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The Wisconsin Library Heritage Trail

Purpose and overview

The purpose of this Web page is to serve as a guide to important places and artifacts in Wisconsin library history. It's intended for anyone who might be traveling through the state and is interested in libraries and their history. It is also the prototype for what could be done for each state which could collectively form the American Library Heritage Trail.

Although Wisconsin has a rich library history and one that was influential at the national level in the late 19th and early 20th century, that history is largely invisible. As in most other states, the tangible artifacts of library history have not been adequately preserved. 

Wisconsin has two spectacular historical library buildings, the Central Library of the Milwaukee Public Library and the headquarters building of the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. In recent years, the Milwaukee Public Library has done much to enhance its Central Library building.  Sadly and ironically, the building of the Wisconsin Historical Society is need of significant restoration. 

The state capitol building in Madison which was previously home to three of the most historically significant library organizations in the state is magnificent.  The libraries it once housed, however, have been dispersed to modern office buildings.

Although many of Wisconsin's historic library buildings have been razed, there are a number which have been preserved and are worth a visit.  These include, among others, the Simmons Branch of the Kenosha Public Library, the Williams Free Library building in Beaver Dam, and the Mabel Tainter Memorial Building in Menomonie.

Sixty Wisconsin communities were the recipients of 63 public library grants from Andrew Carnegie and two academic institutions also received Carnegie library grants.  Twelve of these Carnegie buildings have been razed, and 27 are no longer used as libraries.  Most of the Carnegie buildings that continue to be used as libraries have received various expansions and modifications. Most of the existing Carnegie library buildings are worth a visit if you're in the area in which one is located.

Three dimensional artifacts of historical significance to Wisconsin libraries are more difficult to document. Most libraries have a terrible track record of preserving these kinds of artifacts, especially when a newer modern library building has replaced an older facility.  A few examples of the traveling library bookcases and boxes which were so prolific in the state at one time have survived. The Menasha Public Library has an excellent example of a Tabard Inn Library Bookcase.  The Reading Room of the Supreme Court in the state capitol has some of the steel and cast iron shelves from the State Law Library when it was located in the capitol.  The Wisconsin Historical Society Library has the bookcase which housed the initial collection of the library.

The Library History Buff has a collection of Wisconsin library souvenirs and a collection of library postcards. These are occasionally displayed in special exhibits.

This Web page is a work in progress. Suggestions for other places to add to the Wisconsin Library Heritage Trail are welcome, submit to

Beaver Dam

Williams Free Library (now home to the Dodge County Historical Society)
This building was built in 1890-91in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style which was inspired by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It is an outstanding example of this style, and is well worth a visit. The Williams Free Library (now the Beaver Dam Public Library) was the first public library in the nation to have open stacks.


Simmons Branch of the Kenosha Public Library
This building was designed by D. H. Burnham in the neoclassical revival style and is located in Library Park.  Built in 1900, it has been fully restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It is a great building and well worth a visit. 


Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin
The state capitol building has played a significant role in Wisconsin library history.  The current capitol is the second one built on this site.  During its history, it has housed the State Law Library, the Legislative Reference Library, the Wisconsin Library Commission, and the Cooperative Children's Book Center. It is one of the most beautiful state capitol buildings, if not the most beautiful, in the nation and is well worth a tour.  The Reading Room for the Supreme Court is still housed in the capitol and contains some of the old shelves from the State Law Library when it was in the capitol. These shelves are made out of cast iron and steel and are the same as those designed by Bernard Richardson for the 1897 Library of Congress building (now the Thomas Jefferson Building). In the Assembly chambers there is a plaque honoring Charles McCarthy, the first librarian of the Legislative Reference Library.  

Wisconsin Historical Society Library, Madison, Wisconsin

The Library of the Wisconsin Historical Society was established in 1848 making it one of the oldest libraries in the state.  The building in which it is located was built in 1900 to house both the WHS library and the library of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The library is home to one of the nation's great North American historical collections.  It has a fabulous reading room. One of the most notable artifacts housed in the building is the bookcase that house the original small collection of the Society. 

Memorial Library of the University of Wisconsin - Madison

The University of Wisconsin - Madison
School of Library and Information Studies


Menasha Public Library
This library is worth a visit because it contains a very interesting library artifact, a Tabard Inn Library bookcase.


Mabel Tainter Memorial Building (former home of the Menomonie Public Library)
History Link
This building was built in 1889 to house a public library, meeting rooms, and a theater.  Like the Williams Free Library in Beaver Dam it is built in the Richardsonian Romanesque Revival style

Milwaukee Area

Milwaukee Public Library, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The 1898 central library of the Milwaukee Public Library is a must see in exploring Wisconsin library history.  Because of its historical prominence, the building has often been featured on various kinds of library memorabilia.  The library has a great permanent display of the office of a librarian.  It's rare book room has examples of the custom designed metal bookcases for the library.


Waupun Public Library (now home to the Waupun Historical Society)

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