The founding of Göttingen University in 1734 and its development into a university of international standing are closely linked with the targeted development of the Göttingen State and University Library as an indispensable tool for the sciences. On the premises of the former Dominican monastery in Göttingen, founded in 1249, which formed the structural basis for the entire university complex with the official opening of the Georgia Augusta in 1737, the library was initially confined to a single hall. Here, the basic holdings of approx. 12,000 titles were housed, the majority of which consisted of the private library of the High Reeve of Celle Joachim Hinrich von Bülow (1650-1724), bequeathed after his death.

The library found a generous supporter in Hanoverian state minister and university curator Gerlach Adolph von Münchhausen (1688-1770). These favourable conditions allowed the library directors Johann Matthias Gesner (1734-1761) and Christian Gottlob Heyne (1763-1812), the latter of whom was in charge of the library for almost 50 years, to assemble holdings of unprecedented completeness. In 1810, Heyne himself characterised the library's acquisition policy as "an uninterrupted planned acquisition of what is needed ... for a library which is organised according to a scientific design, not according to predilication for a particular subject, not for ostentation, not for the lustre of the superficial, but for the inclusion and embrace of the most important works of all periods and peoples in all sciences" (transl.: Fred Lerner). In just a few decades, Heyne created a dense network of contacts with foreign book dealers, diplomats and scholars in his bid to acquire literature from all over the world. Among the main collection subjects were the Anglo-American and Slavic cultures (due to the personal union between Hanover and Great Britain, which lasted until 1837, and the close ties of Göttingen University with Russia respectively), complemented by the natural sciences. A number of catalogues made the holdings accessible in an exemplary way. In addition to the group location catalogue for the Bülow Collection, which was continued as an accession catalogue, an alphabetical catalogue was introduced in 1743, and a systematic one in 1755. All catalogues were interlinked and formed the Göttingen Catalogue System. The concept of the Göttingen University Library included liberal use of the library, which soon allowed students to borrow books. Within a few decades, the library became the first modern universal library of European renown. Around 1800, its holdings had swelled to around 150,000 titles. The library began to spread out into all parts of the former monastery including annexes. In 1812 an intermediary ceiling was installed in the Pauliner Church, which had previously been used as the university church, and the building was handed over for library use.

After the Heyne era, the development of the Göttingen University Library lost momentum for a while - mainly due to a tighter budget. In a memorandum written in 1833, Jacob Grimm (1785-1873), who had been appointed to Göttingen with his brother Wilhelm in 1829, where he worked as librarian and professor before being expelled as one of the "Göttingen Seven" (Göttinger Sieben) in 1837, stressed the importance of the library and the gaps that had occurred due to a lack of funds. His appeal resulted in a temporary budget increase for the library. With the Prussian annexation of the Kingdom of Hanover, Göttingen University lost its status as a privileged state university, and its library became one of ten Prussian university libraries. Due to its status as the second largest library in Northern Germany after the Royal Library in Berlin, it played an important role in the Prussian inter-library loan system. In 1886, library director Karl Dziatzko (1842-1903) was appointed as the first German professor for Library Science. Shortly before, from 1878 to 1883, the library had received its largest annexe to date, the so-called Prinzenstraße Building, which was designed as a three-storey stack building and connected to the older wings of the library. The last annexe of the building complex, the so-called Stack Building Building, was erected between 1914 and 1916.

After the library holdings had reached the number of over 570,000 titles in 1910, the First World War with its economical and political repercussions as well as the following inflation and world-wide recession interrupted their favourable development. Major support from the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft allowed to fill some of the war-time gaps. Within its system of specialist subject collections, the library was given the subject collections Anglo-American Culture and Natural Sciences because of the particularly comprehensive specialist holdings already in existence in Göttingen. Under library director Richard Fick (1867-1944), the catalogue system was reorganised and adjusted to modern requirements by replacing the alphabetical guard book catalogue with a card index, and an alphabetical subject catalogue, which was also maintained in card form.

The deep impact of the Nazi regime on the library's staff, user, finance and acquisition policies is examined in a publication by historian Juliane Deinert published in 2016. Jewish and politically undesirable members of staff were prosecuted or dismissed from service, among them the historian and librarian Alfred Hessel (1877 - 1939). The library's acquisition policies in the time of National Socialism was researched within the project "Determination and Restitution of Nazi Loot at Göttingen State and University Library", which established 1,080 library books to be either unambiguous or suspicious Nazi-looted finds.  In 1944, the library building was almost completely destroyed during an air raid; fortunately, the holdings remained comparatively unharmed. Because of this, Göttingen University Library was given additional important functions for the supra-regional inter-library loan system in the years that followed. In recognition of outstanding services in this area, it was given the title "Göttingen State and University Library" by the Lower Saxony State Ministry in 1949. In the same year, the German Research Foundation (DFG), which emerged from the Notgemeinschaft der deutschen Wissenschaft, reorganised its specialist subject collections programme, entrusting the library with additional subject collections.

The post-war years were initially characterised by the reconstruction of the library complex. In 1950, the library's holdings passed the mark of one million titles. In 1957, the Lower Saxony Central Catalogue (NZK) was initiated for the administration of regional inter-library loans. In 1967, the electronic processing era began with the cataloguing of periodicals; in 1977, the cataloguing of monographs followed. The Lower Saxony Library Data Centre (BRZN), founded in 1982, built up the Lower Saxony Monographs Catalogue (NMN) and the Lower Saxony Periodicals Catalogue (NZN), resulting in the development of the Common Library Network (GBV) since 1993 with the adoption of the Dutch PICA system.

In 1992, Göttingen State and University Library moved into its new building (which has around 22,000 square metres) on the Centre for Humanities. The official opening of the Central Library in 1993 entailed a functional division of the (now two) main buildings of the Göttingen State and University Library: the Central Library as a modern academic universal library, and the Historical Building as a centre for in-depth historical research. With the refurbishment of the Historical Building, begun in 2000 and concluded in 2006, it became possible to concentrate the library's special collections in one location; at the same time, the Pauliner Church was made available to the public for cultural and scientific events and exhibitions. Partial holdings of the library had been moved to new homes as early as 1973 to form the Chemistry Divisional Library (closed in 2016) and the Medical Library in 1977; the Forestry Divisional Library followed in 2000, and the Physics Divisional Library in 2003. In 2008, the library of the seminars and institutes for economics and social sciences was integrated into the Göttingen State and University Library as the Economics and Social Sciences Divisional Library. In 2012, the Cultural Studies Divisional Library was opened in the new building of the Cultural Studies Centre. It comprises 22 libraries from various seminars and institutes of the Faculty of Philosophy, interdisciplinary centres and the Göttingen State and University Library. Additionally, since its opening in 2013, the University's Learning and Study Building has been run by the library.

With its current holdings of approx. 9 million media items, Göttingen State and University Library is one of the largest libraries in Germany. It fulfils a wide range of tasks at the local, regional, national and international level. In recognition of its services, it has received a number of awards.