Pioneers set up its predecessor the Raffles Library and today it is a very modern National Library with branches.

Those pioneers of Singapore who were interested in setting up a public library met in 1844; however, the proposal dates back to 1823 when the idea of the Singapore Institution (Raffles Institution) was mooted. Raffles Institution was selected to establish a small collection of books that could be borrowed for a small fee by the early residents of the settlement. The headmaster was both the librarian and secretary of the Library Committee.

Later the public library was transferred to the Town Hall (Victoria Memorial Hall). The government eventually took over the library and named it the Raffles Library and by 1837 it had 392 volumes. In 1876 the Raffles Library was re-located in the Raffles Institution and thence to the Raffles Museum building. In 1920 J. Johnson was appointed as the first qualified librarian and in 1923 a Junior Library was added to the main Library which was then subordinate to the Raffles Museum; it was only in June 1882 that both became separate public institutions.

Soon after the British Surrender on 15 February 1942 Governor Sir Shenton Thomas requested the Japanese military authorities to preserve the scientific and historic collections especially those in the Museum and Botanic Gardens. Singapore was fortunate to have had Professor Tanakadate, a vulcanologist and geologist from Tohoku Imperial University of Sendai as Director of the Museum and Library. He and E.J. Corner, Assistant Director of the Botanic Gardens both saved the Museum artifacts and the records in the Library. Corner himself secretly removed even the newspapers to the Botanic Gardens during the Japanese Occupation. Records from the Raffles College, Raffles Girls' School, Raffles Institution, Colonial Secretary's office and Government House (most were damaged buildings and offices) were mostly preserved through their joint effort.

During the Japanese Occupation the general library was used mainly by Europeans, Germans, Irish, Czechs, Dutch and Eurasians employed by the Japanese Department of Information.

The Raffles Library re-opened to the public on 1 December 1945 after the return of the British to Singapore.

The present building in Stamford Road was a project of the Labour Front government. In 1958 the National Library was officially established. In 1960 the Yang di Pertuan Negara, Inche Yusof bin Ishak, officially opened the new premises of the National Library on 12 November 1960. The site of the National Library was previously occupied by the old St Andrew's Chapel and the British Council building.