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Madison (WI) Free Library opens

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 1 month ago

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On May 31, 1875, the Madison Free Library opened, the second public library to open in Wisconsin. Located in two rooms on the second floor of City Hall, it inherited much of its collection from the Madison Institute, which had occupied the same rooms from 1866-1875. According to its charter, the Madison Institute was founded, “for the purpose of establishing a reading room and library, and providing for and instituting literary and scientific lectures and other means of moral and intellectual improvement” (Ela 1975, pp.4-5). It was what is known as a social library, and members had to pay an annual fee of $2.00, plus an initial fee of $3.00 to partake in the libraries’ services. At this time, there were two other libraries in Madison, the University of Wisconsin Library and the State Historical Library, but neither were public libraries. In addition to the support of the Madison Institute, the state legislature’s passage of a library law in 1872, which allowed municipalities to levy taxes for the support of a public library, also helped establish the city’s first public library.

According to this law, the mayor was required to appoint a board of directors, consisting of nine members to oversee the management of the library. Mayor Silas Pinney appointed the following people to the first library board: John Ford, Arthur Braley, John Baltzell, Henry Lewis, Frank Firmin, Andrew Sexton, John Suhr, George Delaplaine and William Allen. Seven of the nine members had been actively involved in the Madison Institute. Three were lawyers and only one was associated with the University of Wisconsin.

The board hired Virginia Robbins on March 30, 1875 as the first librarian of the Madison Free Library. The library was open from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., everyday except Sundays and holidays. It also opened from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays to attract male workers who might not be able to come during the day. The library collection contained 3,170 volumes in closed stacks, meaning that the librarian would retrieve the books patrons requested for them. There was no reading room at this time due to a lack of space.

On February 23, 1906 the Madison Free Library moved to its own location in a newly constructed building on the corner of Carroll and Dayton Streets. The building was erected with the help of a Carnegie donation of $75,000, the largest of all his donations in Wisconsin. Madison received such a large donation because of an agreement to house the first Library School in the state in the same building as the library. The Library School stayed in the building, under the direction of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, until it became a part of the University of Wisconsin in 1938.

Over the years several branches of the Madison Free Library opened around the city. The first branch, also a Carnegie building, opened in 1913 at 1249 Williamson Street. This branch later moved and became the Hawthorne Branch. Others followed: Monroe Street (1944), Sequoya (1957), Lakeview (1959), Pinney (1966), South Madison (1967), Meadowridge (1974) and Ashman (2000). In 1953, Bookmobile service began and continues as a service to the present day. Beginning on January 1, 1959, the Madison Free Library changed its name to the Madison Public Library. According to then library director, Bernard Schwab, "The Library Board and the City Council early last year (1958) changed the name held by the library since its founding in 1875 to make it more readily identifiable and to indicate that it is a municipal service” (Kann 2001). Due to the need for expanded collections and services, the Central Library moved to a newly erected building on June 23, 1965. The new building was designed to serve a population of 157,000, with the potential of serving more by adding more floors at a later date. Many feel that the time has come to expand or alter the 1965 building in order to better serve Madison’s needs and to proudly represent our community with a model of library service.





Ela, Janet S. Free and Public: One Hundred Years with Madison Public Library.

Madison, WI: Friends of Madison Public Library, 1975.


Kann, Dr. Bob. All Their Ways are Helping Ways: Stories from the History of

the Madison Public Library. 2001. On Madison Public Library website:



Madison Public Library Website



By Eileen H.


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