The University Library was begun in 1580 by a donation of books by Clement Litill, an Edinburgh advocate and commissary. He left his theological books to Edinburgh and its Kirk and these were subsequently steered into the 'Town's College' by his brother in 1584.
The library collections were subsequently augmented by gifts and donations. Two major gifts, from William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) in the 1620s and 1630s, and one more major bequest, from a former Keeper of the Library, the Revd James Nairn (1629-1678) in 1678, helped establish the Library as a working collection. It had also become customary for students to make a gift of money or books at their graduation. In the mid seventeenth century, students were encouraged to contribute to the Library at matriculation as well as graduation.
Books were also received from other sources. In 1710, the Copyright Act entitled the four Scottish Universities to receive a copy of every book registered at Stationers' Hall. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Library had around 11,000 volumes. This entitlement was discontinued in 1837 and replaced by an annual payment from the Treasury.
The Library was a central source for the printed materials. However 1724 saw the appearance of what might be considered the first departmental library. The Professor of Natural History and his students set up a 'physiological library'.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the University Library was controlled by the Town Council and this was often the cause of tension between the College and the Council. Principal William Robertson (1721-1793) set about re-organising the Library, dividing it into a general branch and a medical branch. He also raised substantial funds for the library which he administered himself to ensure that the money was spent wisely. During this time, students could borrow a book on depositing a sum equal to the value of the book.
Intellectual access to the expanding collection of books was facilitated by the creation of catalogues. Throughout the life of the Library, these have taken a number of forms. In 1637, Robert Lumsden completed the first press catalogue which include details of the 2410 volumes held at that time. This catalogue was maintained up to 1641. A four volume catalogue was prepared by Duke Gordon in 1755 and this remained the Library's main finding aid for the next 50 years.
In 1809, a new alphabetical catalogue was prepared. This was followed in 1824 by a 17 volume catalogue prepared by J. Morrison, a special assistant in the Library.
The steady increase in the size of the collection and the increased demand placed on it by the expanding student body meant that new accommodation had to be found. The Library was provided with specific accommodation in 1617 and a new Library building was founded in 1642. In 1827, the books were transferred to the completed Adam-Playfair building now known as Old College. This building provided elegant accommodation for the storage of the collections and the students. However, the increasing pressures of the storage and user demand meant that new solutions to the problem had to be found. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of ad hoc solutions were adopted, any available space was employed for books or readers.
The idea of a new library building had been considered as early as 1944 and various sites were examined. In 1949, the Library Committee started to look into what might be required for an entirely new building. The process was slow and it wasn't until 1967 that the new Library Building at George Square was opened.