The University of Texas libraries began their existence in a 648-square-foot unlighted room on the topmost floor of what later became the east wing of the Old Main Building. Even though the university held its first classes on September 19, 1883, in the temporary state Capitol building and, subsequently, took possession of its new building on January 1, 1884, there is no record of a unit giving library service to the 206 enrolled students until March 7, 1884. This is the date of the first documented book loan and the day after the appointment of an assistant librarian had been confirmed by the faculty. There was, however, statutory provision for a library in the act to establish the University of Texas, dated March 30, 1881, and, at regental direction, some books were already purchased before the university opened on September 15, 1883. During the next thirteen years, principally under the aegis of Judge James E. Clark, proctor, librarian, and secretary of the faculty from 1885 to 1897, the library was moved twice, in 1885 to more convenient quarters and in 1897 to more spacious ones, actually about 7,700 square feet. It would appear that the library consisted of a group of separate collections, each selected by one of the schools into which the university was divided. When George T. Winston was appointed in 1896 as the first university president, he hired Benjamin Wyche, the university's, and possibly the state's, first trained librarian. At the very onset of Wyche's tenure (1897 to 1903), the gift of the Palm Library added 10,000 volumes to a collection of only 17,000 (see JAENSSON, SWEN). The acquisition of the Bexar Archives and certain other archival collections resulted in the establishment of the University Archives. The Texas Collection and the Texas Newspaper Collection also date from this period (see TEXAS COLLECTION LIBRARY). To arrange the various departmental and separate collections into one integrated whole, the Dewey decimal classification was adopted. In addition, the first subject catalog was initiated, and a new circulation system was introduced.
By 1903 the library was beginning to enjoy regional and even national importance. It was the largest in Texas, forty-ninth among the libraries of 455 colleges and universities and 207th in a group of 68,869 libraries of all kinds in the United States. It was, therefore, particularly fortunate that Phineas L. Windsor was appointed to succeed Wyche. Windsor (1903–09) had a very clear idea of the functions of a state university library. To him, research and the development of a collection to support it were of prime importance. He collected without regard for physical or personnel limitations. In a letter to his successor, he noted: "Your feelings of despair over the uncataloged material piling up in the library I can easily understand. A good deal of it I was instrumental in getting into the library where I knew there was only a remote chance of its being properly cared for yet I thought it worthwhile to get the stuff so I could show the professors concrete examples of what a library ought to get, and use the whole as a legitimate argument for increasing the need for a library building." Windsor's ideas were in accord with university ambitions. Faculty meetings devoted much time to discussions of the library collection. Presidential reports brought library inadequacies to the attention of regents. Regents brought them to the attention of governors and legislators. The "separate suitable [library] building" aspired to by Ashbel Smith, president of the board of regents, in his inaugural address at the opening of the university on September 15, 1883, and campaigned for by Windsor became a reality in the summer of 1911 on the completion of what is now Battle Hall. However, librarian N. L. Goodrich (1909–11) was left to deal with an imperious architect and a parsimonious governor. When he finally got the library moved into the new building, there was no funding for either stacks or equipment. Goodrich himself left for a Dartmouth College position some months before either was installed.
In a sense it was librarian John Edward Goodwin (1912–23) who picked up where Windsor left off. The collections trebled from 80,069 volumes in 1912 to 250,675 in 1923. Even though the university experienced political interference and two appropriationless years, university expenditures for library purposes were quite handsome. They were never less than 6.5 percent of total university expenditures, and in 1917–18 library expenditures actually reached 32.9 percent of the university total. Unfortunately in that year, 85 percent of the money appropriated went to purchase library materials. No extra monetary provision was made for processing them or making them available to the university community. It was a remarkable period. The benefactions of Regent George W. Littlefield strengthened the southern history collections. At the same time, historian Herbert E. Bolton and others were acquiring Spanish-language materials on the Southwest in Spain, Mexico, and Latin America. With the purchase of the Garcia library in 1921, the basis for the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection was established. Littlefield's purchase of the Wrenn Library in 1918 began the Rare Book Collections, and, eventually, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Indeed, these so-called special collections were the pride and joy of the university. One prominent English scholar and professor held that the Garcia, Aitken, and Wrenn libraries had a popularity with the people of the state second only to athletics. Concurrently, the Law Library increased from 5,000 volumes in 1912 to 26,000 in 1923.
The handsome new structure into which the library was moved in late 1911 was full by 1923. Since the growth of the collection did not wait upon the provision of proper facilities-books and pamphlets increased from 294,308 in 1923 to 473,837 in 1934-librarian Ernest W. Winkler (1923–34) spent much of his time developing logical ways in which to fragment the central collection. In 1924, 20 percent of the collection was housed in locations other than the library building; in 1934, 30 percent was so housed. Therefore, the time was more than ripe when the first unit of a new three-phase library-administration building was opened for library service in January 1934. The other two phases, the tower and the university administrative offices, were completed in 1937. Nine months after the opening of the first unit, Donald Coney was appointed to the directorship (1934–45). He took the library of a state university with nationally known research programs and prepared it for the enrollment increases—from 6,652 in 1933–34 to 15,118 in 1945–46—and service demands of the post-World War II era. The new library-administration building did much to meet the spatial necessities of the Coney tenure. Unfortunately, the facilities, like the collection itself, favored the graduate student and the research function over the needs of the undergraduate and the general reader. To address the latter problem, the library initiated a program to provide general and recreational reading materials. To address the former, Coney recommended the development of an open-shelf college library for undergraduates. This recommendation became a reality with the opening of the Undergraduate Library in 1963.
On the resignation of Coney, Alexander Moffit, Coney's associate for nine years, became librarian. During his long tenure (1945–67), the collection reflected the massive university growth of the postwar years, arriving at the first million volumes in 1952 and the second in 1968. The average annual increase of the book collection was greater than that of any other comparable period including that which occurred around World War I. On Moffit's retirement, Fred Folmer, Moffit's associate for twenty-one years, became university librarian. In the five years of Folmer's administration, the library almost reached the three million mark. The moving force behind library growth during half of Moffit's tenure and practically all of Folmer's was Harry H. Ransom. In the capacities of vice president and provost, president, and chancellor of the University of Texas System, Ransom saw to it that libraries were sufficiently well supported to move the university library system from fifteenth in holdings in 1958 to thirteenth in 1972 among fifty-eight of the nation's large research libraries. In the summer of 1970, while preparing to retire from active administration, Ransom noted that in 1958 he had urged the development of the Humanities Research Center program, the Undergraduate Library, and the Main Library. Housing for the latter two projects came, respectively, with the completion of the Academic Center in 1963 and the Perry-Castañeda Library in 1977. Housing for the former came in 1972 with the opening of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The Ransom collection period began in 1958 with the purchase of the Parsons Library, a collection of Americana, classics, Dante, and the theater, containing about 40,000 volumes and 8,000 manuscripts. There followed many other acquisitions such as the T. E. Hanley Collection, which included manuscripts of D. H. Lawrence and G. B. Shaw, the Norman Bel Geddes Collection, the Hoblitzelle Theatre Collection, and others. In 1978 the center acquired a Gutenberg Bible. Until the completion of the Academic Center in late 1963, there had been no new library building since 1937. With the completion of the Collections Deposit Library in 1968 and the many library buildings that were erected in the 1970s, the space problem began to be relieved. However, students complained about library service and faculty complained about weaknesses in collections and library management. Stephen H. Spurr, appointed president in September 1971, responded by obtaining $300,000 in extra financing for the library and bringing in David Clay (1972–74) as assistant to the president with the library as his principal assignment.
The next six years, 1971–77, were a period of accelerated administrative change for the General Libraries. University Librarian Fred Folmer was charged with full-time responsibility for planning what became the new Perry-Castañeda Library building. Merle Boylan (1973–77) was named director of libraries. The Library of Congress classification system was adopted to replace the Dewey decimal classification, which had been used for seventy-five years. The staff made an organized attack upon the large backlog of unprocessed materials—Clay's estimate placed it at 1.2 million volumes and three million manuscripts—that had accumulated over the past few years. There began a "concentrated effort" to utilize computerized systems to solve problems. In the midst of this effort, Lorene Rogers assumed the university presidency on September 25, 1974, Special Assistant Clay ceased to have library responsibilities in the following February, and Library Director Boylan resigned as of May 1, 1977, just four months before the opening of the Perry-Castañeda Library. During this six-year period library holdings increased from 2.4 million to four million volumes, and the library's relative position among the nation's great research libraries rose from fifteenth to ninth. New library initiatives after 1977 included a preservation program, a development program for fund-raising, establishment of the "Contributions of Librarianship" series, and active pursuit of federal grants, which resulted in numerous awards. Personnel development brought staff sharing, mentors for staff training and for students of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and research time for librarians, as many staff members became national leaders. Staff oversaw the rapid development of an on-line catalog, improvements in the budget and management process, introduction of microcomputers for staff and users, expansion of electronic database, use of CD-ROM, resource-sharing via national bibliographic networks, and use of the fax process, all providing a better balance between services, collections, and technical processing.
"The Report of the Centennial Commission," the body in charge of celebrating the first hundred years of the University of Texas, stated that one of the goals of the university's academic program was "to make the UT Austin Library one of the world's finest academic libraries." It was coincidentally appropriate then that the centennial year witnessed, on December 9, 1983, a celebration of the library's acquisition of its five-millionth volume. In 1993 the University of Texas at Austin General Libraries held 6,166,423 volumes and stood fifth in size among the 108 members of the Association of Research Libraries. Holdings increased at an average of approximately 140,000 volumes each year.
Harold Billings, who was employed by the General Libraries in 1954, served as director of libraries from 1977 to 2003. His tenure was characterized by extensive use of computerized systems to manage, control, and provide access to this academic resource while making available other academic resources throughout the nation and world. After Billings’s retirement in 2003, Fred Heath became the director. As library use moved ever more into the digital age, Heath advocated the enhancement of study space. The Undergraduate Library was closed and remade into the Flawn Academic Center. Heath oversaw the creation of a new and large area known as Collaborative Commons in the Perry Castañeda Library in 2013. He retired in 2015, and that year Lorraine Haricombe became director.
As of 2020 the UT Libraries maintained more than 10 million volumes as well as extensive digital access to databases, journals, and other web resources. Separately administered units are the General Libraries, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the Harry Ransom Center, the Tarlton Law Library, the LBJ Library and Museum, the H. J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, and the Texas Digital Library. The General Libraries are composed of the Perry-Castañeda Library, the Collections Deposit Library, and special collections and branches that include the Latin American Collection, the Asian Collection, the Edie and Lew Wasserman Public Affairs Library, and the Middle East Collection. The branches are Architecture and Planning, Chemistry, Classics, Engineering, Fine Arts, Geology, Physics-Mathematics-Astronomy, Life Science, as well as Human Rights Documentation Initiative and Texas ScholarWorks—an online-only access to university research and scholarship. The library at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute is located at Port Aransas.