The library was built in many stages starting from 1933, from a modest beginning as a private collection. Soon, with the help of primarily local citizens, it became a full-fledged library. The library also became a repository of archival material written in palm leaf manuscripts, original copies of regionally important historic documents in the contested political history of Sri Lanka and newspapers that were published hundreds of years ago in the Jaffna peninsula. It thus became a place of historic and symbolic importance to all Sri Lankans.
On the night of 31 May 1981, a rebellion group rampaged have set fire to the Jaffna Public Library destroying it completely. Over 97000 volumes of books alone with numerous culturally important and irreplaceable manuscripts were destroyed. As an effort to restore the normalcy, an effort to win the confidence of the people of Jaffna, the government began the process of rebuilding the library In 1998 with the contribution from all Sri Lankans and foreign governments. Approximately US 1 million was spent and over 25,000 books were collected and the Library was reopened for the public in 2003.