The ZBW was established on the first of February, 1919, as a department of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, whose name at the time was the “Royal Institute for Maritime Traffic and World Economy”. It was the intention of the institute’s founder, Bernhard Harms, that the library should contribute to the collecting and providing of materials for research in economic geography, trade politics, colonial economy and transport politics. In 1924, the collections already comprised 70,000 volumes.

The library was permitted to keep its collections intact and to continue the procurement of foreign literature even under the National Socialist regime. During the Second World War, the books were removed from Kiel into the Cathedral of Ratzeburg. Thus the ZBW has suffered almost no losses to its stocks of economics literature.

In 1966, the German Research Foundation (DFG) designated the ZBW as the central library for economics in the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 1980 it has been a member of the Leibniz Association.

On the first of January, 2007, the library of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics was amalgamated with the ZBW. At the same time, the ZBW was incorporated as a foundation under public law independent of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. Since then, the ZBW has been additionally known as the “Leibniz Information Centre for Economics”.