The Radcliffe Science Library was founded under the will of Dr. John Radcliffe (1652 - 1714), a wealthy physician who had studied medicine at Oxford University just after the Great Plague and the Fire had devastated London. In 1714 he bequethed the majority of his estate to the University College for the endowment of two Travelling Fellowships in medicine, and the establishment of the Radcliffe Observatory, the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Radcliffe Library. The purpose of the latter was to hold those "modern books in all faculties and languages, not in the Bodleian Library".
The library building, the Radcliffe Camera, was designed by James Gibbs and built in the space now known as Radcliffe Square. It was completed in 1749 but the purchase of books proceeded very slowly. Some of the early librarians were hostile towards readers. The very first librarian, Francis Wise, even went so far as to install a padlock on the library door to keep the academics out!
In 1810 George William, a physician and botanist, became chief librarian and the book buying situation improved. He increased the acquisition of new books, particularly those on medicine and natural history.
Sir Henry Acland became chief librarian in 1851 and continued to concentrate on the sciences. He was also involved with the building of the University Museum and convinced the Radcliffe Trustees that the science books held in the Camera should be moved to the museum to make them more accessible to the researchers in the museum. In 1861 the books were moved to their new site, however, the rapidly expanding collection rapidly outgrew the space available in the museum.
In 1901 a new library, funded by The Drapers' Company of London and designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, was built opposite Rhodes House and Eric Gill was commissioned to carve the name "Radcliffe Library" above the entrance on South Parks Road.
By 1927 the expense of acquiring new books was proving to much so it was decided that the Radcliffe Library should lose its independance and become the scientific department of the Bodleian LIbrary, thus benefitting from the Bodleian's status as a legal deposit library. With the new status came a new name: The Radcliffe Science Library.
The RSL quickly expanded as it took in the science and medicine books already held by the Bodleian, and received new copyright deposit books and another wing, designed by J Hubert Worthington, built in 1934. In 1935 Eric Gill was once again commssioned to work on the Radcliffe Science lIbrary, this time to design oak panel reliefs for a pair of massive sliding doors giving access to the Rare Books Room.
As the library grew, more space was required and two underground floors were excavated under the car park and the front lawn outside the museum. These floors, completed in 1975, became the bookstack and the Lankester Room, a large underground reading room named after its architect J. Lankester.
At this time the former entrance to the RSL was converted to the Hooke Library, an undergraduate lending library with a new entrance to the RSL in the Worthington Wing. When the Hooke Library collection was integrated into the RSL in 2008, the offices, stairs and doorway that had been the Hooke once again became part of the RSL. In addition the Hooke Library brought with it the ground floor of the building known as The Abbot's Kitchen (because it was modelled on the kitchen of Glastonbury Abbey) which was converted to house a new, and much needed, fully equipped training room for the RSL.