In the early years, the library was known as the “collegiate library” as book purchases were made by faculty chairs and departments.  Library staff only rarely made general material purchases.  The May 1893 annual report reports that a faculty committee apportioned the library’s budget appropriation to the different chairs; “the selection of books to be purchased is made by the several members of the faculty, except books of a general character, each selecting such as are most needed in his special work.”

This selection of books by faculty was the origin of the office and laboratory or “departmental” library.  These departmental libraries were usually under the supervision of the professor or student of the department connected with the collection, which resulted in confusion, loss of materials, and irregular hours of operation.  The Librarian complained in May 1906 that the “faculty in charge of departments do not realize the responsibility they assume in taking charge of a department library.”

However, these office collections, while having their problems, did result in approximately 8,000 volumes being saved from destruction in the 1897 fire at North Hall.  Some departments such as political science, history, English language and literature, Latin, Greek, German, and French, lost all of their books in this fire.

After moving to the Hall of Liberal Arts in 1902, the library established other departmental libraries.  In 1912 there were 20:  Animal Biology; Botany; Chemistry; Dentistry; Education; Geology; German; Greek, Latin and Archaeology; Histology; Homeopathic; Mathematics and Astronomy; Ophthalmology; Pathology and Bacteriology; Pharmacy; Philosophy and Psychology; Physics; Physiology; Romance Languages; Scandinavian; Zoology.

Centralizing administration of all the departmentals occurred after the Senate Board on Library reported in December 1916 to the University Senate that they “recommend the centralization of administration of the University Library in all of its branches (including department libraries) under the University Librarian.”

In 1924 Director John Kaiser established a “Supervisor of Departmental Libraries” position, and by 1927 the departmental libraries had been consolidated into 11 libraries: Botany-Chemistry-Pharmacy; Dentistry; Education-Philosophy-Psychology; Engineering; Geology; German; Greek-Latin; Mathematics; Romance Languages; Zoology-Animal Biology; Medicine.

The number of departmental libraries has remained fairly consistent since then.

In 1998 the departmental libraries were re-designated the “branch” libraries to better impart a sense of their belonging to the University Libraries’ system.