The library is named in honor of bibliographer and librarian Earl Gregg Swem, who served as the university's librarian from 1920-1944.
Under his leadership, the library collection grew from 25,000 books and 20,000 manuscripts to more than 240,000 books and 400,000 manuscripts. Swem also made the library more accessible by offering classes on library use and, in a practice almost unheard of at that time, opening the stacks to students and the public.
Responsible for numerous works on Virginia bibliography, Swem compiled his most famous work, the Virginia Historical Index, while at William & Mary. “Swem’s Index” is still an invaluable resource for genealogists and historians of Virginia. Earl Gregg Swem died at ninety-four in 1965, a year before the completion of the library that carries his name.