The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries constitute a major art and architecture research collection serving The Art Institute of Chicago and scholars in the fields of art and architectural history with more than 500,000 print titles, 100,000 auction catalogs, 1,200 current serial subscriptions, and extensive digital collections. Approximately 10,000 volumes are added annually. All periods and media are covered, but special emphasis is placed on architecture of the 18th through 20th centuries and 19th century painting, prints, drawings, and decorative arts. Special collections include the Percier and Fontaine Collection of 17th-19th century architectural books, the Mary Reynolds Collection on Dada and Surrealism, the George R. Collins Archive of Catalan Art and Architecture, and the Mrs. James Ward Thorne Collection of illustrated books.

The Reading Room ("Open Shelf") collection contains reference bibliographies, indexes, dictionaries, surveys, current periodicals and auction catalogs, as well as copies of Art Institute publications and exhibition catalogs. All other materials are housed in the Libraries'  book stacks and must be requested by following the Libraries' paging procedures.

Additional Resources Include:

The Ryerson & Burnham Archives

The Ryerson & Burnham Digital Collections

Institutional Archives of The Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute Digital Publications

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).

The Franke Reading Room, the original Ryerson Library, was designed in 1900 by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the architects of the 1893 building on Michigan Avenue.  It was restored to its original design and finishes in 1994 by Vinci|Hamp Architects and today serves as the main workspace for readers.

Works of art from the Art Institute’s permanent collection hang in the American Renaissance space and temporary exhibitions highlight aspects of the Libraries’ collections. For a more virtual experience of the Reading Room, explore the Google Art Project.

The names of sixteen significant writers on the history of art and architecture circle the Reading Room in the entablature area below the skylight.