The Library originated in the mid-nineteenth century when it began as the private collection of John Carter Brown (1797–1874) who conceived of it being a collection of books written about the discovery of the New World. He defined the parameters of the collection from its "discovery" by Christopher Columbus to around the nineteenth century or roughly the end of the colonial period of the western hemisphere. Many of the publications describing the New World, especially at the beginning of the collecting period, were printed in Europe.The European imprint collection of books relating to the Americas represents the JCB's largest single aggregation.
Reflecting the imperial desires and development of various European states, the collection reveals as much about European history as it does about the history of the western hemisphere in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The decades-long hope of placing the earliest holdings in a bibliographical framework resulted at last in the publication of European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed in Europe Relating to the Americas, 1493-1750 in the course of the period 1980-1997. The work was planned as a guide to the field as a whole, with JCB holdings numbering about twenty percent of the approximately 33,000 entries. In printing after 1750, the numbers of America-related European productions increased to a degree that exceeded the capabilities of the series. These books include of course histories and narratives of discovery and exploration, but also a much larger range of materials drawn from many fields in science and the humanities, economics, theology, literature, and law. Notable holdings include the monumental series issued by Theodor de Bry in Frankfurt, by Levinus Hulsius in Nuremberg and Frankfurt, and by Pieter van der Aa in Leiden.