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.

Traveling Libraries


Under the leadership of Melvil Dewey, the State of New York initiated a state funded traveling library system in 1892.  Traveling libraries were small rotating collections that provided a method for extending library service to rural areas.  These small libraries usually from 30 to a hundred books were located in a post office or store with a volunteer acting as the caretaker of the collection.  In New York the collections stayed in one location for six months before they were rotated.  Michigan initiated a similar system in 1895 and Iowa in 1896.   

Traveling libraries began in Wisconsin in 1896, when Senator James Huff Stout of Menomonie, Wisconsin privately funded a system of these libraries for Dunn County.  He provided 500 books divided into collections of 30 volumes each.  He was assisted in the selection of titles to be included by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission which began in 1895.  Senator Stout along with Lutie Stearns and Frank Hutchins had been instrumental in starting the Commission. A blog post about the publication above can be found HERE

The images below were provided by the Dunn County Historical Society.


The bookcase pictured below is currently on display at the Society's Russell J. Rassbach Heritage Museum in Menomonie.




A similar effort was initiated in Wood County by J. D. Witter of Grand Rapids (now Wisconsin Rapids).  


A traveling library case used in the Wood County traveling library established and funded by J. D. Witter of Grand Rapids (now Wisconsin Rapids).  Rules for the traveling library were pasted on the inside of the lid of the case [see below]. Images courtesy of the McMillan Memorial Library.

More about the history of the McMillan Memorial Library and the J. D. Witter Traveling Library can be found HERE.



"This library may be kept from three to six months.
The person in charge is expected to keep a record of the circulation of the books on the book cards provided for that purpose.
When a book is taken by a patron, write the patron's name on the book card and keep the card on file.
When the book is returned the book card must be returned to the book pocket. A list of the books in this collection is sent with the books.
When packing the books to return them, check the list to see that all books
are returned, and RETURN THE LIST.
Please return the book cards for each book.
The library pays the transportation charges both ways."

By 1898, there were already a hundred traveling libraries in Wisconsin.  At that time most of these libraries were funded by private gifts.  Several women’s clubs supported traveling libraries.  The Wisconsin Free Library Commission provided leadership through Lutie Stearns in establishing county traveling libraries.  In 1903 the Commission established a Department of Traveling Libraries with Lutie Stearns as its head.  The Department of Traveling Libraries evolved into what is now the Reference and Loan Library of the Division of Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning.  Stearns often personally delivered the traveling libraries to communities.

The traveling library case below is owned by the Ashland Historical Society Museum.  The case was donated to the Northern Waters Library Service and used by them for a time. Images courtesy of the Ashland Historical Society Museum.




The traveling library case below is located in the Potawatomi Lighthouse on Rock Island in the Rock Island State Park at the tip of Door County.  This traveling library was operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.



The Milwaukee County Historical Society has an original lighthouse traveling library bookcase.



One of the traveling library units from the Stout Free Traveling Library was included in the exhibit of the American Library Association at the Paris Exposition of 1900 (lower left of photograph).  Image from Library Journal, Vol. 25 (1900), facing p. 282.

A great book on this topic:

Books In A Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin


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