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  • A previously written history of the library in published or unpublished form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

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

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation Logo