Iconographia Zoologica was created between 1881 and 1883 by bringing together and systematically sorting four different collections of zoological illustrations. The oldest collection was that of the Utrecht University Professor of Veterinary Science, Th.G. van Lidth de Jeude (1788-1863), Atlas of Zoology. In 1866, this Atlas was bought at an auction by the zoologist R.T. Maitland (1823-1904) from The Hague, who merged it with his own Zoological Atlas. In 1881, Maitland sold his entire collection to the Dutch Royal Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra. The prints and drawings already in the possession of the society were added to the collection, among which were Abraham Oltmans' (1811-1873) collection bought in 1868.
From 1881 onwards, Maitland - who was acquired together with the collection - classed all the images together in one system and stored them in 226 wooden book boxes specially made from cedar and pine. In 1888, the images included were those of 1000 species of mammals, 5000 bird species, 2000 species of crawling animals, 4000 species of crustaceans and shellfish, 16,000 insect species and 2000 invertebrate species such as worms. Many animals in the collection have been portrayed in more than one illustration. Maitland used the catalogue from the British Museum of Natural History in London for the naming and biological systematic classification as used at the time.
A selection of approximately 20,000 images has been digitized for Memory of the Netherlands. The University Library aims to digitize the remainder of the collection in future projects.
Artis Library has been part of the University of Amsterdam since 1939 and since 2005 it has been one of the Special Collections of the Library of the University of Amsterdam.