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An Alliance is Formed

By Rick Bernstein

C. 1880 view of the State Historical Society quarters in the south wing of the State Capitol. (WHi (X3) 2528)
C. 1880 view of the State Historical Society quarters in the south wing of the State Capitol. (WHi (X3) 2528)

To win a legislative appropriation for a new library building, the State Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin needed to forge an alliance. Each institution had something to offer and something to gain and the alliance proved fundamental to the success they ultimately had in building a new home for the State Historical Society.

In the 1880s, the Society was housed in the south wing of the State Capitol. The Society's collections were overflowing its allotted space. There was even some concern that the building couldn't support the weight of the expanding collections. Although additional space was assigned in the Capitol in 1884, the situation continued to worsen. Since gas jets were the only source of illumination, concerns regarding fire were prevalent. In addition, pressure mounted for more office space from other departments located within the Capitol.

When Reuben Gold Thwaites assumed the Society's directorship in 1887, the campaign for a new building became a top priority. Lyman Copeland Draper, the previous director, had demonstrated a strong interest in building something new and had made a few forays himself. Like Draper before him, Thwaites understood that serving the University's student body was central to the Society's mission and he worked diligently to strengthen the existing ties between the two educational institutions.

Reuben Gold Thwaites, Superintendent of the State Historical Society, at his desk in the Society's offices at the State Capitol c. 1895. (WHi 17233)
Reuben Gold Thwaites, Superintendent of the State Historical Society, at his desk in the Society's offices at the State Capitol c. 1895. (WHi (X3) 17233)

At the same time, the University of Wisconsin was witnessing a steady increase in its enrollment. It needed an easily accessible library, preferably on campus, to serve its expanding student body. University President Thomas C. Chamberlain had proposed the idea of a joint library as early as 1891. But the idea gained greater currency in September 1892 when the University hired Charles Kendall Adams to succeed Chamberlain as president. Adams had supervised the building of two university libraries; one as a professor at the University of Michigan, and the other as the president of Cornell University. Even before he was inaugurated, Adams was keenly aware of how inadequate the University of Wisconsin library facilities were. He wrote:

"In several departments the University [of Wisconsin] is much in advance of Cornell. The library is comparatively weak; but large reliance is placed upon the library of the State Historical Society."

The reasons for his observation were clear. By 1890, the University had only 20,000 volumes, whereas the Society library had approximately 170,000. In addition, the University housed its library in a jammed, unventilated assembly hall some considered a firetrap.

Charles Kendall Adams
Charles Kendall Adams

Adams and Thwaites diligently worked together to co-locate the two libraries in a new building on campus. Adams started by renewing the University's offer of a building site on the lower university campus. Despite some fears that the Society would lose its independence, Thwaites convinced the executive committee to accept Adams' offer. Pressured by Thwaites, the committee formally resolved to seek a joint library building on or near the university grounds. The committee did, however, add one condition: title to the land must rest in the Society as trustee for the state.

Despite much political opposition, the Society, the University and their allies campaigned for a jointly administered library building. On April 19, 1895 the legislature authorized funds "for the accommodation of the said state historical society and such other libraries and collections as may be placed in the custody of said historical society." Although additional funds were necessary in each of the next two legislative sessions, work was completed in 1900.

Written in honor of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Building


 

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