La Crosse, Wisconsin, La Crosse Public Library Records


Historical Note

A subscription library of any duration started in La Crosse with the Young Men's Library Association (YMLA) which was organized in late 1868 from the ashes of the La Crosse Literary Association. For a basic initiation fee of $3 and an annual flat membership rate of $2, members could draw books from the newly organized Young Men's Library Association (YMLA) in early 1869. Members met in the society's rented rooms on the third story of Edward's Block located on the southwest corner of Main and Second streets. This group of "young men" first met on November 16, 1868, with the intention of forming "an association of some kind--literary and librarical," stated a notice in a daily newspaper. This society replaced the nearly defunct La Crosse Literary Society which mainly held debates and lectures.

The club's purpose was to provide members with a reading room and library. On December 15, 1868, the articles of incorporation of the YMLA were filed with the State of Wisconsin. The Board of Directors stated that the YMLA met "for the purpose of maintaining a Library of books, maps, pictures, papers and periodicals." The original Board consisted of Wendell A. Anderson, Walter W. Dudley, Theodore F. Rodolf, M. P. Wing, Joseph P. Scott, J. S. Medary, John M. Holley, P. S. Elwell, G. M. Woodward, Rockwell E. Osborne, Benjamin G. Reynolds, W. Wallace Jones, and B. E. Edwards. These men were all prominent in La Crosse society of the day.

The library reading room and shelving were set up by the library committee in early 1869 and John M. Holley was selected as the group's first librarian. The librarian received $50.50 for his labor. As librarian, John Holley not only was present during the open hours of the reading room, but helped to organize the library materials and aided in the preparation of the first book catalog for its members. To get the library's core collection started, the club circulated a plea in December 1868 asking for donations of books from the public. As a result, over 600 books were donated that formed the core collection of the Young Men's Library Association.

The reading room hours initially were Wednesday evening 7-9 p.m. and on Saturday evening from 7-10:30 p.m. In February 1871, the Saturday hours were extended to include 3-6 p.m. In November 1875, the hours of the reading room were changed to Tuesday and Thursday from 7-9 pm, and Saturday afternoon and evening.

While the title of the group sounded exclusionary toward women, Miss Annie Hanscome was elected librarian in June 1874 and she served in that capacity until the YMLA disbanded in 1888. She had joined the organization as a member in 1870, and one woman was one of the charter members. After Annie Hanscome became the librarian, more women joined the group. In 1884 the association's library was officially designated as a depository for government publications.

The association sponsored an annual lecture series each winter much like its predecessor the La Crosse Literary Society. Speakers and various other "entertainments" such as musical ensembles were contracted to give public performances during the early years at Pomeroy's Opera House on the southwest corner of Main and 4th streets. In general the lecture series was a great success and provided a steady source of outside income. The hope was that this savings would enable the YMLA to erect a library building.

Season and individual performance tickets could be purchased for such speakers as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John B. Gough, Wendell Phillips, T. DeWitt Talmadge, James Fields, Frederick Douglas, and the Mendelssohn Quintet of Boston. During the 1884 season the profits from the lecture fund were $548.27 and the following January, Mark Twain and George W. Cable came to speak at the YMLA's request. That year, 1885, the lecture fund turned a profit of $321.70.

On May 14, 1882, Cadwallader C. Washburn died in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In his will he bequeathed $50,000 to the City of La Crosse for the erection of a public library. Former Governor Washburn was a life member of the YMLA, and he selected as trustees of his new library fellow YMLA members who had not only served in leadership roles in the club but who were also active in the community. In fact, all but one of his named trustees at one time served as mayor of the City of La Crosse.

On the evening of November 7, 1885, the first Board of Trustees meeting took place and incorporation followed on November 28. The Board was formally organized at the following meeting on December 12, with Mayor D. Frank "White Beaver" Powell as president, Gysbert van Steenwyk as vice president, John M. Holley serving as secretary, Frederick A. Copeland as treasurer, and Joseph Clarke, Theodore Rodolf and Charles L. Colman serving as additional directors.

Washburn stipulated in his will that only $12,500 was to be used for the site and construction of the building to be called the La Crosse Public Library (LPL). In a circular sent to YMLA members, it stated that Washburn wished to increase that sum because of the growth of population in the city of La Crosse. Unfortunately, death came to Washburn before he could make these amendments to his will. The trustees found it difficult to build a fitting structure within the financial limits defined in the will. It was Washburn's desire that the remaining $20,000 principal be invested in a permanent fund. To solve this problem, the YMLA sold to the La Crosse Public Library Board its books, shelving, etc., for $5000. The YMLA then donated this amount to the LPL building fund.

The final YMLA Board meeting was held on April 19, 1888. At that time, $2000 in city bonds were donated to LPL, making the total financial contribution of the YMLA to LPL $7000. The contributions of the Young Men's Library Association to the La Crosse Public Library were really quite significant and far beyond the monetary contributions. Without the expertise of the leaders of the YMLA, the La Crosse Public Library could not have started with much of a book collection, a satisfactory building, an experienced librarian, or a group of highly qualified trustees. However, C. C. Washburn's bequest of $50,000 was the real instigator of the La Crosse Public Library. He donated the money for the project and chose a qualified group of trustees to organize a public library from the ground up. Washburn's plans and capital, combined with the Young Men's Library Association's financial resources, personnel, and library collection, made the new La Crosse Public Library a success.

A site was selected at the southeast corner of Main and Eighth streets for the library. By charging the $10,000 cost of land and tenant houses to the investment fund, only $700 was left to be taken from the building fund since Washburn set a limit of $12,500 in his will to be spent for the site and erection of a building. The donation from the YMLA was also added to the building fund, totaling $19,500 that the trustees could spend to cover the costs of construction, furnishings, and landscaping of the library grounds.

The design of architect C. C. Yost of Minneapolis was chosen for the building. Annie E. Hanscome, former librarian of the YMLA collection, was officially hired as the first La Crosse Public Library librarian on March 24, 1888. The formal dedication of La Crosse's first library building was well attended by the public on the evening of November 20, 1888. The library was then opened November 21 to the public for the borrowing of materials. By January of the following year, the librarian was already asking for more help. In response to this, the Board decided to close the reference room to the public, and admittance would be allowed only at the discretion of the librarian.

Many of the original trustees resigned or died just before the turn of the century. Gysbert van Steenwyk, vice president of the Board since 1885, died at the age of 88 on April 13, 1902. L. C. Colman, son of Charles L. Colman, filled his vacancy on the Board. L. C. Colman donated $20,000 in May 1902 to the library's endowment fund on behalf of his father who died intestate and who had long served on the Library Board.

On January 21, 1904, G. M. Woodward announced to his fellow Board members that he had been in correspondence with the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. The next day Correlia Marrin paid a visit to the library to examine the work and methods of the library and to make suggestions for improvements or changes.

Miss Marrin's visit in the winter of 1904 changed the future of the La Crosse Public Library. Although there is no surviving record of the exact changes that were suggested by the representative of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, the library had been previously criticized for the lack of any special children's area or promotion.

As a result of these suggested changes, Annie Hanscome tendered her resignation to the Board on February 25, 1904, feeling unequal to this new task and resigned. 1904 was indeed a turning point in the history of the La Crosse Public Library. The first professionally educated librarian started work in late fall and plans were laid for drastic changes in modernizing the services and methods of operation of the library. Only two of the original six trustees named in Washburn's will were still living when Miss Smith began as librarian. The city's population was now 29,078 and the economic outlook in La Crosse seemed much brighter.

In August of 1904, the trustees hired Mary Alice Smith as the new head librarian. A graduate of the New York State Library School and formerly a librarian at Worcester, Massachusetts, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Miss Smith can be credited with bringing many modern services to the La Crosse Public Library that are taken for granted today. For the first time the book shelves were open to the public. The card catalog was introduced and a cataloger was hired with her salary being paid by one of the trustees. Three other events that were initiated by Mary Alice Smith are of special note: the opening of the children's room in 1905, the establishment of a north side branch library the following year, and an addition to the main library building completed in 1909. Miss Smith left in 1915 and Lilly Borresen was hired to replace her.

One of the first things accomplished under Miss Borresen was the creation of the south branch library. In early 1916 the question arose as to the legality of the City of La Crosse providing funds to support a library run by a private, non-profit organization. In April 1916, Circuit Court Judge E. C. Higbee ruled that city funds could not be used to support the public library. The library Board made plans for an immediate appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. If the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled to uphold the lower court's decision, it was felt that the library would have to close or operate at a greatly reduced capacity without city funding. Fortunately, the court overturned Higbee's decision and the library was able to receive city funding.

During her tenure, Miss Borresen also saw some of the most generous private contributions made to the library. While Miss Borresen helped oversee the planning of two new branch libraries, due to wartime conditions during World War II only one, the North Branch, was completed while she served as the head librarian. In fact, the entire branch planning and building process was to be plagued with several delays. In poor health, Miss Borresen resigned her position as head librarian in 1946. For the previous two years of her tenure, she was able to work only part-time. She had served 31 years as head librarian, longer than any other in La Crosse Public Library history. Her efforts helped the library staff grow from five full-time members to eleven, and the book collection tripled from 23,982 to 71,423 during her tenure of three decades.

On January 1, 1947, Muriel Fuller was appointed head librarian by the Board. Miss Fuller was able to see to the completion of the much delayed South Branch Library and this building opened in 1952. In March of 1953 Miss Fuller resigned her position as head librarian. She was replaced by Miss Gertrude Thurow who had been with the library since 1943.

With the completion of the South Branch Library in 1952, both branches had finally attained the facilities that they so desperately needed. Now it was the aging main library building that became the focus of attention. The original building was already seventy years old in 1958 when Miss Thurow mentioned some of the severe space problems associated with the building in that year's annual report. Some of these problems included staff work areas stuck in corners and in the basement, room for less than forty people in the reading and reference rooms, students forced to sit on the mezzanine steps on crowded nights, and the loss of any room for public programs.

Remodeling the old building was considered but deemed impractical. In April 1964, the City Council put a bond referendum on the ballot for the November 3, 1964, election; "Be it resolved by the electors of the City of La Crosse, Wisconsin, that there shall be issued the general obligation bonds of said city in the amount not exceeding $890,000 for the purpose of purchasing a site and erecting and equipping a library thereon." With slightly more than a week to go before the election, library supporters received a boost in the form of a $300,000 grant offer from the federal government. Under the terms of the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA), the library could receive this grant if the referendum was approved by the voters. The grant would be used for the creation of an area-wide library service system with the La Crosse Public Library serving as the headquarters. Two hundred thousand dollars of the grant money would go toward construction costs, while the remaining $100,000 would establish the area library service.

The final vote count was 13,783 for and 3,059 against. Once the votes were in, the City Council had a number of decisions to make. The biggest one was whether or not to accept the $300,000 in federal aid and make the new library a service center for the smaller libraries in the La Crosse area. The Council felt that the grant was a good opportunity and that there were no real strings attached. Under the provisions of the grant, if the money was accepted, the La Crosse library would be required to offer professional library services to the smaller surrounding libraries for a fee. This would require a larger library building to be built as extra space would be needed to house the facilities for this service. The added construction cost would be offset by $200,000 of the grant money. If none of the small libraries accepted the service offered by the La Crosse Public Library, the grant money could still be kept and the library could use the extra space as it saw fit. With this in mind, the City Council unanimously approved the application for the federal money.

In February 1965, the Council approved the sale of $750,000 in bonds for library construction. An additional $140,000 in bonds was approved the following year. It was determined that the best site for the new library would be the same location as the old one. Some materials were stored at the branches, but most regular library services were carried out at the temporary location until September 1967, when the new building was ready to be occupied. In April 1966, the oldest free library building in Wisconsin was torn down with mixed emotions.

As the new library was being constructed, the La Crosse Public Library Friends, no longer needed as a library building campaign support group, decided to re-organize themselves into a permanent group called Friends of the La Crosse Public Library, a group that continues to exist today and serve the Library.

The La Crosse Area Library Development (LALD) project, organized in 1965 with the help of the $300,000 federal grant received by the library operated bookmobile service in the area in 1967. LALD and the bookmobile served six different counties then: Vernon, Jackson, Trempealeau, Monroe, Juneau and La Crosse. Today the successor to LALD, the Winding Rivers Library System, serves these same counties and Buffalo County.

As the new library building neared completion in September 1967, the temporary library was closed, and all materials were moved into the new building. A formal dedication and open house was held November 6, 1967. On April 21, 1968, as part of National Library Week, the library held "Gertrude Thurow Day" in part, to honor Miss Thurow on her 25th anniversary as a member of the La Crosse Public Library staff and for her election to the council of the American Library Association. On January 1, 1976, Miss Thurow reached a milestone in her life when she retired as the head librarian at La Crosse Public Library. Her career spanned four decades and included many outstanding accomplishments and deserving awards.

Hired as her successor was James William White, who served as director for 22 years. Two additions were completed under his direction, and computers became part of everyday life for staff and the public alike. Another big change was that the library became under the control of city government in 1981 and was no longer a private, not for profit corporation.

Through a bequest of Edyth and Susan Swarthout of West Salem, money for an addition to the library was available. In their wills they stipulated that the additional space be shared by the library and the La Crosse County Historical Society, and that the addition be called the Swarthout Memorial Addition. The last sister died in September 1973. When the assets left to the library were converted to cash, the total amount came to $550,000. By the time the City Council approved the plans for the addition in late December of 1977, the bequest had grown to over $800,000 because of interest.

The planned addition, designed by Hackner, Schroeder, Roslansky and Associates (HSR), called for a combined one- and two-story addition that contained about 20,000 square feet. The two-story addition would house the La Crosse County Historical Society's museum while the library would get the one-story section. The estimated total cost of the project was $949,000, with the City picking up the expense for property acquisition. After the deadline for construction bids had passed, however, it was found that even the lowest bid was $300,000 over budget.

The addition was completed in December 1979 and officially dedicated on January 6, 1980. The 18,000 square foot addition houses the museum for the La Crosse County Historical Society. In the library section, the Archives & Local History Room was made possible through a $42,000 grant from the Gelatt Foundation.

In March 1981, the La Crosse Public Library became a city department after 93 years of operation as a private, non-profit corporation. The change was not as drastic as it sounds. The city of La Crosse was already providing the library with 98 percent of its budget, and it owned both branch libraries as well as the main building and most of the contents. The biggest change was with the seven-member self-appointed Library Board. Board members were now appointed by the mayor and two new board members were added, a representative each from the school district and the City Council, bringing the total membership to nine on the board. Another board, called the Washburn Board, continues to make decisions regarding the interest on Washburn's bequest.

The La Crosse Public Library public entered the computer age on March 13, 1985, when the circulation procedures became automated. Since then computers have become a part of every library department, and the entire card catalog went on-line March 24, 1992.

In 1988 the library reached two important milestones. On November 10, the 25-millionth book was checked out. Ten days later, the library celebrated its 100th anniversary. On this occasion, the library's first Founders' Award was presented to Charles Gelatt.

The La Crosse Public Library embarked on a remodeling and building project in 1995. Following on the heels of an estimated $200,000 in renovation efforts at both branches, renamed community libraries in 1991, the Board determined a needs assessment and programming goals with the assistance of library consultant David R. Smith. Architect Val Schute of Schute-Larson Architects was selected by the Board in 1992 for the addition and remodeling project. The proposed project was granted Common Council approval in late 1994, with an estimated $4.2 million and 14 month construction schedule. General contractor Fowler & Hammer was awarded the contract for the project which included $600,000 in private donations for furnishings. In the end, the entire cost came to $4.5 million, and the library gained 15,500 square feet of space, for a total of 74,500 square feet. The dedication ceremonies were conducted on a warm day, August 24, 1996.

After White’s retirement in 1998, Tom Strange became library director for four years. A new long-range plan was instigated. Kelly Krieg-Sigman, formerly library director at Fremont Public Library in Mundelein, Illinois, came on board in 2003 as director of the La Crosse Public Library.

As the La Crosse Public Library enters into the 21st century, many challenges lie ahead. At a time when library budgets are becoming proportionally smaller and smaller, the public use of the library is increasing steadily. La Crosse area residents are turning to the library in record numbers for their needs. Citizens deserve and expect expanded services and outreach programs to enhance the library's traditional roles. New technologies, especially computer-based information, have revolutionized library service and have affected the format of many library materials. The future will undoubtedly bring more technological advances that will raise the level of library service to unprecedented levels.