George Washington University began as Columbian College in 1821, and the first official library was established at that time occupying two rooms on the second and third floors of the newly erected College building on College Hill. In 1825, a survey of over 3,000 books available at the school was made and the books were placed in trust during an early financial crisis (many of these books are still in the Special Collections). The library was moved in 1884 when the University transferred to its new site at 15th and H Streets.
When GW moved to Foggy Bottom, the books moved again into a large room on the first floor of the building previously housing St. Rose's Industrial School at 2023 G Street. Subsequently it expanded into an additional room on the second floor of the three-story building. During the majority of this time, the only people who would be using the library would have been the white, most likely well-off males that were admitted to the school. The first undergraduate woman, Mabel Nelson Thurston, was not admitted to the school until 1888.
It was not until 1939 when Lisner Library (now Lisner Hall and named for Abram Lisner) opened as the University's first separate library facility. GW was the last institution of higher education in Washington, DC to desegregate, doing so in July 1954. Now the entire University would be legally open to all people. As Washington became more and more Black, the University did not respond in kind. Although people of color could attend GW, few chose to do so, and until the late 1960s, the University made only token forms of outreach to the Black community.
Construction began for a new University Library in 1970, and it was completed in 1973. The building was named the Melvin Gelman Library in 1980 and renamed the Estelle and Gelman Library in 2010. The GW Libraries are a part of the larger GW Libraries and Academic Innovation, which combines the university's key areas in support of teaching, learning, and research into one, integrated organization led by Dean Geneva Henry.