Wisconsin Library Heritage Center

The Wisconsin Library Heritage Center is a program of the Wisconsin Library Association Foundation promoting understanding and appreciation of the history of libraries and librarianship in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s Early Public Libraries

Posted by Larry T. Nix
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on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 in WLA 125
Later this week the Wisconsin Association of Public Libraries, a division of the Wisconsin Library Association, will be meeting in Oshkosh for its spring conference. The legal authority for the establishment of public libraries in Wisconsin was the public library law of 1872.  The first public library established under this law in Wisconsin was the Black River Falls Public Library.  The second public library established under the law was the Sparta Public Library which was established in 1874 (see postcard above). Public libraries that followed soon after were the Eau Claire Public Library (1875), the Madison Public Library (1875), the Fond du Lac Public Library (1876), the Marinette Public Library (1878), and the Milwaukee Public Library (1878).  Other early public libraries were the Janesville Public Library (1883), the Neenah Public Library (1884), the Beaver Dam Public Library (1885), the Bayfield Public Library (1886), the Hayward Public Library (1887), the Green Bay Public Library (1888), the Wisconsin Rapids Public Library (1890), and the Chippewa Falls Public Library (1891), the Merrill Public Library (1891), and the Washburn Public Library (1891). The dates of establishment for these public libraries are based on the Fifth Biennial Report of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. It should be pointed out that there are some questions about the exact dates of establishment of early Wisconsin public libraries. An excellent research paper titled Public Library Development in Wisconsin: 1872-1900 by Karla Fingerson (unpublished, December 12, 1971) explores those questions. It should also be noted that free public libraries established under the law of 1872 were preceded by fee based membership libraries in many Wisconsin communities. Also, some early public libraries operated under privately appointed library boards and were not established under the 1872 law. 


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