Exploring 7 of the oldest libraries in Wisconsin

Exploring 7 of the oldest libraries in Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of Devon Divine via Unsplash.

By Ellery Weil

June 24, 2024

Want to do some summer reading? Are you just looking for a cool place to chill out in the Wisconsin summer? Maybe you’re doing some research, or on the scout for family-friendly activities? Whichever way you look, there’s something to interest you at your local library. 

But did you know that Wisconsin’s libraries have been part of the Badger State for almost 190 years? And while the Lakeside Library in Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods” may not be a real place (rumor has it that it was actually inspired by a historic theater, though), Wisconsin is full of historic libraries for you to enjoy.

So, let’s go on a little adventure to a few of Wisconsin’s oldest libraries — and remember, like the notoriously catchy song says, “Having fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card!”

1. Black River Falls Public Library

222 Fillmore Street, Black River Falls

Originally founded in 1867 as a Reading Room in what was then the village of Black River Falls, and becoming an official public library in November of 1872, the Black River Falls Public Library is the oldest public library in the State of Wisconsin. The library has been housed in several different buildings, but its modern form was opened in 1995, and features a Children’s area, program room, and, for researchers and history buffs, the Jackson County History Room.

2. Wisconsin State Law Library

120 Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, Madison

While today the Wisconsin State Law Library serves the State of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, it wasn’t always what it is today. Originally, it was the very first library in Wisconsin — and it’s older than statehood in the Badger State!

The library was established in 1836 by the same Act of Congress which created the Territory of Wisconsin. Today, though, it’s a thoroughly modern institution — in fact, in 2022, it was awarded the State Bar of Wisconsin Legal Innovator Award for a project creating a set of online jury instructions.

3. Bayfield Carnegie Library

37 North Broad Street, Bayfield

With over 150 years of history, the Bayfield Carnegie Library is one of the oldest public libraries in Wisconsin! Established in 1857, the current Greek revival building is a Carnegie-funded structure dating to 1904 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, you can swing by whenever you like to use their media resources or check out a book, and keep an eye out for their regular events, including film screenings, author talks and book signings, kids’ events, and even a science fiction convention!

4. Beloit College Library

735 College Street, Beloit

Private liberal arts institution Beloit College is known for many things, including a world-class geology program, a famous frisbee golf course … and the oldest college library in Wisconsin! The Col. Robert A. Morse Library provides Beloit students and researchers with not only their extensive collection of books, but also archives including materials from the Civil War, personal diaries dating from the nineteenth century onward, and Beloit College’s full records.

5. University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library

728 State Street, Madison

The main, central research library at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the famous Memorial Library is one of the oldest and largest libraries in Wisconsin. It’s also one of the jewels of the entire Wisconsin State University system.

While the library, which also houses UW Madison’s music library and Special Collections, is meant to serve UW students first and foremost, you’re welcome to visit; just go to the UW Library website to get a Visitor’s Pass beforehand!

6. Milwaukee Public Library

814 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee

While the Milwaukee Public Library system has fourteen branches to serve the city’s population, the Central branch at West Wisconsin Avenue is the oldest — and possibly one of the grandest — libraries in Wisconsin. Built in the nineteenth century, and opened to the public in 1898, today Central Library offers free tours for the public. In addition to books and media, Central Library patrons can also take advantage of children’s events, job search assistance, computer literacy and entrepreneurship courses, and more!

7. Madison Public Library

201 West Mifflin Street, Madison

While the Madison Public Library on West Mifflin Street is a modern, glass-fronted building today, the library, and its sister branches throughout the state capitol, have a rich history.

Opened in 1875 as the “Madison Free Library,” it was created through a public ordinance to bring a library to Madison that was open to all. On the first day it opened, citizens were encouraged to donate books — and over 200 people did! Today, the library boasts an extensive collection of books and media, regular events, and involvement in The Bubbler, a community-wide maker program with classes, art exhibitions, and drop-in activities for all ages.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.Exploring 7 of the oldest libraries in WisconsinExploring 7 of the oldest libraries in Wisconsin


  • Ellery Weil

    Ellery Weil is a historian and writer who holds degrees from the University of Michigan and University College London. In her spare time, she likes cooking, theater, and petting dogs she meets on the street.

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