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.

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Wisconsin's Membership Libraries

Posted by Larry T. Nix
Larry T. Nix
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on Tuesday, March 08, 2016
in WLA 125

Milwaukee Young Men's AssociationMembership 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.




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