Religions claim a role in any library collection steeped, as the Newberry’s is, in the history of Western Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. So it is not surprising that religious history has an important part in a collection like the Newberry’s. In contrast to the many robust religious institutions in Chicago, almost all with growing libraries, the Newberry adopted a neutral position toward religion and specific religions.
In twentieth-century Chicago, this was a useful perspective. It supported the Newberry’s early collection of religious texts of Mayan and other peoples of the Americas. It also allowed curators and scholars in many fields to explore religion without seeming to favor one or another religious tradition. In particular, such neutrality allowed the Newberry to collect the documents of religious extremism and non-conformity in depth, resulting in our unparalleled collections of materials on radical Christian movements, on the experiences of Christian missionaries, on English Catholicism, on Jansenism, and on the Roman and Spanish Inquisitions. All these materials were assembled in the years from 1945 to the 1980s.
Since 1992, moreover, the Newberry has expanded its potential as a center for the study of religion by absorbing the rare book holdings of nine religious libraries in the Chicago region. A massive cataloging project still underway is allowing us to make these many thousands of books and pamphlets fully available to a world-wide public. These materials are especially rich in Hebraica, Biblical studies, moral and pastoral theology, and sermons; and they have already been used intensively by teachers and scholars in Newberry-led seminars and training institutes, as well as by individuals.