Academic Library of the University of Latvia, one of the oldest libraries in Europe, was founded more than 450 years ago during the times of the Reformation. Five books with a religious content handed over by the Riga Town Hall for "public use" served as the basis for the library (4 of them have been preserved until today). From 1524 to 1945 the Riga Town Library (Bibliotheca Rigensis) was known not only in the Baltics but also abroad. At the beginning the library’s collection consisted of several hundreds of books obtained from the monasteries. During the first two centuries the collection increased very slowly. Most of the books had a religious content, and were mainly in Latin. There were works of medieval philosophers, authors of antiquity, as well as books on medicine and history. These books are considered to be the basis of a research library. From the very beginning donations were almost the only, but later a very important source of enlarging the library’s collection.
In the 17th century the library regularly received dissertations of the Dome school's and the Grammar school's teachers, publications of debates and solemn occasion speeches, as well as editions of Riga publishers. Books were also obtained from foreign merchants who visited Riga. At the beginning of the 18th century Vidzeme became a part of the Russian Empire and Riga began to play an intermediate role in the economic, cultural and scientific relations between Russia and Western Europe.
All that furthered, although slowly, scientific life and stimulated growth of the Riga Town Library. Another valuable source of acquisitions was book exchange with the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences which delivered a free copy of each of its publications. Thus the Riga Town Library received the most recent publications in all branches of natural sciences, especially in mathematics, sending in exchange to St Petersburg books available on Russian history. This book exchange continued for almost 180 years up to 1915. Under the influence of Enlightenment ideas in 1890s grew interest in the social sciences and activities of book printers expanded. Publishing of Latvian, Russian and foreign authors' works in Latvia was promoted by foreign publishers, especially the Hartknochs. Fast increase in the collection (from 5000 items in 1732 to 11 500 in 1790s) changed its structure - the majority of literature being on natural sciences. Reforms of the tsarist government and activities in economic and cultural life brought great changes in the work of the library in the 19th century.
The collection of the library increased particularly quickly in 1900, amounting to more than 100 000 items. That could be explained both by interest in the library of a large part of the population and the reforms of 1870s-1880s. Scientific literature, mostly in German, had been predominant in the library, but in the 19th century the number of Latvian population rapidly increased, so it was decided to obtain more books in Latvian. During the period of the independent Republic of Latvia (1920-1940) the acquisitions policy remained unchanged, i. e. literature on the humanities in Latvian, Russian and foreign languages was acquired. The most important events in the life of the library were: the right to receive the legal deposit copy of each publication in 1921, and the organizing of Latvian Book Department. Jânis Misins, the founder of the first Latvian scholarly book stock and the founder of Latvian scientific bibliography, worked as the deputy director of the library and the Chief of Latvian Book Department from 1920 to 1938. Means for retrospective acquisition of books in Latvian were at his disposal. J. Misins managed to find and obtain almost all previously published books in the Latvian language. Information and book exchange with foreign libraries and scientific institutions continued.
In the summer of 1941, during military activities in Riga, the library, located in the former Town Hall building, burnt down. About 46 000 items, kept in safes, were saved from the collection of more than 400 000 printed items. In the autumn of 1944, the Riga Town Library received financial assistance and moved to the building that was constructed in 1782 for the first repertoire theatre in Riga. In 1945 it was renamed the State Historical Library, and in 1946 it was incorporated into the Academy of Sciences and was named the Fundamental Library of the Academy of Sciences of the Latvian SSR, founded in 1524. Reorganization of the research and higher educational system in 1992 caused changes in the library’s collection and its tasks. According to the new functions of the Academy of Sciences and the library, the Fundamental Library was renamed the Latvian Academic Library.