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 Library History Timeline


The Library Company of Philadelphia is founded by Benjamin Franklin. It is the first lending library in America.


The Library of Congress is founded.


The Peterboro (NH)Town Library is founded. It is the first tax supported free public library in the world.


The first session of the Wisconsin territorial legislature takes place in Belmont, WI. The legislature authorizes $5,000 to purchase books for a library. This was the start of the Wisconsin State Library, Wisconsin’s first library. It later becomes the Wisconsin State Law Library.


Governor Doty makes his personal library which contained about 500 volumes available for loan to the public in Madison. 


A library is established at the Platteville Academy in Platteville, WI.


The State Historical Society of Wisconsin is established.


The Young Men's Association Library is founded in Milwaukee.  It is the predecessor of the Milwaukee Public Library.


The Wisconsin Constitution provides for the allocation of school funds for library purposes.


The Beloit College Library is established.


The University of Wisconsin Library in Madison is established.

The Lawrence University Library in Appleton is founded.


The Carroll College Library is founded in Waukesha.


The Boston Public Library is founded. It is the first large public library and the model for public libraries that follow.


Membership libraries are established in Madison and Cassville.  In Madison the library is the Madison Institute, the predecessor of the Madison Public Library.  In Cassville it is the Ladies Library Association. 


The State Normal School at Platteville is founded. The library of the Platteville Academy is given to the library of the Normal School.


Wisconsin's law authorizing the establishment of free public libraries is enacted.  It is based on a similar law passed in the same year in Illinois.

Wisconsin’s first public library is established under the new act in Black River Falls.


The Sparta Public Library is established.


Public libraries are established in Madison and Eau Claire.


The American Library Association is founded. 

The Fond du Lac Public Library is established.


The Milwaukee Public Library is founded.


The Janesville Public Library is officially established.


The American Library Association meets in Milwaukee.


Columbia College School of Library Economy, the nation's first library school, is opened under the direction of Melvil Dewey. 


The Wisconsin Library Association is founded.

The new Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam is dedicated. It claims to be the first library in America to have open shelves.


The Wisconsin Free Library Commission (WFLC) is founded. Lutie Stearns is the Commission's first Secretary.

Summer training sessions for librarians are initiated under the auspices of the WFLC. These training sessions are the precursors of what is to be the the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Senator James H. Stout, Menomonie, purchased 500 “wholesome, popular books” and began a traveling library system in Dunn County, with 16 boxes of books.


The new building housing the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Library of the University of Wisconsin is dedicated.  Reuben G. Thwaites, the Secretary of the Society, serves as President of the American Library Association.  


The American Library Association meets in Waukesha. 

The Legislative Reference Library is established as a part of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. Charles McCarthy is its first librarian. McCarthy was a leader in the Progressive Movement and is the author of the “Wisconsin Idea”. The Wisconsin Legislative Reference Library served as a prototype of such libraries in other states and also was the model for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. 

Seven communities in Wisconsin receive grants from Andrew Carnegie for public library buildings.  Eventually 60 communities in Wisconsin will receive funding for 63 public library buildings from Carnegie. Two colleges also receive grants from Carnegie for library buildings.  


The first public library building in Wisconsin funded with a Carnegie grant is completed in Superior. 


The State Capitol in Madison burns. The State Law Library collection is saved with the help of University of Wisconsin students. The collections of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission are heavily damaged, however.


A library school is established as a part of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. It later becomes the School of Library Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


The Postmaster General shifts library books to fourth class parcel post mail making the postal rates much more affordable for libraries. Matthew Dudgeon, Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, working in cooperation with the major libraries in Madison, establishes a books-by-mail program which provides the resources of these libraries to the rural residents of the state.


The United States enters the war with Germany. The American Library Association takes a leadership role in providing library service to soldiers and sailors at home and abroad. Matthew Dudgeon, Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, takes a leave of absence to join ALA’s War Service Library. Libraries throughout Wisconsin join in the national effort to raise funds for books and library service for the armed forces.


With the active support of the Wisconsin Library Association, the Wisconsin legislature passes the first public librarian certification law in the nation.


Wisconsin’s first bookmobile begins operation in Grant, Iowa, Crawford and Rock counties. It was furnished by the federal Works Project Administration (WPA) and operated through contributions from 26 American Legion posts. It only served children, and was administered by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission in Madison.


The legislature enacts funding over the Governor’s veto for a three-year regional library demonstration in Door and Kewaunee counties.


The federal Library Services Act (LSA) is passed. 

The American Library Association (ALA) publishes Public Library Service: A Guide to Evaluation With Mininimum Standards. This document introduces the “library system” concept, and sets forth guiding principles and minimum national standards for measuring public library service. 


S. Janice Kee, previously Director of the Public Library Association of ALA, becomes Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. 


Wisconsin’s State Plan for LSA funding is approved.


Several county and multi-county public library demonstrations are funded by the Free Library Commission with Library Services Act funds.  These are the predecessors of Wisconsin's public library systems.


The Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA), an expansion of LSA to include urban libraries, is enacted by Congress.


The Wisconsin Free Library Commission is incorporated into the Department of Public Instruction as the Division for Library Services. S. Janice Kee resigns from the Free Library Commission.  Lyle Eberhart becomes the Assistant State Superintendent in charge of the new Division for Library Services.


Wisconsin’s public library system law is enacted.


The first four public library systems are established under the new law.


The Council on Library and Network Development is established with the responsibility to advise the State Superintendent of Public Instruction on library development and cooperation and public librarian certification.


The Kenosha County Library System and the Waukesha County Library System are the last of seventeen federated public library systems to be established.


Florence County becomes the last county in the state to become part of a public library system. 


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