The University of Ceylon was established in 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No.20 of 1942. With the establishment of the University, the two colleges – the Ceylon Medical College and the Ceylon University College were absorbed into the new institution. The University of Colombo Library inherited the Collection of books and periodicals collected by the University of Ceylon since 1942 onwards minus the collection of Arts and Education, which was transferred to Peradeniya in 1952 and 1959 respectively.
Initially the Library of the University of Colombo was housed in a rented building ‘Villa Venetia’ situated behind the College House premises. As there was a decision to shift the Faculties in Colombo to Peradeniya there was no plan to construct a library building. The Library of the University of Colombo continued to be housed in temporary and makeshift locations till 1999. The Science Library and the Faculty of Law Library transferred from Peradeniya in 1965 functioned at the College House with other small collections attached to most of the departments of the Faculty of Science. The Libraries of Botany Department and Chemistry Department were manned by the Central Library Staff. The Library of the new Arts Faculty established in 1964 was housed at the Grand Stand Building.
In 1968 the Library at the College House and at the Grand Stand building was shifted to the National Pavilion Building constructed for the Industrial Exhibition and from there to the Law Faculty Building in 1986. The long felt need for a library of the University of Colombo in mid 1997. The work was completed in early 1999 and the new building came into functioning from November 1999. Part of the Science Library remained in the National Pavilion Building till 1982. In 1982 it was shifted to the New Chemistry Building and from there to the renovated Physics Building in 1992.
The University library started at College House with a collection of 2500 valuable books on History and Literature donated by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in memory of his son A. Pathmanabha. The University of Colombo inherited the collection built up by the two Colleges – the Ceylon Medical College and the University College. Since then every effort was taken to develop the Library Collection by purchases from annual book allocations, and gifts from well wishes. Organizations such as the Asia Foundation, The British Council, the Overseas Development Administration book presentation, The American Center, U.N.O. to name a few. The Gulasekeram Collection was a worthy donation of books on Mathematics added to the Science section of the Library.
With the establishment of 2nd Arts Faculty in 1964 a special book vote was granted to purchase books for the Library. The Asia Foundation donated multiple copies of textbooks needed for the Arts students and a Rental Library was set up in mid 1967. Books in the “Rental Library” were issued on a payment of 25cts. per book for a period of one month. This service was very popular among the students.
The Law Library was moved from Peradeniya to Colombo in 1965. It was a comprehensive collection of Roman Dutch Law in Sri Lanka. The Law Collection was started with the donation of Mr. N. Nadarajah, (K.C.). The gift of Mr.Martinus Nijhoff on Roman Dutch Law was also added to the Law Library.
In 1975 the Departments of Education at Peradeniya, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Universities were brought to Colombo and a Faculty of Education was established in 1976. The education collection was housed in the Department of Education at then the Bullers Road and later transferred to the Central Library.
The Sri Lanka Collection and the Rare book Collection needs special mention. The Sri Lanka Collection was started in 1969 and today it has developed to a collection of valuable rare reference works. The acquisition of the Hewavitharana Collection, gifts of masers Prof. M.B. Ariyapala, Mr. Kewal Motwani and Mr. Tissa Wijeratne helped to build up the Sri Lanka collection. Material in this section is on strictly closed access and patronized mainly by the academic staff, and local and foreign researchers.
With the establishment of the Faculty of Graduate Studies in1987 another branch library was established in the new Administration Building at Kumaratunge Munidasa Mawatha. This was specifically for the use of the Postgraduate students in Management, Labour Studies, Women’s’ Studies and Information Systems.