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  • A previously written history of the library in published or unpublished form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

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

Wisconsin Library Association Foundation Logo