History of the Libraries

Art books have been purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago since 1879, when each student paid a two-dollar fee for library acquisitions; by 1885 there were 240 books in the collection. In 1900 trustee Martin A. Ryerson donated $50,000 to build a new library. Named after its benefactor, the Ryerson Library was designed by the firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge of Boston and built in a former light court of the 1893 building. The skylight was designed by Louis J. Millet and the decorative color scheme was designed by Elmer Garnsey, who created the decorative scheme for the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

In a response to a request in 1905 from W.M.R. French, Director of the Art Institute, for a list of architectural titles that the Institute should purchase, Daniel H. Burnham, architect, urban planner, and trustee, replied with a list of seventy-five titles and stated: "An adequate architectural library is one of the notable lacks in the intellectual resources of Chicago..."1 Burnham died in 1912, bequeathing $50,000 for the creation of a library of architecture. A trustee Committee on Burnham Library was immediately formed to provide guidance for the creation of the Burnham Library.

Although funded separately by the Art Institute, the Ryerson Library and the Burnham Library shared many resources over the years, including a single administrative director. Due to financial necessity, the two libraries merged their operations in 1957 as the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries. 1967 saw the opening of an expanded four-story reading, stack, and exhibition space designed by C.F. Murphy Associates and Brenner Danforth Rockwell. The Art Institute's Department of Architecture was formed in 1981 with the transfer of some 40,000 drawings and architectural fragments from the Burnham Library collections. The Reading Room of the Libraries, which was the centerpiece of the original Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge Ryerson Library, was fully restored in 1994 by Vinci|Hamp Architects (the Louis Millet skylight was restored in 1988).

Additional library history and information on collections can be found in issues of Museum Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (1988) and vol. 34, no. 2 (2008).

1 This history is drawn extensively from Mary Woolever's "The Burnham Library of Architecture: A History," The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (1988): 107-117, 169-170. Burnham is cited from his letter of August 11, 1905 (Woolever: 107).