The mission of Northern Waters Library Service is to provide access to quality public library services through its member libraries.


Residents of and visitors to the Northern Waters Library Service area have convenient access to quality library services that enrich the communities of Northern Wisconsin.


Northern Waters Library Service (NWLS) is a joint agency of Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Sawyer, Vilas, and Washburn Counties. It is a federated public library system which includes as members all 29 public libraries in the eight participating counties.  Collectively NWLS and its member libraries provide public library service to the 155,000 residents of the eight-county area.

NWLS is established under Chapter 43 of the Wisconsin Statutes, and receives state funding through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. State statutes define the parameters and requirements under which the system must operate. 

Formed in 1959 to provide bookmobile service to communities without a public library and rotating book collections to public libraries with an agreement between Ashland, Bayfield, Iron, and Price Counties.  At that time, the organization was known as Multi-County Library System.  In 1962, Price County withdrew from the system and Douglas County joined.  In 1965, Vilas County became a member, followed by Burnett County in 1966, Washburn County in 1967 and Sawyer County in 1969.

In 1972, Wisconsin passed legislation that enabled counties to form public library systems.  The goal of the new law was to give every Wisconsin resident access to public library service and to improve the quality of public libraries in the state.  The Multi-County Library System became Northwest Wisconsin Library System; in 1989, the name again changed, this time to Northern Waters Library Service.

NWLS has changed dramatically since 1959.  Bookmobile service and rotating book collections (later supplemented with rotating collections of non-print media) ended in 1999.  In 2000, the Merlin shared automation system began and NWLS began to support internet service to its member libraries.  This change from direct service to patrons to service through member libraries and a related change in focus to technology-related services reflects the  changing expectations of society, similar to other library systems in Wisconsin. In 2021, the Merlin Consortium changed its name to the Northern Waters Library Network (NWLN.)

NWLS continues to be a leader in the state, forging new partnerships with other library systems to provide the best service to our member libraries. NWLS has a formed technology partnerships with Wisconsin Valley Library Service (WVLS) and IFLS Library System called LEAN WI and has a reciprocal consultant agreement with WVLS for Continuing Education and Inclusive Services.

Services include:
  • Circulation reports monthly and assistance with annual reports
  • Consulting services include planning, policies, budgeting, grant-writing, bookkeeping, collection development, services to special populations, children’s services, legal issues affecting libraries, hiring library staff, certification issues, website support, technology, Integrated Library System services (cataloging, circulation, public catalog)
  • Continuing education opportunities relevant to the practice of sound librarianship
  • Cooperative cataloging for the regional and state online catalogs shared by member libraries
  • Delivery service, which provides a quick, efficient and cost-effective method to move shared resources among libraries
  • Digital Media Support – NWLS is a member of the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium (WPLC) digital media service and provides support and training.
  • E-rate and TEACH support for telecommunications discounts
  • Grants for developing local collections and for member library collections and service enhancements
  • Inter-library loan and reference/referral service – A contract with Superior Public Library makes their services and resources available to all member libraries.
  • Mail-A-Book service for residents of the NWLS service area lacking access to a local public library.
  • The Northern Waters Library Network shared resources network, which facilitates resource sharing among member libraries with integrated software for cataloging, circulation and a public online catalog
  • News updates related to library issues, events and training opportunities
  • Technology infrastructure that meets the demands on libraries in their role as providers of a range of public access computing services and as members of the Merlin shared resources network.
  • Technology training, support and consultation

Northern Waters Library Service
3200 Lakeshore Dr E
Ashland, WI 54806

+1 (715) 682 2365
+1 (800) 228 5684