Historically, the Newberry's collection of early books is the creation of several important historians on staff, most significantly for the present shape of the collection, Hans Baron, who retired in 1968. Baron was widely interested in literary, social, and intellectual history, so the collection is strong not only in traditional areas like political and religious history but also in women's literature, the history of guilds and schools, and the history of humanist scholarship. A second major force in shaping the collections is the presence since 1919 of a dedicated collection in the history of printing, one of the most complete in North America.

The online catalog currently contains some 12,500 titles that date from the sixteenth century. There are also 2300 incunables. In the online catalog, most sixteenth-century items are given tracings for place of creation, so scholars can easily explore the holdings for a particular time and place. The largest number of sixteenth-century books come from Italy with over 3000 titles, followed by France with over 2000. There are also some important sixteenth-century items not in the online catalog, e.g. some pamphlet collections; approximately 1400 maps, which are cataloged only in the Newberry Library Cartographic Catalog (www.biblioserver.com/newberry); and the contents of several seminary collections acquired in recent years, presently not cataloged at all.

Important genres or types of book (typically analyzed in the online records) include political pamphlets, emblem books, handwriting books, courtesy books, maps and city views. The printing collection includes specimen imprints of all major presses, and many books and fragments that exemplify printing and publishing practice (book catalogs, type specimens, marked proofs, bindings). The principal subject areas are music, especially vocal music and music theory; classical languages and literature; grammar, rhetoric, history of erudition; historical narratives and historiography; theology and religious controversies; and the history of discovery and exploration.

For on line descriptions of the Newberry Library's holdings and links to finding aids, consult the website at www.newberry.org under the rubric, Collections and Catalog.