Moment in Time: J.D. Witter Traveling Libraries
By Kyra Jagodzinski
In May of 1896, J.D. Witter of Grand Rapids founded a free traveling library for the citizens of Wood County. Witter had already had a free library in his own home but hoped to meet a greater number of people with the traveling library. Although the existence of the library was not common knowledge to every citizen, those that had heard about the library took advantage of the opportunity, further expanding their education.
When Witter first launched the library, he had only 12 cases to be circulated, each containing 40 books. Speculation began to rise on if the 12 cases would be enough, but in just as much time as they were released, the cases began circulating.
After those original cases were released, three more cases were added to the collection. Yet, those 15 cases remained used with little books truly being passed around. In less than six months, 25 cases total were being passed around in Wood County. By the end of the year, seven more cases were added to the library, bringing the total to 32 cases, which meant that over 1,200 books were being used every day.
As the cold, winter months swept over Grand Rapids, the traveling libraries became even more necessary to the county’s citizens. People were able to sit next to the fire on their farm on late winter evenings and read their books, helping to pass the time in a beneficial and interesting way. Those who favored fiction over historical or scientific books were equally as well supplied, with varying reading levels as well. The collection accommodated all classes.
The J.D. Witter Traveling Libraries were under the supervision of the same governors as the T.B. Scott’s library. The Grand Rapids citizens then formed a local association to elect officers and a librarian to ensure the care and loaning of the books were firm and enforced.
The traveling library was free for all of the county’s citizens, with the only cost being the original price of the books and the cost needed to transport the books across the county.
Sarah Elliott of Saratoga became the first librarian of the J.D. Witter traveling library, who then named it “The Thankful Library,” to express the county’s gratitude towards the donor.
The citizens of South Wood County were far from the nearest library, so the traveling library not only gave citizens the opportunity to leisurely indulge in reading but actually increased reading comprehension rates in seniors and advanced youth reading levels in the entire county.
The McMillan Memorial Library lists the following as traveling library “stations”: Babcock, Biron, Cranmoor, South Grand Rapids, Daly, Four-mile Creek, Lindsey, Meadow Valley (in Juneau County), Pittsville, Port Edwards, Nekoosa, Burmeister, Rudolph, Saratoga, Arpin, Altdorf, Auburndale, Elliot’s, and Sherry.
By 1924 there were forty-nine Witter libraries with a yearly circulation of 7,212.
Upon Witter’s death in 1902, he added $5,000 to the T. B. Scott Library endowment and another $5,000 to the J. D. Witter Free Traveling Libraries.