At the end of the First World War, Herbert Hoover assigned Ralph H. Lutz, a young Stanford historian, the task of collecting primary and secondary source material to document the important political, social, and economic changes taking place in Europe. The emphasis was placed on acquiring government documents, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, photographs, ephemera, and monographs in the various European languages in the fields of history, politics and government, economics, and international relations. Book dealers and purchasing agents were recruited in the various countries to search for and acquire this specialized material. The publications of the League of Nations, for example, were received on deposit and formed the basis for an important international documents collection.
The steady growth in the 1920s and 1930s was interrupted with the outbreak of World War II, but the established contacts with the library's old book dealers in Austria, France, Italy, and Germany were resumed immediately after the war. A concentrated collecting effort at that time, in cooperation with the Library of Congress, resulted in an avalanche of documentation from the wartorn countries of Europe, foremost a substantial set of records of the International Military Tribunal. The collapse of the totalitarian governments in Italy and Germany offered an especially fertile opportunity for gathering books, periodicals, and archives documenting their history.
Increasing post-World War II interest in the non-Western world led to the pision of the collection, which until then was still undifferentiated by areas, into various geographic collections. The Central and Western European Collection became a separate but major unit in the new organizational structure.
Collecting efforts continue in response to political and social changes, as well as technological developments. Videos, microform, oral histories, and CDs have now been added to the traditionally collected materials.
Agnes F. Peterson was curator of the West European Collection from 1954 until 1993, when she retired with emerita status. During 1993–2001 the West European Collection and the East/Central European Collection were united into one European Collection. Lewis Gann was the curator of this unit from 1993 to 1995. In 1995 Maciej Siekierski took over these duties. Within this organizational structure West European collection was directed by Helen Solanum, Senior Specialist for Western Europe. In 2001 after the division of the European Collection, Elena S. Danielson became curator of the West European Collection (Maciej Siekierski remains the curator of the East/Central European Collection).