In the past 25 years, genetic and biochemical analyses of ribosome assembly in yeast have identified most of the factors that participate in this complex pathway and have generated models for the mechanisms driving the assembly. More recently, the publication of numerous cryo-electron microscopy structures of yeast ribosome assembly intermediates has provided near-atomic resolution snapshots of ribosome precursor particles. Satisfyingly, these structural data support the genetic and biochemical models and provide additional mechanistic insight into ribosome assembly. In this Review, we discuss the mechanisms of assembly of the yeast small ribosomal subunit and large ribosomal subunit in the nucleolus, nucleus and cytoplasm. Particular emphasis is placed on concepts such as the mechanisms of RNA compaction, the functions of molecular switches and molecular mimicry, the irreversibility of assembly checkpoints and the roles of structural and functional proofreading of pre-ribosomal particles.