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AE 1: The Mission of the Public Library

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • The public library's mission
  • The library in the community
  • Basic characteristics of a public library in Wisconsin
  • Brief history of public libraries in Wisconsin
  • Statutory basis of a public library in Wisconsin
  • Sources of additional information

The public library's mission

Broadly speaking, the mission of the public library is to provide free and open access to a broad range of materials and services to people of all ages and backgrounds. The library is an integral part of the educational process for youth and a venue for continuing education for adults. The modern public library supports a sense of community within the population it serves. The specific collections and services of your public library are designed to meet the specific needs of your community.

Your public library may already have its own mission statement which has been adopted by the board of trustees as part of the library's long range plan. (See AE 16: Planning for the Library's Future)

The library in the community

A successful public library is an integral part of the community in which it is located. You cannot serve effectively without building relationships with other service providers within the community. In administering the library, you will want to assure that the library remains involved in a variety of community activities. You should be mindful that the library's actual service area usually extends beyond the community in which it is located. Some of the ways in which the library plays a role in activities in its community and service area are as follows:

  • Cooperates with other public and non-profit agencies in the community which have similar or compatible goals
  • Provides information to support local government and community initiatives
  • Participates in significant community events
  • Provides a meeting room for use by community groups
  • Provides public programming on topics of interest to the community

Basic characteristics of a public library in Wisconsin

  • It is authorized by state law
  • It is a part of municipal or county government
  • It is governed by a board of trustees that is appointed by the municipal or county government
  • Its board has unique powers compared to other municipal or county units
  • It is supported primarily by public taxation
  • Its services are provided without charge to anyone in the library's service area

Brief history of public libraries in Wisconsin

Public libraries with the characteristics listed above were first established in Wisconsin by state law in 1872. The predecessors to these public libraries were membership libraries which charged an annual fee to be able to use them. The Wisconsin Free Library Commission, a state agency with the mission of promoting the developing public library service, was established in 1895. Over the years, that agency has evolved into what is now the Division for Libraries and Technology of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In 1971, Wisconsin passed legislation creating public library systems. The mission of public library systems is to promote the development of public library service, to provide open access to public library service, and to facilitate the sharing of library resources among public libraries in the system's service area. Currently there are 382 public libraries in Wisconsin which belong to 16 federated public library systems. The local public library, then, is a part of a statewide network designed to assure the greatest possible access for all Wisconsin citizens to the extensive resources of the state.

Statutory basis of a public library in Wisconsin

The 1872 law establishing public libraries has gone through many revisions in its history. It is now part of Chapter 43 of the Wisconsin Statutes. Chapter 43 also includes the statutes relating to the Division for Libraries and Technology and public library systems. As a public library director it is extremely important that you become familiar with the provisions of Chapter 43 and that you assist your trustees in becoming familiar with Wisconsin's library law. It is here that the relationship of the library to local or county government is defined, that the powers of the library board are enunciated, and that the statutory mission of the library is prescribed. It is also here that your leadership role as the chief executive officer of the library is established.

Sources of additional information

Trustee Essential 15: Planning for the Library's Future

Chapter 43, Wisconsin Statutes

Administrative Essential: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Directors was prepared by the Division for Libraries and Technology. © Copyright 2008 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Duplication and distribution for not-for-profit purposes permitted with this copyright notice.