The Library of the Johns Hopkins University began as a "general reference collection" which was assembled by the first Librarian, Thomas C. Murray (1876-1877), during the spring and summer of 1876. The books were arranged in a suite of rooms at Hopkins Hall. The relatively small size of the original collection did not present a problem for Hopkins first students and faculty, because the resources of the Peabody Institute Library, a non-circulating reference collection of about 60,000 volumes, was made available to them when the University opened in the autumn of 1876. While this early dependence on the Peabody holdings proved immensely helpful to the new institution, it did not prevent the University from proceeding to enlarge its own collection. Under the direction of Librarians A. W. Tyler (1877-1879) and William Hand Browne (1879-1891) thousands of volumes were purchased or received as gifts, and the serials collection grew very rapidly.
The Library underwent the first of several major transformations during the tenure of Nicholas Murray (1891-1908). The reading rooms in Hopkins Hall had long been inadequate as book storage and research facilities for the growing university and in 1894 the Library was transferred to several floors of the newly built McCoy Hall. One full floor was devoted to a reference area, a general library, and a main reading room, but the bulk of the collection was divided among several "departmental libraries" on the other floors. In addition to book stacks, the departmental libraries contained seminar rooms which were lined with portions of the departmental collections and in which classes were conducted. This arrangement, which was thought appropriate to the "university idea" of advanced study and research, became a strong tradition at Hopkins and was not significantly altered for 70 years. In line with this departmental plan, most scientific works were dispersed to the various laboratory buildings.
A fire in McCoy Hall on September 17, 1908, caused forty thousand dollars worth of damages. M. Llewellyn Raney, Librarian from 1908 until 1927, oversaw the reparation of the McCoy facilities after the fire. That accomplished, a decision was made in 1909 to re-catalog and reclassify the entire Library, whose holdings had increased by tens of thousands since the 1890s. A Chief Cataloger was appointed for the first time, to institute a modern system of accessions cataloging. In 1916 the Library was transferred and transformed a second time. As part of the general move of the University's Arts and Sciences divisions to the Homewood campus, the Library was installed in the newly-built Gilman Hall.
Each of the three floors in Gilman was constructed as a self-contained departmental library, combining the collections in several related disciplines with reference works, catalogs, stacks, reading areas, faculty offices, and seminar rooms. One floor centered on the social sciences; a second floor was devoted to modern languages and literature, and included a general reference and reading room; a third floor held works on ancient languages, philosophy, education, classics, art, and religion. Most books and periodicals in the sciences were distributed among the new science buildings at Homewood. The Gilman structure as a whole was considered a "pedagogy and research unit" and Raney said that its unique interior arrangements made it "the first apartment house among the libraries of the world." On opening day in 1916 the new library held a total of 196,864 volumes.
The Library experienced significant financial problems during most of the 1930s. The Depression made budgeting difficult under any circumstances, and the Library's special interest in foreign books and periodicals added the burden of the unfavorable exchange rate of the dollar.
The next quarter-century of the Library's history is the record of a growing recognition that the Gilman structure as it stood was headed for obsolescence, or at least insufficiency, and of a series of proposals to forestall that fate and, when that proved impossible, to effect a solution. The growth of the University had led to increasing numbers of both students and books, for which Gilman simply could not provide the necessary space. An early attempt at minor repair involved the transfer of all Biology holdings from Gilman to the newly-built Mergenthaler Laboratory in 1942. In 1946 the prospect of new construction was mentioned for the first time, in the form of a "repository library" for excess, little-used, and rare books. The 1947 Annual Report of Librarian Homer Halvorson (1943-1953) noted that "... a new building is indicated. This does not mean that the present library building should be replaced." Halvorson spoke in terms of a supplement to Gilman, adding to the repository idea a provision for more space.
In May 1956 a report entitled "The Johns Hopkins University and its Library" reviewed the origins and development of the Hopkins Library and pointed in the direction of a major change. By 1958 the supplement idea was dead. By 1958 the supplement idea was dead. In that year Librarian John Berthel (1954-1973) reported that architects had been commissioned to study and compare two alternatives: (1) a full scale reconstruction of Gilman Hall, and (2) a new Library building, on a new site, which would incorporate and consolidate holdings that were then dispersed among eight different buildings. Although there was initially dissent from professors who preferred the self-contained arrangements of the library/laboratories in the sciences and the departmental libraries in Gilman, the Faculty Library Committee eventually approved the idea of a new building which would house the collections of the entire Homewood campus. The decision to build was made in December 1958. A massive fundraising effort was helped when, in 1960, the Library was designated the top priority for the University's development program. Plans for location and construction proceeded apace. Ground was broken in 1962 and on November 15, 1964, the Milton S. Eisenhower Library was opened. On opening day it held 1,122,065 volumes, more than five times as many as Gilman on its opening day forty-eight years earlier.
The significant expansion in library facilities and operations dictated the developments of the 1960s and 1970s. The first Serials Librarian had been appointed in 1958. In 1973 Librarian John Berthel was appointed the first University Librarian, in charge of all of the libraries of the University's divisions. He was succeeded at the Eisenhower Library by David Stam (1973-1978). That same year the University Library Council was formed to help coordinate the activities of the several libraries in the Hopkins system. In 1975 a new, computerized circulation system was introduced at the Eisenhower Library, and the Library joined the Online College Library Center (OCLC), an interstate cataloging network. In 1976 a University Bindery was established in the Eisenhower Library.
By the late 1970s the Milton S. Eisenhower Library was, like the structure that preceded it, "facing serious space problems." Increasing numbers of books were stored in the Gilman Hall stacks.
Susan K. Martin took over the post of Director of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Library in June 1979, and oversaw the Library's entry into the Research Libraries Group (RLG) later that year. In mid-1988, she left Hopkins to become executive director of a library advisory council in Washington, DC. Johanna Hershey was named Acting Director until a permanent successor could be appointed. In late 1988, the Library inaugurated its new online catalog, christened JANUS. This innovation allows patrons to check the citation, location and availability of library materials from terminals located in various Library locations, as well as from remote locations via modem hookups.
In September 1989, Scott Bennett assumed the duties of Library Director. Bennett had previously served as Head of Collection Development at Northwestern University. In September 1994, Dr. Bennett left the library to become head of the Yale libraries and was succeeded by James Neal in September 1995.