The library, which was set up by order of the Utrecht city council in the choir of Saint John's Church in 1584, was open to all the citizens. That made the library one of the first public city libraries in The Netherlands. After the foundation of Utrecht University in 1636 the library became the University Library.
The books were collected after a decree was issued by the Utrecht city council in 1581. The city had chosen for the reformed religion so the Catholic churches, monasteries and convents were closed. The books from the five chapter churches in the city and from the monasteries and convents were confiscated for the new city library.
These books still form the heart of the present-day collection of manuscripts and old and rare books: approximately 650 works from the most important monastic libraries and a hew works from the chapter of Saint John's Church. The other four chapters refused to co-operate. The chapter libraries remained in existence until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The books (at least those that were still there) were eventually handed over to the University Library in 1844.
Although the first few years of the library's existence were probably rather uneventful, the collection of manuscripts and printed books began to grow. Through the legacies made by Evert van der Poll and Huybert Edmond van Buchell round about 1600 the library changed from a collection of catholic-theological works to a much broader oriented and up to date library. The humanist library of Van der Poll consisted of about 1,000 works, mainly law books but also some literary, theological and historical-geographical works. From the legacy made by the canon of Saint Mary's Church, Huybert van Buchell, the library obtained about 2,000 titles from various fields of science, although the main body consisted of reformed theological works.
The foundation of the Illustre School in 1634 - becoming the university in 1636 - naturally brought about some radical changes: the library became a scholarly library. A librarian, Cornelis Booth, was appointed, the organisation of the library improved and new books could be bought on a more or less regular basis. Occasionally manuscripts and old and rare books could be bought. Most of these 'antiquarian' books, however, came from gifts and legacies: from the famous Utrecht Psalter to the archives and written legacies of the Utrecht University professors.
The library prospered when it moved from Saint John's Church to some rooms in the old palace of king Louis Napoleon in 1820. For a part these rooms are still in use in the present building complex of the University Library in the Wittevrouwenstraat - at present the University Libarary City Centre.
In the twentieth century the library obtained a number of major collections, some of them on loan. One of the major collections on loan is the Central Old Catholic Library, containing works on Jansenism, the Old Catholic Church and related churches in Europe and America. The collection consists of about 3,000 titles printed before 1801. Other collections on loan are: the library of the Reformed Church, the library of the Homeopathic Society and the library of the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk. The library's largest purchase was the Thomaasse Collection in 1971: 250,000 works from the Franciscans and the Archbishopric of Utrecht, mainly Dutch catholica. Some 25,000 of these works date from before 1801.
A limited number of manuscripts and old and rare books are still purchased from time to time. These additions to the collection are mainly works pertaining to Utrecht University, the city of Utrecht or the county. At the moment the manuscript collection consists of approximately 2,850 manuscripts, 100,000 letters and 2,000 lecture notes. The collection of old and rare books consists of 130,000 works dating from before 1801 and a much larger amount dating from the nineteenth century.
In 2004 the central university library moved from the Wittevrouwenstraat to the Uithof, including Special Collections. A reading room for manuscripts and old printed books was joined by a reading room for cartografical material. In this period the digitization of old and valuable material and the publication thereof became an important part of the Special Collections. In December 2011 the new digital website of Special Collections was published online.