Founded in 1893, the nucleus of The Library was formed by contributions from outstanding private collectors and philanthropists, including Cyrus Adler, Mortimer L. Schiff, Felix Warburg, Louis Marshall, Mayer Sulzberger, Elkan Nathan Adler, and Hyman G. Enelow.
Alexander Marx, who served as chief librarian for fifty years (1903–1953), was responsible in large part for collecting the material and making it available to readers. His devoted leadership created what is recognized today as the greatest Jewish library in the Western Hemisphere.
In the 1930s, recognizing that European Jewry was declining and that America offered Jews and Judaism a place to grow, The Library made its goal to be the National Museum of the Jewish Book. It adopted a policy of collecting and preserving the totality of the Jewish cultural experience and making it accessible by means of an open-door policy.
The Library suffered a disastrous fire on April 18, 1966. The fire occurred on the upper floors of The Library tower, where most of the books were housed.
Seventy thousand volumes were destroyed, and every other book in the tower was damaged by fire, smoke, or water. Fortunately, rare books and manuscripts were kept in another area and were spared the damage.
Despite this disaster, service to readers was resumed in September 1966. A temporary, prefabricated building was erected to hold some of the books, while others were housed in a warehouse at a distance from the campus. The staff struggled in these improvised quarters until July 5, 1983, when a new building was completed and opened to the public.
The current facility has shelving for half a million books and seating for three hundred readers. Seats and study areas may be found in reading rooms, study carrels, and lounges.
The Library is equipped with wireless connectivity, an audio-visual center for microform reading, listening, and viewing and a special reading room for users of the rare book and manuscript collections.
On the premises is a working, professionally equipped conservation/preservation laboratory as well as an exhibition space showcasing treasures from The Library's holdings.
The Library is served by a staff of more than thirty people and is a member of several national and international consortia.