“The History of The Newberry Library, Part II,” by S.M. O’Connor

Between 1962 and 1986, The Newberry Library greatly expanded under the leadership of the sixth Newberry Librarian and President Lawrence William (“Bill”) Towner (1921-1992), a historian and veteran of the Second Great World War.  Born in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 10, 1921, to Earl Chadwick Towner and Cornelia (Mallum) Towner, Bill Towner earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa (not to be confused with Cornell University in Ithaca, New York) and subsequently served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps[1] for four years from 1943 to 1946.[2]  Before he went off to fly over the Far East (in the China, Burma, India theater of the war), he wed his college sweetheart, Rachel Bauman in Joliet, Illinois.[3] He earned his master’s degree at Northwestern University while he taught at the Chicago Latin School and then earned his doctorate from Northwestern.[4] Ray A. Billington was his doctoral dissertation advisor and his first mentor.[5]  After he had completed his doctoral coursework, Towner moved to Boston to undertake research for his dissertation.[6]  He drove there with future Senator George McGovern.[7]  While he conducted his dissertation research, Towner taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first as an instructor and later as an assistant professor.[8]  Between 1950 and ’54, he undertook research and wrote his dissertation entitled A Good Master Well-Served: A Social History Servitude in Massachusetts, 1620-1750.[9]  During this period, Clifford Kenyon “Ted” Shipton (1902-1973), Director of the American Antiquarian Society (and Archivist of Harvard University) became a second mentor for Towner.[10]  Towner’s friend, Professor Alfred Young later observed, “His analytical categories… were unexpected: there was a ‘servant elite’ of apprenticed and indentured servants (both with terms fixed by contract) and the ‘servant lower classes’ made up of poor boys and girls put out to servitude by Overseers of the Poor, debtors, war prisoners, criminals, Indians and Negros, the latter slaves for life but ‘servants’ in the euphemism of the day.”[11]  After he earned his doctorate, Bill & Rachel (and their four children (Wendy, Kristin, Larry, and Elizabeth) moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where he taught at the College of William and Mary as an associate professor and also worked at the Institute of Early American History and Culture.[12]  Lester Cappon, the Director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, became his third mentor and Towner served as Associate Editor (and later Editor) of The William and Mary Quarterly, a post he held from 1956 until 1962, when he left to become Librarian of The Newberry Library.[13]  Soon after the Towners arrived back in Chicago, twins Michael and Peter were born.[14]


Figure 1 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the fountain at the center of Washington Square Park and The Newberry Library on Sunday, July 14, 2019.  The Newberry Library is a privately-funded research library that is open to the public, located at 60 West Walton Street on the North Side of Chicago.  In 2012, it celebrated the 125th anniversary of its foundation in 1887.

In 1963, Towner created the Special Collections department.  Following the lead of the Library of Congress, in 1963, Towner hired young Paul Banks (1935-2000), a book conservator, to head a new preservation program on site.[15] Thus, in 1964, when floods damaged the libraries of Florence, Italy, The Newberry Library was in a position to send Banks as part of a delegation of American librarians who helped repair damaged materials in Florentine libraries.[16]

The mid-1960s saw the first Newberry Library Seminar.  It was devoted to renaissance studies.

The Newberry Library acquired many important collections under his leadership.  In 1964, Newberry Trustee Everett D. Graff donated his collection of Western Americana. That same year, Professor Towner acquired the Louis H. Silver collection of books and manuscripts on the Renaissance and English literature for The Newberry Library, much to the consternation of John Fleming at the University of Texas.[17]  To pay the $2,687,000 cost, Towner (a) sold duplicates in the collection, (b) sold duplicates within the Americana collection Everett D. Graff donated in 1964, and (c) started The Newberry Library’s first-ever fundraising campaign.[18]  The fundraising campaign raised $1,500,000.  Towner also acquired the Frank Deering collection of Indian captivity narratives for The Newberry Library in 1967, as well as the Novacco and Sack cartographic collections, and the Driscoll Collection of American sheet music in 1967.[19]

Marcus A. McCorison of the American Antiquarian Society later recalled, “Bill was an alumnus of one of a group of small midwestem colleges that used to be known as the ‘Little Ten,’ but latterly, in these more sophisticated times, as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, or ACM. One of his earliest moves was to encourage the institutional members of the ACM to establish semester-long residential seminars in the humanities at the Newberry. The seminars were led by ACM professors and were open to students from such member colleges as Grinnell, Carleton, Ripon, and Knox. Also for a time, the office of the consortial organization for the ‘Big Ten’ was located at the library.”[20]

The emphasis of The Newberry Library moved from the Old World (Eurasia) to the New World (the Americas), especially as related to American Indian populations and early North American settlers.  Towner also established a number of research centers: the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography in 1971, American Indian History in 1971, the Family and Community History Center in 1971, and the Center for Renaissance Studies in 1980.[21]  Towner had seen Italian map collections and wanted The Newberry Library to have one. A $35,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation enabled the creation of the Family and Community History Center.  After two reorganizations, it was called the Dr. William Scholl Center for American History and Culture, and existed until 2017.  A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the creation of the Center for Renaissance Studies in 1979.

He used the Edward E. Ayer Collection on the American Indian and the Everett D. Graff Collection on the American West to create the D’Arcy McNickle Center on the American Indian.[22]  Towner regarded D’Arcy McNickle as its founder.  McNickle was half-American Indian and half-European and was born on the Flathead Indian Reservation.[23]  A member of the Confederated Salish tribe and Kootenai tribe, McNickle had studied at the University of Montana and The University of Oxford.[24]

Lester Cappon, Towner’s aforementioned mentor, came to The Newberry Library as a Senior Fellow after he retired.[25]  Consequently, Cappon was able to edit the Atlas of Early American History after he conducted research at the Newberry’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography.[26]  Princeton University Press published it in 1976.[27]

In 1971, Dr. Towner, O.B. Hardison of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and McCorison founded the Independent Research Library Association.[28]  There were fifteen member libraries.[29]  Towner served as the third Chairman of the Independent Research Library Association from 1975 to 1977.[30]

In 1975, James Wells became the first Vice President of The Newberry Library.  [Later, all division heads were called vice presidents.]  That same year, Production Binding and the Conservation Laboratory merged to become the Conservation Department.

Renovations in the 20th Century steered The Newberry Library’s floor-plan away from Dr. Poole’s ideal, and today The Newberry Library has two main reading rooms.  A separate, ten-story closed stacks building was also erected.[31]  Harry Weese (1915-1998), a famous Chicago architect, oversaw interior renovations in 1983. He also designed the above-mentioned ten-story addition at the northwest corner of the library building site to provide additional, temperature-controlled storage space for The Newberry Library’s 1,500,000 books, 5,000,000 manuscripts, and 300,000 maps.


Figure 2 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the eastern elevation of Henry Ives Cobb’s original library building and the small red brick building behind its southeast corner, as seen on June 5, 2010.


Figure 3 Credit: Seán M. O’Connor Caption: This is the eastern elevation of the additions of The Newberry Library at the northwest corner of the site, as seen on June 5, 2010.

By moving the books into the new stacks building, The Newberry Library freed up space for other purposes in Cobb’s old building.[32]  The first floor was devoted to two exhibit galleries, a bookstore, a lecture and concert hall, and the Office of Development.[33]   The second floor was devoted to the reading room and microfilm-reading space.[34]  The third floor was devoted to a card catalogue with 3,000,000 cards and computers that tracked materials catalogued from 1980 onward, and open reference and bibliographic collections.[35]  The fourth floor was devoted to a reading room for rare books, manuscripts, and maps; carrels for fellows; spaces for the centers and short-term programs; and six seminar rooms replaced the single one.[36]  The Fellows Lounge where people who had received fellowships could commiserate was later renamed the Lawrence W. Towner Fellows Lounge. [37]  The fifth floor was devoted to a conservation center and a second lounge and ding area for fellows.[38]

Headed by Richard H. Brown, Academic Vice-President, and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Division of Research and Education’s budget grew from $400,000 in 1973 to $1,600,000 in 1991.[39]  Towner invited Chicago secondary schools to hold history fairs at The Newberry Library.[40]  In addition, Towner chaired the Illinois Humanities Council.[41]

In 1985, Newberry Trustee and lawyer Rudy Lamont Ruggles, Senior donated his library of 400 volumes and fifteen maps to The Newberry Library. The Ruggles Collection consists of books on American law and American history, as well as American and British literature, and early American maps.  That same year, The Newberry Library held its first annual Newberry Book Fair.  In 1986, The Newberry Library mounted an exhibit, A Princely Gift: The Rudy Lamont Ruggles Collection of The Newberry Library, which included future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Jay’s manuscript for Essay No. 3 of The Federalist Papers, as Jay Pridmore reported for the Chicago Tribune.  On behalf of The Newberry Library, R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company printed an exhibit catalogue, A Princely Gift: The Rudy Lamont Ruggles Collection of The Newberry Library, with an “Introduction” by Towner.

Towner’s health began to decline before he retired in 1986 at the age of sixty-five.[42]  Within a short period of time in the mid-1980s, he had to be hospitalized twice, his son Larry died at a relatively young age and his mother-in-law died, as well.[43]  The Board of Trustees elected him President Emeritus and later Life Trustees.[44]

In August of 1986, Dr. Charles T. Cullen succeeded Towner as President and Librarian of The Newberry Library.  After he earned his doctorate in legal history at the University of Virginia, in 1970 he joined the History Department faculty at the College of William and Mary, where he edited the Papers of John Marshall.  In 1979, he moved to Princeton University, where he edited the Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  Between the two projects, he produced twelve volumes.  He was a pioneer in the use of computers to edit historical materials.  In 1986, new Bughouse Square Debates began in Washington Square Park.

The Newberry Library marked the 100th anniversary of its foundation in 1987 with the exhibit Humanities Mirror: Reading at The Newberry, 1887-1987 and publication of a companion book.  The contributors to the book included Cullen, Towner, and Wells.  That same year, Virginio L. Ferrari produced Umanità for The Newberry Library.[45]  This stainless steel sculpture on a granite base was a gift of Donald and Marlene Mazzoni.  The Newberry Library also began to give out the Newberry Librarian Award on an annual basis.  The Newberry Librarian Award is a scale model of Umanità, but instead of replicating the granite base in miniature it substitutes a narrow column.  As a result, it resembles a monstrance.

In 1990, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission awarded The Newberry Library a grant to establish an archive of The Newberry Library’s institutional records.  Today, The Newberry Library Archives takes up 638.9 linear feet.  It consists of institutional records, Walter L. Newberry estate records, correspondence of trustees and staff members, and publications that document the foundation and growth of The Newberry Library.

Due to gifts from the Dr. Scholl Foundation, in 1991, The Newberry Library renamed the Family and Community History Center the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for Family and Community History.  It undertook research projects, engages in professional development for teachers, and produced exhibits.

Towner died in Chicago on June 12, 1992 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.[46]   He was survived by Rachel; three daughters (Wendy Yanikoski, Kristin Moses, and Elizabeth Jackson); two sons (Peter and Michael); a brother; and nine grandchildren. Towner’s friends compiled a book of his essays and orations entitled Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and the Humanities.[47]   The committee that chose the materials was comprised of Cullen; Richard H. Brown, Academic Vice-President; Robert W. Karrow, Junior, Administrative Curator of Special Collections and Curator of Maps; Kenneth Nebenzahl, antiquarian bookdealer and Newberry Trustee; Paul Saenger, George A. Poole Curator of Rare Books and Collection Development Librarian; and Alfred F. Young, Professor of History Emeritus at Northern Illinois University and Senior Research Fellow at The Newberry Library. Karrow and Young were the editors.  The University of Chicago published it in 1993.  Thanks to the perseverance of Rachel Towner Raffles, Lawrence William Towner’s dissertation was finally published under the title A Good Master Well-Served: Masters and Servants in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1750 in 1998.  Garland Publishing, Inc. published it as part of its Studies in African American History and Culture.  Young wrote the lengthy “Foreword.”  Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group, republished it in 2016.

The Center for Renaissance Studies impressed authoress Anne Rice when she visited the city on a book for her horror novel Lasher in 1993.  “This is a dream, to have a collection like this,” she said to Lynn Van Matre of the Chicago Tribune.  “Can anybody come here?  They can?  Oh, gosh.”[48]  She was particularly taken with the 15th Century illustrated manuscript Speculum Humanae Salvationis (“Mirror for the Human Salvation”).[49]

In 1994, The Newberry Library continued to expand its reach, by establishing its Center for Public Programs.  It arranges exhibitions, seminars, and lectures.  In the 1990s, the original building’s façade underwent cleaning that restored the pinkish hue of the stones, which are studded with natural mica chips that sparkle in sunshine.

The Queen Elizabeth I quadracentennial exhibit in 2003 was the most popular in The Newberry Library’s history.  That same year, McAdam/Cage published Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, the hero of which, research librarian Henry DeTamble has a genetic abnormality that causes him to uncontrollably travel through time and space, and he uses The Newberry Library as an anchor in time and space (somewhat like the concept of the constant in the TV series Lost).  Random House published the book in the U.K. in 2004.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for Family and Community History, the Chicago Historical Society (which later renamed its building in Lincoln Park the Chicago History Museum), and Northwestern University were able to collaborate on the Encyclopedia of Chicago, which The University of Chicago Press published in 2004.  The editors were James R. Grossman, Vice President for Research and Education at The Newberry Library; Ann Durkin Keating, Professor of History at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois; and Janice L. Reiff. Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.).   The Newberry Library has the copyright on the 2004 print edition while the Chicago Historical Society has the copyright on the 2005 Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

In October of 2005, Dr. Cullen retired.   For nine years, he sat on the Board of Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns the Monticello, the mansion designed and built by President Jefferson.  Recently, Cullen received the Founders Award from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (H.S.P.) at the close of a three-year-long term as Interim President & Chief Executive Officer of the H.S.P.


[1] The U.S. Army renamed its air arm, the U.S. Army Air Corps, the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941, and it became a separate branch of the U.S. Armed Services equal to the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, as the U.S. Air Force in 1947.  Theoretically, it should have been called the U.S. Army Air Forces the whole time Bill Towner was a pilot, but his biographers and obituary writers have consistently written he was a plot in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

[2] Marcus A. McCorison, “Lawrence William Towner,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 102 (1992), p. 284

[3] McCorison, p. 284

[4] McCorison, p. 284

[5] Alfred F. Young. Introduction. Past Imperfect: Essays on History, Libraries, and the Humanities. By Lawrence William Towner.  Editors Robert W. Karrow, Jr. and Alfred F. Young. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1993), pages xvii and xix

See also Alfred F. Young. Forward. A Good Master Well-Served: Masters and Servants in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1750. By Lawrence William Towner. Editor Graham Russell Hodges. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1998), p. xi

[6] McCorison, p. 284

[7] McCorison, p. 284

George Stanley McGovern (1922-2012) was a historian who went on to represent South Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives (1957-19621) and the U.S. Senate (1963-1981) and was the Democratic Party nominee for the presidency in 1972.  President Richard Milhouse Nixon (1913-1994) trounced McGovern in ‘72, as Nixon won over 60% of the popular vote and forty-nine of the fifty states.

[8] McCorison, p. 284

Young, A Good Master Well-Served, p. viii

[9] Young, A Good Master Well-Served, pages x-xiii

[10] Young, A Good Master Well-Served, p. xi

[11] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xiii

[12] Alfred F. Young, p. xvii

See also McCorison, p. 285

[13] Young, Past Imperfect, pages xxi and xxii

See also McCorison, p. 285

See also Young, A Good Master Well-Served, p. viii

[14] McCorison, p. 285

[15] David H. Stam, “Towner, Lawrence William (1921-1992).” Dictionary of American Library Biography, Second Supplement, Volume 3. Editor Donald G. Davis, Junior.  Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, a division of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. (2003), p. 215

[16] Stam, p. 215

[17] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxiv

See also McCorison, p. 285

[18] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxiv

[19] Young, Past Imperfect, pages xxiv and xxv

See also McCorison, p. 286

[20] McCorison, p. 286

[21] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxviii

See also Stam, p. 216

[22] McCorison, p. 286

[23] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxix

[24] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxix

[25] McCorison, p. 286

[26] McCorison, p. 286

[27] Stam, p. 216

[28] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxxi

See also McCorison, p. 287

[29] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxxi

[30] McCorison, p. 287

[31] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[32] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[33] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[34] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[35] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[36] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[37] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[38] Young, Past Imperfect,  p. xxx

[39] Young, Past Imperfect, p. xxx

[40] McCorison, p. 286

[41] McCorison, p. 286

[42] McCorison, p. 288

[43] Stam, p. 216

[44] McCorison, p. 288

[45] From 1966 to 1976, Virginio L. Ferrari had served as Assistant Professor of Art and Sculptor in Residence at The University of Chicago and he continues to divide his time between Chicago and Guardistallo, Italy.

[46] McCorison, p. 288

[47] McCorison, p. 288

[48] Lynn Van Matre, “At the Newberry Library with Anne Rice Modern-Day Horror Queen Really Sinks Her Teeth into Bewitching Historic Tales,” Chicago Tribune, 26 October, 1993, TEMPO, p. 1

[49] Ibid

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