Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Fifty Years of Public Libraries in the DPI

Library Development Duties Transferred to DPI in 1965

After 70 Years Under the Free Library Commission

Before we get too far into 2016, we should take time to recognize that we are in the fiftieth year of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) providing support for statewide public library development and services. We should also look back to the final years of Wisconsin's Free Library Commission, when public library development services in Wisconsin were...

"State Library" on window over 306E in Wisconsin State Capitol
The Free Library Commission
had offices in the State Capitol
for seventy years. These offices
in 306E now house members of
 the Joint Committee on Finance.

Under the Gun

By the early 1960s, several factors were at play that affected the future of Wisconsin's Free Library Commission (FLC). One was a desire in the legislature, particularly in the joint Finance Committee, to reduce the number of separate state agencies either through merger (making some sub-units of others), or elimination. In the mid-1950s, a proposal by the Special Taxpayers Committee on the State Budget recommended that the Free Library Commission be eliminated, suggesting that it had accomplished its purpose of promoting the growth of public libraries. The library community responded that the services and coordination were essential, and noted that over 800,000 citizens, 23% of the state's population, were without access to a public library. A path was already being sought by the FLC and WLA to extend the reach of library services through legislative initiatives begun in the previous decade, as outlined in the 1949 "Wisconsin-Wide Idea for Voluntary Education through Reading," proposing:
  1. The strengthening of existing local community library service so that it becomes of educational consequence to the people commensurate with the educational services of public schools and university and a needed, ever-present supplement to them...,
  2. Drawing libraries into voluntary, cooperative that through federation and cooperative pooling and exchange of services there may be gains in efficiency and economy without loss of local control in local service and policy, and
  3. photo of Janice Kee, holding book in Free Library Commission office
    Janice Kee, last secretary of the
    Wisconsin Free Library Commission
  4. State assistance in planning the formation of these more effective county and regional federations and later in helping finance some of their overhead, non-local and foundational costs.
Although the library communities' continued efforts for state aid did not gain traction in the legislature during the 1950s and early '60s, the efforts by others to reduce the number of state agencies in Wisconsin continued and bore fruit. In the spring of 1965, legislation removed some of the duties of the FLC, and changed its name to the Wisconsin Library Commission. And a few months later, Chapter 150, Laws of 1965 (effective July 24, 1965) eliminated the Commission altogether, moving the administration of public libraries into the Department of Public Instruction, as the new Division for Libraries. 

Secretary Janice Kee, in her final memorandum to the public librarians in Wisconsin, dated August 18, 1965, said:
A Special Mailing to all public libraries is being prepared this week, and you will find in it a summary of a new state law which I hope you will read carefully. This law abolishes the Wisconsin Library Commission and recreates it as a Division For Library Services in the Department of Public Instruction.  This act of the legislature represents another step in a long-term program of reducing the number of separate state agencies from over seventy to a smaller number (a goal of twenty is frequently mentioned).

In the same memo, Ms. Kee (having already announced her departure from Wisconsin to serve on the faculty of the Graduate Library School of the Kansas State Teachers College) expressed those changes to the public library directors with perhaps some apprehension:
In the long view, this reorganization of the Commission appears to be a step in the right direction. If this is so, local librarians from all types of libraries will need to understand the new set-up and to support the new Director of the Division for Library Services and the state-wide goals indicated in the new law.
picture of W. Lyle Eberhart
W. Lyle Eberhart, from the
Wisconsin Library Bulletin,
vol. 62 no. 4, Jy-Aug 1966

Richard Wolpert, director Reference and Loan Library
Richard Wolfert, first direc-
tor of the Reference and
Loan Library, 1966
W. Lyle Eberhart, a consultant in the FLC, was appointed as the Director of the Division for Library Services, a new position appointed by the superintendent of public instruction defined under s. 43.10(1) to be "...under the classified service a professionally trained and suitability qualified library administrator as assistant superintendent who shall serve as director of a division for library services...." Mr. Eberhart served as director through the 1970s during the formation of library systems.

The director of the FLC's Travelling Library Service, Richard Wolfert, was appointed director of the new Reference and Loan Library. He left shortly thereafter to become director of the Bismark Public Library, and then, in 1969, North Dakota's State Librarian.

The next four years involved considerable coordinated work with the Wisconsin Library Association, the library community, and the legislature to achieve passage of Wisconsin's library system law, Chapter 152, laws of 1971-- perhaps the most notable achievement in Wisconsin public library service since the formation of the Free Library Commission. But that's another story.

Written by:
John DeBacher, Public Library Development Team