Bell was the son of Archie Herbert and Jessie Adkins Bell of Tarrant City. He graduated from Phillips High School in 1944 and served with the U.S. Army in World War II. Though his family had relocated to Fairhope in Baldwin County in 1947, he returned to Birmingham to attend Birmingham-Southern College. While in school he worked at the Birmingham Public Library. He completed his bachelor of arts in 1950, then went on to earn a master of arts in English at Harvard University in 1952.
In 1953 Bell began working at the Mobile Public Library, spending his summer in additional study at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He was promoted to head of the reference department, and also served as acting director for the library. In 1955 he was appointed assistant director of the Fort Worth Public Library in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1959 he published his first novel, The Butterfly Tree, which combined a small-town Alabama setting, inspired by Fairhope, with elements of classical mythology. The novel was published with cover art by Andy Warhol.
In 1960 Bell and his partner, Mark Hanrahan, moved to San Francisco, California. They opened the Banquette Book Shop there, and Bell served as director of the Book Club of California. In 1962 Banquette opened a second location in New Orleans, Louisiana and Bell and Hanrahan moved to Mobile in 1962, with Bell returning to the Mobile Public Library.
In 1964 Bell and Hanrahan moved to New Orleans. Bell worked for a while as head of adult services at the New Orleans Public Library. He was indicted in 1966 for contract fraud relating to the library's business with the Banquette Book Shop. He resigned and returned to LSU, completing a master's in librarianship there in 1967.
The couple returned to San Francisco, where Bell continued his studies at the University of California in Berkeley, interrupting by teaching stints at the University of South Carolina.
Bell completed his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the history of San Francisco's Grabhorn Press in 1974. He lectured at Berkeley's School of Library and Information Sciences while working in the reference department at the City College of San Francisco's library. He was soon appointed head of the department of humanities and social science references at the library for the University of California, Davis. While there he published three non-fiction reference books on classical mythology along with numerous articles in scholarly journals. His research required frequent travel to Europe for study.
- Bell, Robert E. (1956) A Bibliography of Mobile, Alabama.
- Bell, Robert E. (1959) The Butterfly Tree. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Co., republished in 1991 by the University of Alabama Press ISBN 0817305602
- Bell, Robert E. (1982) A Dictionary of Classical Mythology: Symbols, Attributes, and Associations. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio
- Bell, Robert E. (1989) Place-Names in Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio
- Bell, Robert E. (1991) Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio
- Biographical note (n. d.) "Guide to the Robert Eugene Bell Papers." Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama
- Rountree, Thomas (1991) "Introduction" to the 2nd edition of The Butterfly Tree. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
- Brown, Marthanne (September 6, 2012) "Robert Bell" Encyclopedia of Alabama Online - accessed November 12, 2015