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New Director Orientation: Wisconsin Library Law

Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 43

Requirements for system membership

Wisconsin Statutes 43.15(4)(c) requires that libraries meet certain requirements in order to maintain their system membership. Some of these are:

  1. Provide same service to all residents of system as to residents of own municipality, with some exceptions allowed. 43.15(4)(c)4.
  2. Receive funding from municipality at not less than average of previous 3 years. 43.15(4)(c)5. (This was eliminated in the 2011-2013 Wisconsin State Budget.)
  3. Open to the public at least 20 hours per week. 43.15(4)(c)7.

Trustee Essential 17 also covers system membership requirements.

Maintenance of Effort (REPEALED)

The requirement that the municipality appropriate at least the average of the previous 3 years (43.15(4)(c)5) (sometimes referred to as "Maintenance of Effort" or MoE) was eliminated in the 2011-2013 Wisconsin State Budget. It is no longer a requirement for system membership.

Failure to comply with system membership requirements

Each year, when a library board approves its state Public Library Annual Report, it must certify that the library is in compliance with system membership requirements, as well as other statutory requirements. While SCLS staff do not actively seek out compliance violations, when we learn of them, we must act to bring the library back into compliance. (43.18(2m)-(3)). If steps are not taken to come back into compliance within a specified period of time, the SCLS Board will hold a hearing to discuss possible penalties, such as reducing system services, up to and including expulsion from the system. You can see that it is extremely important that you become familiar with the requirements for system membership, and be sure that your library is in compliance with them at all times.

Board powers and duties

There are specific powers a public library board (whether municipal, joint, or consolidated county) enjoys, as well as specific duties they are required to perform. These are found in Wisconsin Statutes 43.58, and also described in a Trustee Training Module from the Division for Libraries and Technology (DLT), and Trustee Essential 2. Some of these are also included in the Annual Report certification. It is extremely important that you and your board are familiar with all of these. Some of these are:

  • The library board has exclusive control of the money collected, donated, or appropriated for the library fund.
  • The library board must audit and approve all expenditures, and the appropriate municipal (or county) official must pay the bills.
  • The library board hires the library director, who in turn hires (and supervises, etc.) other library employees.
  • The library board must submit the library's annual report to the state.
  • The library board approves all library policies. (Wis. Stat. 43.58(4)). See Trustee Essential 10, and this Trustee Training Module from DLT.

County issues

Chapter 43 has plenty to say about counties as they relate to public libraries. Perhaps one of the most important of these is the requirement of counties to reimburse libraries in their own county, and in adjacent counties, for service they provide to residents who are not residents of a municipality that maintains a public library. (Wis. Stat. 43.12) Counties must reimburse libraries at the minimum (70%) amount dictated by the formula described in 43.12. Calculations of the 2013 reimbursements for four SCLS counties are below:

Dane County has agreed to use a different reimbursement formula.

More information about reimbursement to libraries from adjacent counties can be found at Your library must submit requests to adjacent counties by July 1 in order to receive your payments, which are due March 1 of the following year.

Also in Chapter 43 is the provision that allows municipalities that levy a library tax to exempt from the county tax levy, if the amount the municipality levies for its library is greater than the amount calculated as described in 43.64. Equalized assessed values become available each year in August. Dane County libraries are informed by the Dane County Library Service (DCLS) the minimum amount they need to exempt, and how to request the exemption. In some other counties, it is handled by the county resource library, or county library board. The calculation for Sauk County, indicating the amount required for 2012 local appropriations, is provided as an example.

Counties may appoint members to local municipal library boards, depending on the ratio of the municipal funding to county funding. (43.60)

Open Meetings

Wisconsin's open meetings law (Wis. Stat. 19.81-19.98) requires that all meetings of all state and local government bodies (including library boards) must be held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public, and must be open to the public, except as expressly provided by statute. There are specific requirements for public notice of meetings, accessibility of meetings, and how to hold closed sessions. Violation of the open meetings law can result in significant penalties.

Trustee Essential 14 (from DLT), Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide (from the Wisconsin Department of Justice), and the slides from an SCLS continuing education session are all sources of information about open meetings law.

Meeting notice: Public notice is required at least 24 hours in advance of a meeting, except in cases of emergency, when at least two hours notice is required. Under no circumstances can notice be less than two hours. Notice must be provided to the official local newspaper, and any newspaper or news organization that has requested notice. If there is no official newspaper, notice must be provided to a newspaper or news organization that covers your municipality. (The notice doesn't have to be published by the newspaper or organization, but it must be provided to them.) Notice must also be posted in at least one public place, preferably several. Good examples of places are: the library, the post office, the city or village hall, etc.

The notice must include the time, date, place, and all subjects to be discussed or voted on--in other words, the meeting agenda. Discussion of, and especially voting on, items not on the agenda are not in compliance with the open meetings law.

Location: An open meeting must be held in a "place reasonably accessible to members of the public and open to all citizens at all times." This means that the room should be accessible by people with physical disabilities.

Closed sessions: In very specific instances (and only in these instances), portions of meetings may be held in closed session. Some of the most common reasons a closed session is permitted are:

  • consideration of employment, promotion, compensation, or performance evaluation of a library staff member. (19.85(1)(c))
  • consideration of dismissal, demotion, or discipline of a library staff member. (19.85(1)(b))
  • deliberating or negotiating the purchase of public properties, investment of public funds, or other specified business, if competitive or bargaining reasons require it. (19.85(1)(e)
  • consideration of specific personnel problems or investigation of charges that would negatively affect the reputation of the person involved. (19.85(1)(f))
  • conferring with legal counsel providing legal advice regarding litigation in which the board is likely to become involved. (19.85(1)(g))

See Wis. Stat. 19.85 for more information about these and the full list of exemptions to open meetings.

There are certain steps which must be followed for holding a closed session. These are found in 19.85(1) and (2), and are nicely summarized by DLT.

It is extremely important that your board comply with open meetings law. If you do not, you run the risk of having board actions voided, and individual members fined between $25-$300 per violation.

Public Records

Wisconsin's public records law (Wisconsin Statutes 19.31-19.39) provides that almost all records of state and local government (which includes public libraries) be available for inspection and/or copying by the public. An important exception to the public records law for libraries is regarding records that identify an individual who uses a publicly funded library (Wisconsin Statutes Section 43.30). This information can be released only with the consent of the individual or by court order or (under certain circumstances) to other libraries for interlibrary loan purposes. See for more information about requests from law enforcement for these protected records, and how to deal with them.

But you must respond to all requests to view or copy public records, other than those protected records described above, made by any person (except most requests from individuals who are committed or incarcerated). Your library should have a designated custodian for public records, and a policy for dealing with requests. You can charge the actual fee for copying requested records. Most records must be kept for at least seven years. Trustee Essential 15 and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Public Records FAQ provide important information on this topic. A Public Records Law Compliance Guide is also available from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

State Library Structure

The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is a Wisconsin State agency concerned with education, including public schools, and public libraries. Specifically, the Division for Libraries and Technology (DLT), a division of DPI, serves "the life-long learning and information needs of all Wisconsin citizens from preschoolers to senior citizens"--and is charged with specific duties (Wisconsin Statutes Section 43. 05) related to public libraries in the state. DLT, in turn, has several teams, of which the Public Library Development Team has perhaps the most relationship to public libraries (including director certification, statistics gathering through the state annual report, and dissemination of LSTA funds).

For more information, contact: