Virtually everyone is familiar with the story of Andrew Carnegie and his gift of public libraries to many cities through out the United States. Even the City of Eau Claire was a recipient of one of Mr. Carnegie’s libraries. The building still exists today as part of Eau Claire City Hall and is located on the north east corner of the intersection Farwell St. and Grand Avenue in downtown Eau Claire. An inscription above its majestic columns identifies it.
In the same manner Dunn County had its own version of Andrew Carnegie in the form of State Senator H.L. Stout. Mr. Stout, co-owner of the Knapp-Stout Lumber Company, founder of the University of Wisconsin – Stout, was puzzled by a question that wouldn’t leave his head; “How may rural citizens be furnished a continuous supply of good literature at a reasonable cost?”
During and prior to the 1890’s, permanent libraries in farming neighborhoods and small hamlets almost invariably failed. This was due in part to the fact that the books were not well selected. But the main reason was that the few books that these libraries had were soon so generally read that the interest in the libraries waned. These libraries eventually died with the books becoming scattered and lost.
Mr. Stouts answer to this problem was to create free traveling libraries. Under Mr. Stouts plan the books would be selected by people who had the experience of being associated with larger libraries. Along with selecting the books, these people would change the books from station to station, insuring an ever fresh supply to each neighborhood in the circuit.
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In searching for a means of helping the rural people with their library needs, Mr. Stout purchased a first class library of 500 popular volumes and sent it in sections through out the county. Each of Mr. Stouts traveling libraries contained thirty volumes that were packed in a substantial library case. These cases could be set up in any room and managed much like a city library. The calls for these libraries became so great that using is own money, Mr. Stout purchased ten more complete libraries. By purchasing these ten additional libraries, people were provided the chance to read all 500 volumes in the course of a few years.
With each of his traveling libraries, Mr. Stout also sent out old magazines and newspapers as well as copies of children’s periodicals which had been contributed by his friend’s and neighbors. A fresh supply of these publications was sent out with the libraries each time they made their rounds. To many an overworked mother or tired farmer the short stories and artistic writing from these publications served as a relaxing break from their daily toils.
Mr. Stout’s libraries were greatly appreciated not only by the people they served, but also by teachers who found that these libraries stimulated children to read good books, which in turn made them better students. Using this plan, “Mr. Stout hoped to keep hundreds of people continually reading good books at a small cost.” This system proved to many that similar undertakings could be adopted on a wider scale. The success of Mr. Stout’s country libraries inspired other philanthropists around Wisconsin to replicate them.