The Building Years

Miss Edith Dudgeon, a graduate of Lawrence College with a degree in Library Science from Emory University, became head librarian in June, 1954. Her name was already known in Wisconsin Rapids, for her father, Mr. Matthew Dudgeon, had been a leader of the Free Library Commission that had given such important aid to the T. B. Scott Library in its early years.

That this librarian was bringing in a new concept of library management became apparent when, during one of her first meetings with the Board, she asked the startled trustees what they visualized the library should be.


For the past decades the Board members had hardly been able to lift their eyes from the problems of a crumbling building and inadequate county funding. Now they were being asked to help set directions and goals; to consider new programs and services. It was an exhilarating, if somewhat daunting, challenge.

As a first move, the Board supported the librarian's long-range plans for rebuilding the book collection. Because books become out-of-date, any good library has to discard about five percent of its collection each year. It is a disservice to patrons to offer then inaccurate materials.

In the past, the T. B. Scott Library had retained all of the books that could be packed into the shelves. Because of this, the new administration had to discard, annually for the next few years, over seven percent of the library's book stock.

Next came the task of replacing needed materials and filling the gaps in each classification so that its holdings would contain a balance of standard, classic works together with books that offered the best contemporary thought in each area. One by one the different classifications (such as Useful Arts, Religion, or Science) were studied, and the work could begin on rebuilding the classification's collection. This was an ongoing, yearly assignment that required time and professional study. It was far beyond a mere reading of book reviews and buying best sellers. That it was successful is shown by the fact that while the number of people using the library increased 6.9% in one year (1961), the use of books increased at double that rate - 12.2%. The public apparently appreciated the improved collection.

A second goal was to reorganize the library into departments with graduate librarians heading major areas. The Scott library, however, could receive no assurance that additional graduates would be available: other states were raiding the University of Wisconsin and luring Library School graduates to library positions in government, colleges, universities, and industry.

To solve this, the Library School recommended that the Scott library tap the reservoir of local college-trained women who might be interested in part-time work. This meant the librarian would have to give hours of training, but the system resulted in building an excellent staff. Many such recruits had had some library courses in college; many had been teachers; many decided to start a new career and go on to receive certification and even degrees in library science.

A third highly important project was to rebuild the endowment fund. This was accomplished under the leadership of Mr. Richard Brazeau, one of the trustees.

Since the earliest years, the fund had been managed by the entire Board and then by the treasurer of forty years - Mr. Isaac Witter. It should be noted that if, in any year during his tenure of office, the income from the fund fell below that of the previous year, he quietly and at his own expense made up the difference.

In 1935 the State of Wisconsin passed laws specifying the classes of securities in which public funds could be invested. As a result, the T. B. Scott library's endowment fund, in 1961, consisted of government bonds and savings accounts. Its earnings had dropped from an average of one-thousand dollars a year to about five-hundred dollars a year.

Mr. Brazeau pointed out to the Board that Wisconsin's new "prudent man" rule now authorized trustees to invest as a prudent man would handle his own investments. In an effort to protect the fund's future purchasing powers, the Board then worked with several of the city's bankers and financial advisors to create a balanced portfolio, and the growth of the endowment dates from that time.

Of continuing concern was the problem of the city's carrying the costs of library services used by non-residents. Although the County Board now made appropriations to the libraries in Wisconsin Rapids, Marshfield, Nekoosa, Vesper, and Arpin, the amounts given were not based on the services each library gave to county residents.

For example, each year the same amount was given to the Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield libraries. Yet Wood County borrowers made up over 33% of the Wisconsin Rapids library's membership while they made up only 17% of the Marshfield library's borrowers.

Year after year the T. B. Scott library trustees tried to work with county officials to establish payments based on the services given by each library to county residents. It was a situation faced by countless libraries in the nation. The most generally discussed solutions were the creating of county libraries or, alternatively, establishing systems of legal contracts for services performed for those living outside the library's tax base.

And year after year the trustees tried to acquaint the area with a situation which, in fairness to city taxpayers, could not continue much longer.

The Wood County Board of Supervisors did take a big step forward, however, when it joined the Wisconsin Valley Library Reference Service. This service, headquartered in Wausau, had originated on a trial basis in 1961 and would be financed during that time by the Federal government. It was composed of eleven counties in north-central Wisconsin, and served residents of Wood County through the participating public libraries in Wisconsin Rapids, Marshfield, Nekoosa and Vesper.

The purpose of the project was to establish a center to serve libraries whose own reference materials could not always supply answers to patrons' questions. It also provided a means by which the resources of all member libraries were available to all borrowers in the region.

Federal funds for the experimental project were withdrawn in 1965, and the eleven counties then had to carry the costs of running this reference and loan service. In December, Wood County voted to allocate eight thousand dollars to this project - its prorated share of costs.

Another matter that required serious Board study was that of potential censorship. The word matter is used here, not problem, for to the everlasting credit of the Wisconsin Rapids community, not one concerted effort at censorship was brought before the Board during the difficult McCarthy years.

The Board, after studying pertinent materials, created a Book Selection Policy which included the stipulation that "all sides of a potentially controversial question" would be offered at the library. The librarian's judgment in selecting materials would be final.

A few individuals asked questions about various books, but after the policy had been explained, the matter of suppression was dropped. In the 1980s, the first and only well-organized attempt to censor certain materials was brought before the Board, and the trustees upheld the professional judgment of the librarians.

The branch library in Wisconsin Rapids was becoming another concern. The small collection of forty-eight-hundred books had remained static for years, while parking and traffic problems had grown. As a result, the number of borrowers was constantly declining.

In 1962 several Council members from the West Side expressed interest in a new branch. A site committee was formed, and Miss Dudgeon was asked to prepare a plan for a new building. Using standards set by the American Library Association, she reported her findings on the size of building needed to serve a west side population of eight thousand (thirty-five hundred square feet); the number of books for this population (sixteen thousand); the needed shelving and equipment; the required staff and work spaces. 

The new branch was never built, but the Board and the Council members had witnessed the professional studies involved in planning a library building. (Note: In 1970 when the McMillan Memorial Library building was completed, the Common Council finally closed the branch library on West Grand Avenue.)

Recognizing the changing nature of library service, the librarian and the Board moved forward toward offering recreation and information through other media than print materials. Through the generosity of the Historical and Literary Club, the library was able to start a circulating record collection. In addition, it joined the state film circuit and obtained, monthly, new films which were sub-rented for a user's fee to organizations that ranged from the Knights of Columbus to the Conservation League to the Bethel Home.

Two outgrowths of these projects were the Family Film Night and the creation of a meeting room, seating twenty, that was equipped with a projector and screen: a room designed for the use of study groups, civic committees, area associations, and others. These added services seemed to point directly toward the vastly increased audio-visual collections of the succeeding McMillan Memorial Library and to the All-Purpose Room of that facility.

Other innovations included the beginning of a collection of large-print books for the visually handicapped - a collection begun by a gift from the Lions Club and later supported by both that club, by Emily Baldwin Bell, and by the Alexander Charitable Foundation; the Tri-City Art Club's exhibits in the halls of the library building on Third Street; the beginning of a pamphlet and clipping file; and a greatly expanded reference collection.

In connection with the latter, it is interesting that in the past, whenever a librarian mentioned any reference work in the Annual Report, she invariably wrote of work done for "women's study clubs and high school students." These were the only groups ever mentioned. There seemed to be little thought that a library could provide reference materials for all adults in all of their roles as business men and women, government officials, investors, taxpayers, technicians, union members, consumers, voters, and career persons. The librarian's goal was to change this.

The emphasis on reference work for high school students had resulted from overcrowding at Lincoln High School. The school library became in fact, if not in name, a study hall with the librarian having to become a study hall supervisor. Thus by default, the T. B. Scott public library was forced to do much of the work of a school library, with students packing the small adult reading area of the library in the former Witter residence and requiring a disproportionate share of the staff's time and the library's resources. When two or three hundred students were assigned term papers on the same general subject area and with the same time limit, the public library was hard-pressed to serve other adult users.

It would take a prolonged effort at public relations to convince adults that the Scott library was greatly strengthening its informational services and was building an expanded selection of specialized reference materials for all adults - not merely for high school students.

As through all the years, civic effort was a strong force at this period of library development. Both financial support and volunteer service came from such organizations as the American Association of University Women, the Study and Recreation Club of Port Edwards, the Historical and Literary Club, Catholic Daughters, Sunrise Club, Travel Class, Book Club, Lions Club, and Alpha Delta Kappa.

Individuals, too, played a large part in helping the library develop its resources. Annually, Mrs. Emily Baldwin Bell gave a substantial gift to the book fund, while Mrs. Mary McMillan Burt's yearly gifts were directed toward the purchase of the best in new library equipment. Generous bequests from the estates of Mr. Charles Kruger, Miss Florence Lynn, Mr. Fred Turbin, Mr. and Mrs. Ray Johnson and Mr. George Baker helped build the endowment fund.

Because of the large amount of money involved, the Board created a policy concerning monetary gifts and memorial funds. Unless they had been directed toward a specific purpose, these funds were placed in a gift account which was used for some special service or object that would be beyond the library's ordinary budget; the fund was never to be used for regular operating expenses.

These added services and resources of the 1950s, together with a great increase in library use, were pushing the library to its limit. By the early 1960s, the Board was realizing that the city would soon have to build or buy a new library facility.

But there was an important fact that had to be considered. Several members of the Board knew as friends of Mrs. Mary McMillan Burt, that she had included in her will a magnificent bequest designated to be used for a new library building. Now living in Florida Mrs. Burt was unaware of the growing problem and of the public's questioning the Board's seeming reluctance to discuss a building program.

What started that program was an unusual series of events.

In 1964, a retired library administrator and consultant, Dr. Joseph Wheeler, came to make his home with his daughter in Wisconsin Rapids. Without the Board's knowledge and without the slightest idea of the possible bequest, he "surveyed the library's needs" and recommended the site, design and cost of a new library.

He then presented his plans to an astonished Board. The Board could not agree with his plans, but it courteously thanked him and thought the matter was ended. Dr. Wheeler, however, took his idea to a meeting of the Rotary Club where, in his address, he challenged the Board to "release" his full report. He thus placed himself and the Board in an adversarial position.

Newspaper accounts of his speech created a storm of speculation, criticism, and curiosity. City officials were startled to hear that, seemingly, the T. B. Scott Library trustees were, without the Common Council's knowledge, planning to build a new library. The trustees immediately met with Mayor Nels Justeson and with members of the Common Council to explain the situation: they were not trying to suppress any information, but they did not want to be forced into an action that would not benefit the community.

It was Richard Brazeau who tactfully and successfully handled the situation by flying to Florida where he explained to Mrs. Burt all that had happened. After carefully listening to his report, this generous and understanding philanthropist suggested that she could solve the problem by releasing into trust, for the remainder of her life, the funds she had planned to give the library at her death.

It was her intention that the library should be a memorial to her late father, mother, and uncle. It would be in memory of the two young immigrant boys who, living in an area that was without schools, had studied by firelight the precious school books they had brought from England to Wisconsin.

It was to be in memory of the gift that her family had given to her: a love of learning that she hoped the library could give to others.

In September, 1964, Mr. Brazeau announced to the Board Mrs. Burt's gift of Consolidated Papers stock valued at half a million dollars. The preliminary work on the building project then began.

The McMillan Trust was created and its trustees then appointed the Library Building Committee.

The most difficult job faced by this committee was that of drawing up requirements for a building to serve for twenty years (the minimum period that is useful for library planning purposes) and with built-in flexibility so that it could adjust to services not yet conceived but which, without question, would develop in the future.

The librarian had the task of preparing the Building Plan for the architects. It would include not only figures on the size and types of population the building would serve but also the kinds of services to be offered and the space required for each specific library operation. The plan cannot be summarized here, but it is interesting to look back on how at least some of the decisions for it were made.

For example, in determining the size of the building, the librarian and the Building Committee used the very timely Project 701 Community Survey of the South Wood County Area. This study had been commissioned by the cities of Wisconsin Rapids and Nekoosa, the village of Port Edwards, and the towns of Saratoga and Grand Rapids, and it was drawn up by a Madison consulting firm in 1965. It was of great value during the planning years of 1966-1967.

The study concluded that in the twenty years between 1965 and 1985, the population of the area would increase to between 40,000 and 45,000. By 1990 it would be between 45,000 and 50,000. The accuracy of these findings is shown in the fact that in 1989 according to the Wisconsin Rapids Chamber of Commerce, the area population was 47,410 almost exactly in the middle of the projected range.

These figures were not the only facts used, however. Of equal importance was that library use was increasing at a faster rate than area population growth. The study showed that between 1950 and 1960:

Wood County population increased 17%

Wisconsin Rapids population increased 11.5% while

T.B. Scott Library's registered borrowers increased 74.4%

Number of books loaned to individuals (not including schools) increased 40.6%

These all-important facts were the basis for decisions concerning the library's size.

A study of different groups the library would serve was based on figures supplied by the Department of Resource Development. The figures showed that by 1980 the greatest increase in population would be in the 22-24 year-old age group and in the over-70 year-old age group.

The implications of these findings were important to those planning the library. Greater opportunities for post-high school education in the area would allow many young people to stay at home while furthering their education. Thus decisions concerning the size of the adult reading room and facilities for young adults were based on such projections.

In the same way, the figures on the over-70 age group strengthened the Library Board's determination to find more ways to serve the elderly. Accordingly, space for a vehicle to circulate books to the homebound and to nursing homes was included in the building program long before such a project had been financed and inaugurated.

A second major task was that of writing a report that explained the Board's Purposes and Goals in creating the new building. This, plus the written Building Program were required by the State Division for Library Services which acted as an agent through which the city could apply for Federal funds.

Mrs. Burt's original idea was that the building should house both a library and an historical museum. During the long planning sessions, it was found that such an arrangement would cause difficulties as problems of joint responsibilities and costs became obvious. Mrs. Burt agreed with the Board's findings, and eventually a solution that was satisfactory to everyone was worked out. An historical museum was later created in the former library building (the Witter home) on Third Street.

Mrs. Burt had also requested that the building would include a little theater to be used by some future theater group. Mr. Jack Gennaro, who had previous experience with community theaters, formed a sub-committee to plan this part of the building.

With the invaluable professional help of Professor Fred Buerki, Director of the University of Wisconsin - Madison Theater, the committee was able to plan the best possible use of the small space available for the stage, dressing rooms, and backstage facilities. Professor Buerki also worked on specifications for the sound and lighting equipment.

Other events of the planning years of 1965 and 1966 included the following: visits by various members of the Building Committee to study recently constructed libraries; the change of name from the T. B. Scott Free Public Library to the McMillan Memorial Library; and the selection of the architectural firm of Grassold, Johnson, Wagner, and Isley.

In November, 1967, the Board of Trustees was ready to present the project to the Common Council for formal approval. The presentation included full information on the following:

1. The assets available from the McMillan Trust;

2. Mrs. Emily Baldwin Bell's gift of 1,000 shares of Consolidated Papers stock and her additional gift of $25,000 for landscaping the library site;

3. Consolidated's Civic Foundation's gift of two parcels of land to add to city-owned property to comprise the building site.

4. Nekoosa-Edwards Civic Foundation's gift of $14,000 toward furnishing the library's Fine Arts Center;

5. A promised federal grant of $220,000;

6. $20,000 from the T.B. Scott Free Public Library Endowment Fund.

The Council accepted the Trust and later appropriated $575,000 for the project. The actual work of building began in June with the ground-breaking ceremony taking place on June 20, 1968. Mrs. Burt turned the first sod.

All who have worked on building committees for their churches or for government facilities or for schools will remember the hours of effort on bids, contracts, selection of equipment, purchases, and problem solving. In this part of the work on the new library, three leaders emerged.

Richard Brazeau visualized what the future library should be. His very unexpected death in 1968 came before the completion of the project, but his vision and work are a very real part of that beautiful building on the hill.

Miss Edith Dudgeon and Mrs. Margaret McCourt were outstanding leaders during these years of the library's construction. No inspection trip was too exhausting to undertake; no committee meeting was too unimportant to attend; no statistical study was too time-consuming to complete. The success of the building is due in no small part to their years of effort.

Also through these years, strong public support made the project a happy community experience. There was constant cooperation and constructive help from the City Planning Commission, the Public Property Committee, and the Special City Finance Committee that was created to work with the library Building Committee. An example of the community's pride and interest in the project is that in 1968 the Chamber of Commerce expressed the city's gratitude to Mrs. Burt by making her Citizen of the Year.

One area organization after the other pledged funds or special gifts for the new building. Most important, in 1969, the Friends of the Library was organized with Mr. Maxwell Hughson as its first president. From then on, this group gave invaluable service in dozens of ways. It was at this time that Mrs. Burt wrote these words in a letter to Mrs. McCourt: "I feel so indebted to all who have helped in any way; for all their interest and their help. It was the public acceptance and interest which surprised and pleased me so much. After all, I only instigated the project with Dick's (Brazeau) help. We owe so much to him."

Mrs. Burt also expressed deep gratitude that circumstances had directed her toward creating the Trust and seeing the library built during her lifetime.

By the spring of 1970 the landscaping work could begin. Mr. Franz Lipp's plan for the McMillan Memorial Library required the planting of more than nine-hundred trees and shrubs, and the full beauty of his design has become more and more apparent through the years. Incorporated in the design was the fountain given in memory of Richard Brazeau by his family and friends.

At a brief ceremony in the Fine Arts Center, the McMillan Memorial Library was dedicated to the community, May 17, 1970. Mrs. Burt was present for the ceremony which included the presentation of the building and its acceptance by Mayor Donald Penza.

For the first time in its eighty-year history, the Wisconsin Rapids library was housed in a building created for library purposes.

Continue with Chapter 5.