 it was located at 90 La Salle Street, in 1889-90 at 338 Ontario Street, and in 1890-93 at the northwest corner of State and Oak Streets. The Newberry was officially incorporated under a new provision of Illinois state law in 1892.

The trustees immediately hired the Newberry’s first librarian, William Frederick Poole, who had been serving for some years as the first librarian of the Chicago Public Library. Under Poole’s leadership, the Newberry purchased 25,000 books in its first year and a half, and had a collection numbering 120,000 volumes and 44,000 pamphlets by the end of his tenure as librarian in 1894. Among these volumes were the rare European materials of the Pio Resse and Henry Probasco Collections, the first major en blocacquisitions, but they also included American journals for readers interested in mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and engineering.

In 1889 the trustees acquired property on West Walton Place to build a permanent home for the Newberry. The site was chosen because of its “highest usefulness to the greatest number,” with good sunlight and access to public transportation prominently in mind. Poole and the architect hired to design the library building, the young Henry Ives Cobb, disagreed vigorously about the arrangement of the interior spaces. Poole’s vision won out, and as a consequence the new structure contained smaller reading rooms with specific collections in close proximity to library staff possessing relevant expertise, and did not include a central bookstack. Cobb’s Romanesque exterior was built of pink granite from Branford, Connecticut. The new building opened in November 1893.

For two years before the “Cobb Building” opened, the Newberry was already deeply involved in educational programs for the public, especially as part of the relatively new university extension system. Public exhibitions began in 1896 and became frequent from 1909. In 1897, the Newberry began to focus its collection building on the humanities, as the result of an agreement that divided library specialization with the Chicago Public Library and the new John Crerar Library. After the turn of the century, the Newberry began to add important humanities collections acquired en blocby purchase, such as the Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte Collection, and by gift, including the Edward E. Ayer and John M. Wing Collections. The combination of gifts and purchases has been central to the Newberry collecting process ever since.

The addition of a bookstack tower in 1982 provided environmentally secure conditions for the collections and enabled the Cobb Building to be refitted for staff activities and to provide a wider array of public programming, which soon followed. Fellowships for advanced research and scholarly conferences were introduced in the 1940s and gradually became a major feature of the Newberry in the 1960s and 1970s. Four research centers – focusing on the History of Cartography, American Indian and Indigenous Studies, the Renaissance, and American History and Culture – came into existence in the 1970s, with the goal of stimulating disciplinary and inter-disciplinary scholarship. Semester-long undergraduate seminars began in concert with Midwest liberal arts colleges in 1965, and later with Chicago universities.