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.

Researching & Writing

Researching and Writing a Library History

One of the main motivations for writing a library history is to help celebrate a significant anniversary, often the library's centennial. However, every library should have at least a basic library history prominently displayed on its website.

A primary consideration for researching and writing a library history is who will do it? To a certain extent that depends on how comprehensive the history is going to be. The timetable for completing the history is also a major consideration. Options for researching and writing the history include: the library director, a library staff member, a retired library staff member, a community volunteer, a college level history student, a professional historian under contract, or a combination of these. The capability and motivation of the person or persons selected should, of course, be taken into consideration. Obviously someone, with good research skills is essential.

The Eager Free Library in Evansville was fortunate that former library director Ruth Ann Montgomery was not only motivated to write a history of the library for the library's centennial in 2008, but was highly experienced in researching the history of Evansville. The result is an excellent online history.

The Berlin Public Library's history for its centennial in 2003 was written by area author and historian Roberta A. Erdmann. The history which is in a pdf format has a list of resources at the end which provides good examples of sources for a local library history.

Sources for a local library history

Onsite/in-house sources (there may be overlap with other types of sources)

  • Minutes of library board meetings
  • Annual reports for the library
  • Library files which may include: old correspondence, newspaper clippings, library policies
  • A previously written history of the library in published or unpublished form
  • Photographs
  • Scrapbooks
  • Interviews with current employees and board members

Offsite sources (there may be overlap with other types of sources)

  • Resources of local, county, and state historical societies
  • Local government archives (especially for founding resolution)
  • Archives of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission and the Division for Library Services located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Some Library Commission publications are available online.
  • Current files of the Wisconsin Division for Libraries, Technology, and Community Learning (DLTCL)
  • Bi-Annual Reports of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission and its successor organizations
  • State Reports of Public Library Statistics
  • Interviews with former library staff members and trustees

Publication sources

Colson, John C. The Public Library Movement in Wisconsin, 1836-1900 . Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago, 1973. This publication includes considerable information about the association and membership libraries that preceded free public libraries in Wisconsin.

Macleod, David I. Carnegie Libraries in Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Published for the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968. 

Olderman, Raymond M. Honoring A Century of Service: The Story of Librarians & DEMCO 1905-2005. Madison, WI: DEMCO, 2005. 

Schwarz, Philip J. “A Bibliography of Wisconsin Library History” Journal of Library History, 11 (1976): 87-166. 

Wilcox, Benton H. The Wisconsin Library Association 1891-1966. Madison, Wisconsin Library Association, 1966. 

Wisconsin Library Bulletin, 1905-198? (some annual volumes are accessible through Google Books - see below)

Online sources

The "Links" page on the WLHC website. Links to online resources and to examples of local library histories are provided.

Wisconsin Library Bulletin (1905-1984) Available online at the Hathi Trust website. Not all issues are currently available for "full view" but this is being worked on. 

Wisconsin Historical Society Image Collection (includes many images of libraries, yours may be among them, these images can be purchased from the WHS for use in a library history or on your website.

Public Documents of the State of Wisconsin (Biennial Reports of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission are include. These reports include early statistics for libraries.


Writing a local library history

Whether the library is creating a library history timetable, a basic library history, or a more comprehensive library history, it is essential that facts are accurate, sources are acknowledged, and copyright provisions are followed.

A basic library history or timetable suitable for the library's website

A library staff member with good reference skills should be able to put together a basic library history or timetable. Build on what already exists. Use and update an existing library history if available. Some typical information to include: Predecessor libraries and library organizations; founding date and story; library directors and their tenure, library buildings and their story, and significant events. Interesting images if available.

A more comprehensive and complete library history

A library history of this magnitude would most likely be undertaken on the occasion of a major library anniversary. The writing of such a history requires someone with significant research and writing skills. It will take considerably more time to accomplish and this should be taken into consideration if it is to be completed on time for an anniversary celebration.

A good history is a series of interesting stories. A more complete library history provides the opportunity to address the same topics as a basic history, but in a more comprehensive manner. In addition to the  information about your library derived from primary and secondary sources directly related to the library, connect the library's history to key events and people in the state and national library arenas. If your library or its predecessors existed between 1891 and 1914, it is likely that there is some connection to Lutie Stearns or Frank Hutchins.

An organizational approach to writing a library history recommended by the Library History Round Table of the American Library Association

  1. Identify all relevant primary and secondary source material relating to the library (see above)
  2. Identify any local histories or archival collections which allow you to set your library's history in the context of its community.
  3. Read other local library histories as models for your own work (Look HERE for Wisconsin online histories. Look HERE for U.S. online histories)
  4. Read other sources which give you a sense of the development of libraries and the environmental context during the time period you are covering so that you can set your library in context.
  5. Immerse yourself in local source material.
  6. Establish a chronology of critical events and people in the history of the library.
  7. Establish a periodization (i.e. time periods) for the chronology.
  8. Consider these periods as the basis for the chapters of your local history.
  9. Write drafts of your chapters, documenting how you know what you know (e.g. footnotes, references, or bibliography of sources) and circulate these to critical readers for their comments.
  10. Publish your work so that it can contribute to the growing body of knowledge about the development of libraries.


The contents of this page were derived from suggestions from the members of the Wisconsin Library Heritage Center Steering Committee and from the two sources listed below.

LHRT Guidelines for Writing Local Library Histories

The Hippest History by Bernadette A. Lear (Library Journal article)


Popular Tags

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

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation Logo