The history of our public library begins in 1796 with the founding of the Union Library Company. The committee that founded this library included John Baker, Thomas Hill, and Moses Guest. The library then only served subscribers who funded the library with monthly dues. John Hill became the first librarian until he died amidst a 5 year closure of the library resulting from overdue subscriptions. The librarian role was taken up by Hannah Scott in 1811. After the War of 1812, the library struggled to secure enough funds to maintain its collection. A committee was formed to steer the library back to prosperity, but meetings became sparse. Then came the New Brunswick Library Company to propose a merger in 1821. The new library operated until 1850 and by 1868 its books were transferred to the Young Men's Christian Association until 1888.
The New Brunswick Free Circulating Library was founded in 1883. It was New Jersey's first library to lend books to the public for free. It was housed on the corner of George and Church Streets and then later on the corner of Albany and Peace Streets. The state of New Jersey passed a law enabling taxes to be used to support a municipal library in 1884. In 1890, New Brunswick voted to incorporate a public library using the new legislature. The Free Public Library was incorporated in 1891. In 1892, both the Free Public Library and the Free Circulating Library moved to the corner of George and Paterson Street and remained on Paterson Street until 1903.
In 1902, Andrew Carnegie gave the city of New Brunswick $50,000 to build a library building as long as the city would maintain it. Mayor George A. Viehman supported the decision while many library trustees opposed. Some of the trustees resigned and the new trustees who took their place supported the decision to build the new library. The building was erected in 1903 on land purchased on Livingston Avenue.