The beautiful new building of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin occupies eight city lots lying to the west of what is known as the "lower campus" of the State University and at the foot of University Hill. Its cost was about $675,000; but the contracts for construction were let at a time (1897) when building materials commanded the lowest prices known in the past quarter century; today this stately structure would have cost nearly if not quite a million dollars.
The building, designed by Ferry & Clas, architects, of Milwaukee, is constructed of Buff Bedford limestone, from Bedford, Ind. The architecture is of the Ionic order, in the renaissance style. While the exterior of the structure is distinctly the work of the architects, the interior arrangement--as is proper, for this is a librarians' workshop--is in all essential particulars the plan of those who occupy it.
The statutes providing for the construction of the building permitted the Society to invite thereto such other state-supported libraries as it deemed proper. From the first, it was well understood by the board of building commissioners that the library of the State University was to be housed beneath the same roof. Ample provisions were therefore made for the latter, and to this fact the plans owe their somewhat peculiar arrangement. The attempt has been made, and it is believed successfully, to provide for two distinct libraries, separately administered, but using the reading and delivery rooms in common. By joint agreement, the Historical Society, as trustee of the state, retains the general administration of the entire building--such as heating, lighting, cleaning, repairing, policing, and the special custody of all rooms to which the public are admitted; but the University controls the actual daily use of its own offices, seminary rooms, storage rooms, and the space assigned to it in the southwest book-stack wing. When the northwest book-stack wing is constructed, the University library will be transferred thither; although the Society library will also occupy one or more floors of this wing. This proposed new wing will be in direct connection with the administrative rooms of the University library. In consideration of being granted space for its library and for several of its seminars, the University reimburses the Society by sharing with it the actual cost of maintaining the building--wages of care-takers, cleaners' supplies, repairs, etc.
The greater part of the basement is devoted to the storage of bound newspaper files, duplicate books and pamphlets, Wisconsin state documents carried in bulk by the Society for exchange purposes, packing and unpacking rooms for both Society and University libraries, janitors' repair shop, engines, fans, electric motors, etc. From the unpacking room an electric freight elevator, capable of carrying attendants and trucks of books, ascends from the basement to all floors of the wing; there is also an electric book-lift, for books and small packages. Heat is obtained from the University central heating plant, a tunnel from which underlies the Langdon street side.
Upon the first floor are stationed three of the Society's departmental libraries--newspaper files, maps and manuscripts, and public documents. There are also large cloak and toilet rooms for men and women, and the seminary rooms of the University's school of history, school of economics and political science, and department of mathematics.
On the south side of the second floor are the administrative offices of the Society; on the north side are those of the University library; between them, the great reading room, capable of seating 240 persons, and the periodical room, seating 60. There are also, in close proximity, the delivery counters of the respective libraries, and the card catalogue, by means of which every book and pamphlet in the building can be readily found.
Along the south side of the third floor are the Society's lecture room, staff room, toilet rooms, and several offices, including the superintendent's study; there is also a room devoted to the use of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, whose library of 12,000 volumes is housed in the building. On the north side are the University seminars for German, Greek, Latin, French, English, and philosophy and education. A large part of the third floor is also occupied by the upper part of the reading room, and the visitors' balcony. Separated by a railing from this balcony are the large genealogical collections of the Society and the art departments of both libraries. In connection with this departmental library, are two special study rooms for the convenience of such visitors to the building as are engaged in protracted literary work, and need at hand large numbers of reference books.
The fourth floor chiefly interests the general public; for here is quartered the museum. Ample arrangements have been made for the accommodation of such of the Society's collections as are fitted for exhibition. The two public stairways lead to this floor; also, the electric passenger and freight elevators. There are toilet rooms for both sexes, work and store rooms for the janitor and cleaners, a dark room for photographers who may be engaged in making reproductions within the building, and a series of galleries and cabinet rooms which so open one into another as at every turn to present pleasing vistas.
The library of the State Historical Society, now numbering about 240,000 titles, is one of the best known and most important reference libraries in America; in books relating to America, it ranks perhaps second or third in this country; but in material relating to the West and South it easily stands alone. While aiming to be a general library for scholars, it is strongest in the fields of Americana, English history, political science, and economics: its collections of newspaper files, genealogy, historical manuscripts, public documents, and important sources for advanced study in both English and American history, are particularly strong. The Institution is resorted to by scholars and special Investigators from all parts of the West and South. The Society's publications, which rank in importance with those of the Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania historical societies, consist chiefly of The Wisconsin Historical Collections (biennial), Class Lists (occasional), Portrait Gallery Catalogue (triennial), and Annual Report.
The library of the State University, which is ably administered upon modern principles, contains about 75,000 titles. The two libraries carefully differentiate their purchases, so as to avoid unnecessary duplication and jointly to cover all departments of study and research; thus the two purchasing funds, both provided by the state, attain their highest possible effectiveness.
After two years of experience in the new building, the wisdom of uniting library forces under one roof, in proximity to the University campus, has been amply justified.