An Act of Parliament established a Tasmanian Public Library in August 1850, marking the commitment of the government of the day to the provision of public libraries. The passing of the Act followed the introduction of a subscription library in 1849 based in a building on the corner of Barrack and Davey streets, Hobart.
A free lending library service, made possible by the Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, began in Hobart in 1907. Carnegie provided funding in 1902 for the construction and maintenance of a building on the corner of Davey and Argyle Streets. A condition of the gift was that a free lending library be established for the public.
A Free Library Movement began in 1938 urging the provision of free public libraries throughout the State. The library in Hobart was the only such library in Tasmania, although there were a number of public subscription libraries and Mechanics' Institutes.
In 1941 the government gave a grant to the Free Library Movement to encourage the establishment of libraries in municipalities and by 1943 eleven free municipal libraries had been established.
The Libraries Act 1943 established the State Library of Tasmania under the administration of the Tasmanian Library Board. Municipal libraries were subsidised by the State upon their adopting the Act.
A network of children's libraries was established between 1945 and 1952 as a memorial to Lady Clark, the wife of Sir Ernest Clark (Governor of Tasmania from 1933 to 1945).
The building constructed for the State Library on its current site at 91 Murray Street, Hobart, was opened in 1962 with the second stage of the building completed in 1972.
The State Library advanced the integration of public library services in Tasmania in the 1970s when responsibility for municipal library services moved from local government to State Government. An administrative structure was adopted with a regional headquarters in each of seven regions responsible for all libraries within that region.
The Libraries Act 1984 addressed the anomaly of the State Librarian reporting both to the Tasmanian Library Board and to the Minister by establishing the Tasmanian Library Advisory Board as the sole body providing advice to the Minister on the delivery of library services in Tasmania.
In 1991 the regional structure of the State Library became an area structure with two areas of administration, north and south. This structure was abolished in 1994 in favour of a statewide administration.
Over time the Library has been enriched by several important bequests and entrusted to manage significant collections:
- the William Walker Collection in 1924 and 1933
- the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in 1965
- the W. L. Crowther Library in several stages in the 1960s and 1970s.