A Century of Documents to Wisconsinites

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The Wisconsin State Document Depository Program is marking its centennial year in 2003. As the documents program begins its second century, it is appropriate to review its history. Senator James H. Stout introduced Senate Bill 62 on January 25, 1901. This bill provided for the cataloging and library distribution of public documents by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. It extended and defined the duties of the Library Commission and appropriated funds for its use. This small bill, one of hundreds introduced during the 1901 legislative session, was published on April 17, 1901 as Chapter 168 of the Laws of Wisconsin.

Chapter 168 outlines and defines the responsibilities of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission. These responsibilities included: publishing a checklist of public documents; establishment of a working library of public documents to assist the legislature and state departments; traveling libraries; and supplying books to public libraries, to name just a few.

More importantly, Chapter 168 recognized that access to public documents would

assist state offices, members of the legislature and other citizens who are studying the growth and development of the affairs and institutions of the state also to assist the public libraries in the state, in completing files of such publications and in so arranging them as to be of use to citizens of their localities.

With the inclusion of the line "to be of use to citizens," public documents to the people of Wisconsin were initiated. The Library Commission was directed to send one copy of each state publication (bound public documents, messages, reports, journals, bulletins and circulars) to the library of each state normal school, and to other public, collegiate, institutional, or association libraries possessing over 1,000 volumes.

The Annual Report of the Free Library Commission of 1901-02, in the section of the Department of State Documents reports,

The Commission has also gathered thousands of duplicates of our own state publications as well as publications of the U.S. Government. These will be distributed through the clearing house as soon as the check list and index are completed. . . . These volumes contain the records of our government, as well as the results of expert research and investigation into nearly every field of industrial life, and it is most unfortunate that such valuable materials has largely been wasted in the past.

The section concluded with a simple statement, that the department needed a larger appropriation if it was to be widely useful to the people of the state. The same year the first class for the study of public documents was conducted. Forty-seven students came from 13 states and represented different types of libraries. University, public, college libraries, high school, and normal school librarians were present.

Of the libraries represented, 20 were depository libraries and 14 non-depository libraries. Also in 1902, Adelaide Hasse, the driving force behind public documents collections in the early part of the century (and originally from Milwaukee!), gave a speech in Madison entitled, "The Vexed Question of Public Documents".

While the Wisconsin Statutes have included provisions for access to and distribution of government documents to libraries since 1901, it was the laws of 1903 which first made provision for depositories of public documents. Senator James H. Stout introduced Senate Bill 64 S on February 4, 1903. It was a bill to amend Chapter 168 of the laws of 1901, relating to the cataloging and distribution of public documents, the maintenance of a legislative reference room and small working library by the Wisconsin Free Library Commission, and increasing the commission’s appropriation.

Senate Bill 64S passed and was published as Chapter 238 of the Laws of Wisconsin on May 16, 1903. Section 373e states:

The secretary of said free library commission is hereby directed to ascertain and report to the state superintendent of public property what public libraries, in the state containing more than one thousand volumes, including the libraries of normal schools, academies and colleges, can suitably care for and advantageously use, public documents printed by the state. The secretary of said commission shall designate such libraries as depositories of state documents and shall from time to time, prepare lists of such depositories for the use of the superintendent of public property. The state superintendent of public property is hereby directed to furnish each library which is designated as a depository of state documents one set of public documents, as they are published, and also copies of such other reports and documents printed at the expense of the state, as may be of general interest and supplied to him in sufficient numbers to meet such a demand.

The Wisconsin statutes now provided for the distribution of public documents to depository libraries. The Wisconsin Document Depository Program had officially begun.

Senator James H. Stout, who introduced both pieces of legislation, was an effective advocate for libraries. He used his personal funds to establish the first traveling library system in Wisconsin. Senator Stout secured the first appropriation for a commission and became its first chairman. He was chairman from 1897-1905 during which time he persisted in the advancement of the Free Library Commission responsibilities. He died Dec. 7, 1910 in Menomonie.

Chapter 22, Section 351, states that one copy each of all documents published by the state is to be distributed.

Chapter 22, Section 354, deals specifically with distribution to depository libraries:

Upon completion of binding of . . . collected public documents . . . the superintendent of public property . . . to be distributed as follows: one set to each member of the legislature to which such public documents were submitted, one set to each state institution, to the library of each state normal school, to the library of the state university, and to each county clerk, the same to be preserved in such institutions and in the office of such clerk; and not exceeding one hundred sets to be placed at the disposal of the Free Library Commission, to be distributed through the said superintendent to such school, collegiate, and free public libraries of the state having one thousand or more volumes, as may be designated by the secretary of said commission as depositories of public documents.

With that sentence, the Wisconsin Document Depository Program began to distribute public documents to depository libraries for the use of citizens. The 1903 report of the commission went on to say that when it was created in 1895, there were 28 free public libraries. By 1903-04 that number had grown to 126, with an additional 350 traveling libraries. The Document Department reported that a checklist of documents had been made and was soon to arrive from the printer. When it was received, the department would undertake the exchange of documents in a similar way as the exchange of magazines in the clearinghouse. The Free Library Commission as part of its mission was to create the checklist of documents to assist public libraries in completing files of such publications, and in arranging them so as to be of use to citizens of their several localities.

One part of the 1903-04 Annual Report entitled "Extracts from Library Reports" contains a narrative that still resonates 100 years later. Superior Public Library reports,

The government documents in the library have been rearranged according to the scheme of classification for the rest of the library. At the time this work was done, duplicate volumes were taken out and many of them returned to the government. Incomplete files were checked up and many wanting volumes obtained, besides a large number of new ones. Long sets of the documents will be shelved separately, but all others will be arranged with the other books, where they will be more reading noticed and used. Current government publications as received are placed on a special table in the reading room and much more use is made of them than ever before. It is hoped before another year to have them cataloged so they can be as useful as any other part of the library.

Examination of the reports of the Commission is succeeding years did not provide much detail or insight into the development and growth of the depository system. For some years the reports are no longer available. The program continued, however, as evidenced by the libraries continuing to receive shipments of state documents. The 1956 Wisconsin Public Libraries Service Record included the following information about the distribution of State Documents:

In 1952, the Commission offered to collect and mail selected publications of departments of state government to public libraries in all parts of the state. Twenty-six libraries requested the service, and during the past year each of these libraries received two copies of 93 titles. Approximately 4,000 documents have been mailed by the Traveling Library.

In 1952, 93 titles were distributed. Compare that to statistics from later years. In 1994, 2,266 documents were shipped and in 2002 the number was 1,938.

The number of agencies and their responsibilities has changed over the years, and the language of the statutes has been revised, but the mission of the program has remained the same.

In 1965 the Free Library Commission was incorporated into the Department of Public Instruction. The statutes were modified and the distribution of state government documents became the responsibility of the Department of Pubic Instruction.

In 1975 the Department of Public Instruction appointed a Task Force to review the statutory language related to the depository program. The purpose was to further define the definition of a government document and establish formal procedures for the designation of depository libraries. Although the statutory language was introduced in 1979, it did not pass. A manual was created by the Department of Public Instruction which described the depository program and outlined the responsibilities of the depository libraries.

In 1979 Wisconsin Laws, Chapter 34, Section 2001, required the Governor to appoint a committee to study the distribution of documents by the state. The committee was appointed and stated in their report

The committee did not establish as a goal either the expansion or constriction of the free distribution of official state documents. Rather the committee attempted to ascertain the need for free copies of official state documents, clarify statutes and establish consistency in the document distribution area.

Some of the language proposed by the committee was adopted into the statutes in 1985.

In 1988 the State Superintendent of Pubic Instruction, Dr. Herbert Grover, appointed the State Government Document Depository Study Committee, to study once again the language of the statutes. A major revision of the statues was proposed and subsequently passed on April 29, 1992.

The new language improved the Wisconsin Document Depository Program. The revision defined the term "state document," and outlined the responsibilities of the Division for Libraries and Community Learning and depository libraries. State agencies were required to designate one or more staff members to be responsible for meeting state document depository distribution requirements.

Three state-level depository libraries were designated: Wisconsin Historical Society Library, the Legislative Reference Bureau and the Reference and Loan Library. These libraries would receive copies of documents if there was an insufficient number of copies for full distribution. The statutes further stated that there would be no more than 10 regional depository libraries, which would receive all state documents made available through the depository program. No more than 35 libraries could serve as selective state document depository libraries. The Department of Administration distributes selected documents listed in a chart in S.35.84, Wisconsin Statutes 1991-92, with the remainder of the documents listed in S.35.84 Wisconsin Statutes distributed by the Reference and Loan Library.

As the state began to experience a severe economic downturn in 2002, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster formed the Depository Program Study Committee to review the Wisconsin Document Depository Program. The committee reviewed issues related to the operation of the Depository Program, including the impact of technology on distribution, access, and preservation of electronic documents. The committee concluded its meetings in December 2002. It produced recommendations to improve and streamline the program.

The purpose of the 1903 legislation and the purpose of the Wisconsin Document Depository Program of 2003 remains essentially the same. The Reference and Loan Library web page describes the mission of the program:

to collect and distribute state publications to Wisconsin Libraries. This program preserves and makes available a record of major state government programs and assures the availability of state publications for use by the pubic throughout Wisconsin now and in the future.

Through a century of boom and bust years the Wisconsin Document Depository Program has succeeded in fulfilling its mission to provide access to government information to the people of Wisconsin. Or, as the 1903 legislation stated, "assist the public libraries in the state, in completing files of such publications and in so arranging them as to be of use to citizens of their localities." As the program begins its second century of operations, we can all hope for its continued success.

Nancy Mulhern
Government Information Librarian
Wisconsin Historical Society Library
(608) 261-2460