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

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

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation Logo