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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Citizen Dave: Little traveling libraries
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By 1893, there were 700 of these libraries in service.
Credit:Dave Cieslewicz

As we prepare to open Madison's big new Central Library next month, I came across some very, very small libraries while working as a volunteer lighthouse keeper on the Apostle Islands.

Lighthouse keeping, as you can imagine, could be a pretty lonely existence for the keeper and his family. In 1876 the lighthouse service devised a brilliant way of connecting the keepers to the outside world: little traveling libraries.

Here's the way it worked. Every three months, the lighthouses had to go through an exacting inspection. But along with their white gloves, the lighthouse inspectors also brought a wooden case full of books. Each case held about forty volumes, and no two cases contained the same books. The inspector would then pack up the tiny library he had left behind twelve weeks earlier, and deliver it to his next stop. In this way, lighthouse families got about forty new volumes to read every three months as the boxes rotated among the various stations. By 1893, there were 700 of these libraries in service.

Even in those days, budgets were tight. Most of the books were donated. Few were purchased by the government. That was probably for the best. How many manuals on the proper cleaning of a lens can a person read?

The little libraries reminded me of a piece I wrote for Isthmus earlier this summer about Madison's own Little Free Library movement, those small book houses you see on posts in neighborhoods all over the city.

The point, I suppose, is that reading and libraries are an enduring concept whether you find your books at a spanking new building in downtown Madison, in a little box posted in your neighbor's front yard or, if you were a lonely lighthouse keeper at the turn of the last century, in a wooden case brought to you in a boat.

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