The Harvard-Yenching Library is the largest university library for East Asian research in the Western world. Although as an organized library it dates only from 1928, the collection can trace its beginnings back to 1879, when Chinese was first offered as part of Harvard University's regular curriculum. In that year a group of Bostonians engaged in the China trade invited Ge Kunhua 戈鯤化, a Chinese scholar from the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, to give instruction in Chinese at Harvard. The small collection of books that was bought for his courses, the first acquisitions in any East Asian language at the Harvard College Library, marked the beginning of a Chinese collection. A Japanese collection was similarly launched in 1914 when two Japanese professors, Hattori Unokichi 服部宇之吉 and Anesaki Masaharu 姉崎正治, both of Tokyo Imperial University, came to lecture at Harvard and donated several important groups of Japanese publications on Sinology and Buddhism to the Harvard College Library. In 1928 these two collections, then consisting of 4,526 volumes in Chinese and 1,668 volumes in Japanese, were transferred from Widener Library to the newly established Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, which had itself been independently incorporated that year in Massachusetts. Dr. A. Kaiming Ch'iu 裘開明, a renowned bibliophile and then a Harvard Ph.D. candidate, who had begun cataloging the collections a year before, was appointed librarian of the Chinese-Japanese Library.
With financial support from the Harvard-Yenching Institute, the expert bibliographical knowledge of Dr. Ch'iu, and the assistance of Yenching University Library in Peking, the library's collections grew rapidly. At the end of its first decade the library's holdings amounted to more than 110,000 volumes—18 times the original size. Although the library first collected only in Chinese and Japanese, with the major emphasis on the humanities, subsequent expansion in Harvard's East Asian curriculum led to a similar expansion in the library's scope. Tibetan, Mongolian, and Manchu publications were added, as were Western-language monographs and journals. A Korean collection was inaugurated in 1951, and a Vietnamese collection was added in 1973. Social science publications were given increased attention in the post-World War II years, and collecting in this area has been greatly accelerated since the mid-1960s. Thus, the once predominantly humanistic collection has gradually evolved into a research library that encompasses East Asian materials in all of the academic disciplines, including, to some extent, the natural and applied sciences.
In 1965 the name Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute was changed to Harvard-Yenching Library in order to reflect more accurately the expanded nature of the library's collections. The management of the library, which had been under the Harvard-Yenching Institute from the beginning, was transferred in 1976 to the Harvard College Library.