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


Popular Tags

Hall of Fame 2015 bed and breakfast Manitowoc Public Library Association of Library Trustees Advocates and Friends Wisconsin Free Library Commission Library Systems Ripon Public Library anniversaries Wisconsin Rapids Library Artifacts Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs Beloit Public Library Hall of Fame 2016 Wisconsin Library Bulletin Wisconsin Library Heritage Center Hall of Fame 2014 WHCLIS 28 14 Public library systems Increase A. Lapham Wilbur Lyle Eberhart 21 Postcards Dick Sorensen Irene W. Newman Woman's Congress Middleton Public Library Matthew S. Dudgeon 22 Charles Bunge Richard E. Krug Capitol Fire 1904 Public libraries Wayne A. Wiegand Campaign John Miller Chancellor Jerome P. Daniels Gerald A. Somers Wisconsin Library Association Pewaukee Public Library Wisconsin Association of Academic Librarians ca Campaign for Wisconsin Libraries Hall of Fame 2008 Brown Deer Public Library Dorothea M. Krause Hall of Fame 2012 Katharine MacDonald Jones library legislation campa Library History Carnegie libraries J. D. Witter School libraries Lowell W. Wilson Hall of Fame 2015 Kimberly-Little Chute Public Library Black River Falls Hall of Fame 2015 Marketing-Publicity Peter G. Hamon Lutie Stearns Library people archives Beaver Dam Public Library Meter mail slogans National Library Week WLA 125 caly film Bernard Schwab Hall of Fame 2017 Klaus Linderfelt McMillan Memorial Library Superior Carnegie Libraries White House Conference on Library and Information Services WLA 125 Ice Storm WLA 125 Cooperative Children's Book Center Sandra Friedman Dolnick Wisconsin Historical Society Governor's Conference on Library and Information Services Carl Spitzweg Bob Bochfer Hall Library Buidlings World War I Richard J. Sorensen CCBC Milwaukee Public Library Gertrude Thurow Postcards Clinton Public Library books-by-mail American Library Association campaign Gilbert H. Doane Edward Asahel Birge Amer WAAL Historical Register Suring Area Public Library Cornelia Marving Pierce Madison Public Library Public libraries Library people Postcards Black River Falls Public Library presentations COLAND School of Library and Information Studies I Love Libraries library memorabilia John J. Jax Ruby Roeder Dianne McAfee Hopkins trav library exhibit Special libraries Library Buildings Anniversaries 20 Larry T. Nix 11 Postcards Zona Gale bookworm Library Trustees Milwaukee Public Library Nancy Marshall traveling libraries Buttons WWI Library War Service Marjorie Sornson Malmberg Louise S. Robbins Anniversaries Campaign Ruth Ann Montgomery Rusk County Community Library Wisconsin Library Trustees and Friends Academic Librarians Events & Meetings Hall of Fame 2018 23 Library People Campaing for Wisconsin Libraries Lutie Eugenia Stearns Brown County Library cam Dick Sorensen Uncategorized campaign Eager Free Public Library WLA 125 Nolan I. Neds Campaign for Wisconsin Libraries Elroy Public Library Events & Meetings library education People Hall of Fame 2018 Parcel post Library celebrations Hall of Fame 2009 Brown Deer Public Library S. Janice Kee Hall fo Fame 2012 Oshkosh Public Library Eratus Swift Wilcox Events Hall of Fame 2011 Inform Wisconsin Digital Collections Campaign for Wisconsin Libraries campaign Hartford Public Library Hall of Fame 2015 27 buil membership libraries Library e Wisconsin Free Library Commission T. B. Scott Free Public Library UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies Milwaukee Art Museum William J. Wilson Delia Ovitz Appleton Public Library Hall of Fame 2015 UW-Madison school of library and information studies Jane K. Billings Wisconsin State Normal School-Milwaukee Helen Adams Council on Library and Network Development Cam Hall of Fame 2019 hall of Pinback buttons Hall of Fame 2013 State Law Library background James Huff Stout Portage Public Library Hall of Fame 2012 Tower Hill Wisconsin Publications 10 Orrilla Blackshear Exhibits Lucy E. Smith Morris caly film Academic Libraries Campaign for Wisconsin Libraries American Library Association Library War Service caly film National Bookmobile Day Evansville Wisconsin Wisconsin Literary Travel Guide Hall of Fame 2012 Frank Avery Hutchins Campaign for Wisconsin Libraries DeForest Area Public Library 24 state historical society James Duane Doty Campaign Bookmobiles Centennial UW-Milwaukee Libraries Wisconsin State Law Library Sarah Janice Kee Robert Bocher Soughton Public Library Clarence Brown Lester Hall of Fame 2010

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation Logo