The National Gallery of Canada was founded in 1880, and the Gallery's first full-time curator, Eric Brown (1877-1939), was appointed in 1910. The National Gallery Library and Archives trace their origin to Brown's appointment. He immediately began the serious collecting of books and periodicals. By 1911 he had secured an annual appropriation for acquisitions, and initiated an exchange program. He also began the systematic retention and organization of the Gallery's records. This effort eventually led to the appointment of a record keeper and the establishment of the National Gallery Archives.
In 1913 the National Gallery was incorporated by an Act of Parliament, and Brown was named Director of the National Gallery. At that time an accession register for books was purchased to document the functioning art library which had already been established. The following year a bookplate was commissioned for the Gallery Library from Alfred H. Howard (1854-1916), a member of the Royal Canadian Academy.
The Library began assembling Canadian art documentation files in 1920. The following year subscriptions began for Christie's and Sotheby's auction catalogues. Library accessions continued under the Director's initiative until, eventually, the collection became the responsibility of the Department of Prints and Drawings.
Despite drastic financial restraints imposed by the Depression and the Second World War, the Library continued to grow, responding to requests for information from across Canada. Annual reports continually recognized the Library as an integral part of the Gallery with a national responsibility. In 1953-54 and 1954-55 the Board of Trustees proposed for the Gallery an art library modelled on the Frick Art Reference Library, New York, and the Courtauld Institute, London, to serve public galleries in Canada. The first professional librarian was appointed in 1956.