Library Profile

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

As one of the leading private research libraries in the United States, Northwestern University Library serves the educational and information needs of its students and faculty as well as scholars around the world.

Its collection of 5 million volumes and 14 terabytes of unique digital content includes a portfolio of distinguished special collections, notably the internationally recognized Africana, Music, and Transportation libraries. It connects users to hundreds of scholarly databases with the most comprehensive, specialized, and up-to-date information in their fields, and pursues an active role in educating faculty and students in how to make the best use of these resources. Increasingly, it is prioritizing the digitization of unique materials and collections in order to make them available to any user, any time.

With approximately 800,000 visitors annually, the Main Library is one of the busiest buildings on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Just inside the front entrance, the John P. McGowan Information Commons offers more than 60 high-end computer workstations for online research, plus oversize plasma screens and smartboards for group work and team projects.

Circulation, reference, and interlibrary loan librarians located nearby help researchers identify appropriate materials in the Library’s holdings, in online sources, and in other libraries around the world.

A café upstairs on the Plaza level gives users a place to relax or recharge with a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, a jumbo cookie, or a sushi snack.

Evanston Campus: Main Library

Besides containing the bulk of the Library’s holdings, the Main Library also houses several notable departments and collections, including:

The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies. The largest collection of Africana materials anywhere in the world—including books, posters, textiles, documents, manuscripts, and ephemera, in scores of African languages—this library was established by Melville Herskovits, a pioneering anthropologist who founded the University’s anthropology department in 1938 and its Program of African Studies in 1948.

The Transportation Library. One of the world’s largest transportation collections, the Transportation Library maintains materials on air, rail, highway, pipeline, water, and urban transportation and logistics, and also houses a major law enforcement collection and an extensive collection of federal environmental impact statements.

The Government and Geographic Information and Data Services Department. As a federal depository library for more than a century, this department features Congressional reports, census information, and presidential papers, as well as State of Illinois and City of Chicago publications and official documents from many international governments and NGOs.

The Marjorie I. Mitchell Multimedia Center. Most of the 20,000 titles in the Library’s phenomenally rich video collection circulate for three days; the center also includes the Forum Room, for classes requiring special computer or video projection or videoconferencing, and a video theater that seats 40.


The Main Library, which was designed by architect Walter S. Netsch and opened in 1970, is physically linked to its predecessor, the Deering Library, a campus architectural landmark designed by James Gamble Rogers and built in 1933, just after he had worked on Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. Deering Library now houses several additional distinguished Northwestern collections, including:

The Music Library. Among the largest music collections in the U.S., the Music Library has an unmatched strength in 20th century and contemporary classical music, and holds at least one copy of nearly every new score published since 1945. Its more than 300,000 volumes of books, scores, sound recordings, and journals also include collections of original manuscripts and correspondence, notably, the John Cage collection, which documents the life and work of the 20th century’s most revolutionary composer.

The Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections. More than 225,000 rare books, periodicals, posters, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials in Special Collections span writing’s entire history, from a cache of 5,000-year-old cuneiform Mesopotamian tablets to an enormous trove of publications and ephemera documenting the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Among the collection’s many other treasures are an extensive collection of materials on 20th century Dada, Surrealist, Expressionist, and Futurist artists; two folios of Shakespeare’s plays; and original publications by W.B. Yeats and William S. Burroughs.

University Archives. University Archives houses records, publications, photographs, and other materials pertaining to every aspect of Northwestern’s history, including the papers of faculty, biographic information on Northwestern alumni, a complete run of Daily Northwestern issues, a complete set of catalogs and bulletins from each of the schools, and 250,000 photographs. Many of these materials are of broader historical significance as well, ranging from the ransom note composed by Leopold and Loeb in the infamous 1924 murder case to the baton that belonged to Glenn Cliffe Bainum, the band director who originated the use of marching band formations during football games (the first one, incidentally, spelled out “Hello”).

Digital Library Collections. Northwestern University Library has for some time been engaged in the process of digitizing selected unique collections in order to make them as universally accessible as possible. Digitizing also in many cases facilitates searching the collections, and permits images to be downloaded and reproduced easily and instantly. Native American tribes in the U.S. and Canada have made extensive use, for instance, of the digitized Edward S. Curtis North American Indian collection, downloading images for educational documentaries and cultural reconstruction projects; and scholars around the globe—but particularly in Africa—responded enthusiastically to the launch of the Online African Maps collection, with antique maps dating back to the 16th century. Additional online collections include the Africana Poster Collection, the World War II Poster Collection, the Siege of Paris, and Chicago Homer, a multilingual database that make distinctive features of the early Greek epic accessible to reader with and without Greek.

Digital and Multimedia Training and Services. Besides providing faculty and students with access to today’s most powerful and comprehensive research databases, the Library invests significant effort in helping them take advantage of the most advanced technologies available for teaching and research. The Library’s resources and programs in this area include:

  • Reference Department workshops on how to use or find specific online resources. Recent offerings, for instance, have included “Second Life - Virtual Worlds in Education,” “An Introduction to EndNote Bibliographic Software,” and “Working with Google Scholar.”
  • The 2East New Technology Series, specifically intended for NU faculty who want to take advantage of the teaching and research capabilities of digital media, course management systems, online archives, advanced visualization technologies, electronic journals, and other emerging technologies.
  • The Electronic Resources Forum, an annual day-long training session required for all incoming doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences to ensure a solid exposure to those electronic resources most critical to their research.
  • The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Program, an annual week-long series of workshops offering faculty the opportunity to design or revise a class to take advantage of advances in both technology and in teaching and learning research (co-sponsored with Academic Technologies and the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence).
  • Digital Media Services, a drop-in lab and training area in the Library that supports faculty and staff in creating and delivering images, sound, video, and text in digital formats.

Chicago Campus

Besides the Main Library, the Northwestern Library System includes two specialized branch libraries on the Evanston campus and three on the Chicago campus:

Mathematics Library (Evanston): This research collection covers the entire field of pure mathematics and statistics and provides some coverage of applied mathematics.

Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering (Evanston): Includes volulmes on the physical sciences, life sciences, engineering, nanotechnology, computer science, and applied mathematics.

Galter Health Sciences Library (Chicago): Serves Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and McGaw Medical Center, with a collection of books and other materials covering the basic sciences, clinical medicine, physical therapy, and allied fields.

Pritzker Legal Research Center (Chicago): The library serving the Northwestern University School of Law includes a research collection on Anglo-American law, a large collection on international and comparative law, and significant resources in Roman and medieval law, as well as legal materials for selected foreign jurisdictions.

Joseph Schaffner Library (Chicago): Serves as the general subject library on the Chicago campus, and supports the Northwestern programs based there, including the School of Continuing Studies, the Managers’ Program of the Kellogg School of Management, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

The Library is also affiliated with the United Library on the Evanston campus, the collection belonging to the Seabury-Western Theological Seminaries, covering biblical studies, patristics, Christian art, Near Eastern studies, archaeology, church history, American denominationalism, pietism, Christian education, African American theological studies, women’s studies, Anglicana, and Methodistica.