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  • A previously written history of the library in published or unpublished form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)


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