Just a little more than a year after the Wisconsin Library Association was founded and held its first conference one of the most bizarre events in American library occurred. In The Wisconsin Library Association (WLA 1966) Benton Wilcox writes:
“Disaster struck the infant Association in the spring of 1892 through the loss of its president, K. A. Linderfelt, who had also received in October, 1891, the even greater honor of election to the presidency of the American Library Association. Mr. Linderfelt had been born in Sweden and achieved an excellent classical education there before coming to America and Milwaukee in 1870. Here he had secured employment in the Milwaukee Female College as an instructor in Latin and Greek at a pittance of $400 per year, later increased to $600. In 1880 he was appointed librarian of the Milwaukee Public Library at $1,200. As recorded in the Library Journal, “In his twelve years of library administration he won a permanent place among eminent American librarians. A man of brilliant capacities and devoted to his calling, he was practically the creator of the Milwaukee Public Library, which he developed to a high efficiency.”
Unfortunately, in trying to maintain a standard of living comparable with that of the culturally elite of the city with whom he was associated, he became heavily involved in debt. In early 1892, the city having been spurred to a careful audit of its accounts by a defalcation discovered in one of its offices, a shortage of some $10,000 was found in the funds of the public library. Mr. Linderfelt readily acknowledged his guilt and aided the auditors in tracing the shortages. His staff and library board members showed their support by replacing the missing funds, and he was given a suspended sentence. Though Mr. Dewey offered him a position in his organization he returned to Europe, studied medicine, and died a practicing physician in Paris in 1900. The American Library Association expunged him from its records by accepting his resignation as of the day he had been elected its president. The Wisconsin Library Association, without machinery or heart for such decisive action, was left leaderless and apparently no one knew just what to do. As a consequence there was no annual conference in either 1892 or 1893.”
The Wisconsin Library Association forgave Linderfelt and welcomed him back into their fold at WLA’s Centennial reception in Milwaukee in 1991. It went even further and inducted him into the Wisconsin Library Hall of Fame in 2009.
Membership libraries, sometimes referred to as social libraries, were the predecessors of free public libraries. There were dozens of these libraries in Wisconsin before and after the passage of the 1872 public library law. Membership libraries originated in New England, and it was New Englanders who brought this concept to Wisconsin. Membership libraries were formed when a group of individuals pooled their resources to purchase books which could then be commonly shared. An annual fee was usually required to participate in the membership library. These libraries often struggled from lack of financial resources or strong leadership. Only about a dozen survived for more than ten years. Some of the membership libraries transitioned into public libraries. The oldest of the membership libraries was the Milwaukee Young Men's Association Library (see illustration at left) which turned its assets over to the newly created Milwaukee Public Library in 1878. The Madison Institute Library was formed in 1853 and was replaced by the Madison Public Library in 1875. The longest surviving membership library was the Waupun Library Association which existed from 1858 to 1904. This was largely the result of the efforts of one man - Edwin Hillyer, a Waupun attorney. The library was located in Hillyer's office and he served as Clerk and Librarian at least from 1859 to 1880. A comprehensive history of membership libraries in Wisconsin can be found in the 1973 University of Chicago dissertation of John C. Colson - The Public Library Movement in Wisconsin, 1836-1900.