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.

Free Library Commission

The Wisconsin Free Library Commission was established in 1895. In 1965 it became the Division for Library Services within the Department of Public Instruction.  It is currently the Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning.



The Wisconsin Library Association is founded.


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.


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. 


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.


The federal Library Services Act (LSA) is passed. 

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.

Additional Information

Matthew S. Dudgeon served as Secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission from 1909 to 1920.  He took a leave of absence from the WFLC in 1919 to serve with the ALA Library War Service.  In 1914 Dudgeon instituted a a statewide books by mail service for rural areas of the state.  Books could be borrowed from the WFLC, the State Historical Society Library, and the University of Wisconsin Library.




The bookmobile shown in the postcard was used by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission for demonstrations of county and regional library service in the late 1950s after the passage of the Federal Library Services Act in 1956.

Biennial Reports of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission

The following biennial reports are part of the Public Documents Sub-collection of the State of Wisconsin Collection University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.



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