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Books for the People

Libraries set up to serve TVA dam builders enriched the lives of countless people in remote communities across the TVA region

Today when folks check out a copy of the latest John Grisham novel at the local library, they’re not likely to thank their power company for anything but the reading lights. But when thousands of people in rural regions of the Tennessee Valley region borrowed their first books, it was from a librarian employed by TVA.

TVA didn’t set out to bring libraries to the people. But in the course of bringing them electric power, it found that the one happened to follow the other.

After TVA’s inception in 1933, it sent armies of workers into remote areas to build a power system. Most rural counties in the region had no public library, and some were extreme in their isolation.

Counties with populations in the thousands had no railroad service, no newspaper, no radio station. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say they had no media at all, except for the local grapevine.

photo of people outside libraryIf TVA employees were to live happily and productively in such areas for a year or two, it seemed clear that something would have to change.

Just to maintain morale, workers would need to have a place to keep up with the latest exploits of Ruth and Gehrig, a place to sample Hammett’s or Hemingway’s latest novels, a place to read about new developments in electricity and auto mechanics.

To put libraries in such remote locations seemed an impossible task, but in TVA’s view the more remote the location was, the greater the workers’ need.

In 1934 TVA found just the woman to take on the challenge. Her name was Mary Utopia Rothrock, and she was a firecracker. Born and raised in West Tennessee, “Topie,” as her friends and family called her, was a red-haired dynamo.

A graduate of the New York State Library School, Rothrock was put in charge of Knoxville’s public library when she was only 26, impressing everyone she met with her intelligence and bold energy.

In 1930 she had engaged the conservative mayor of Knoxville in public debate about women’s right to work, insisting that women were better at many jobs than men were. According to news reports, she left the mayor speechless.

When she was appointed supervisor of TVA libraries, Rothrock got right to work. She set up the first rural library in Norris, Tenn., the model company town near Knoxville that was built to house the workers at Norris Dam. When Watts Bar Dam was started downstream in Meigs County, TVA built the county’s first library there.

photo of people outsideRothrock agreed that it was critical to make books available to employees in the most remote locations. She established small 4,000- to 5,000-volume libraries in stores, post offices, even filling stations. “Wherever they live or work,” she declared, “the library follows.”

Hardly any TVA librarians fit the stereotype of the snippish elderly spinster. At the remote work sites, Rothrock wrote in 1937, “almost anyone you meet may be a librarian, whether he be a postmaster, filling-station operator, teacher, county farm agent, safety engineer, forester, saw filer, time checker, or guard.”

Saw filers in particular had a special role on work crews clearing areas for TVA reservoirs. The saw filer was the keeper of the tool depository, where work implements were checked out by workers each morning and returned in the evening.

Tools were exchanged very much like books in a library, a coincidence that didn’t escape the notice of Rothrock and her staff. TVA supply clerks began shipping waterproof boxes of books to the saw filers, 60 books per box. They sent all sorts: practical manuals, children’s books, murder mysteries, classics, tomes about the New Deal.

The librarians assumed that the workers, whose median educational level was seventh grade, would be most interested in the how-to manuals. That type of reading was popular, but novels were much more so—not only murder mysteries and the latest westerns from Zane Grey (perhaps the favorite author among TVA crews), but also 18th-century classics like “Robinson Crusoe” and “Gulliver’s Travels.”

By the late ’30s, TVA was circulating an estimated 13,000 books a month, many of them being read by people who had not been used to seeing books at all. Topie Rothrock won the 1938 American Library Association’s Lippincott Award for the most outstanding contribution to librarianship in America, largely due to her work in the Tennessee Valley region.

By the mid-’40s, most of TVA’s construction work was done, but the demand for books remained. TVA Chairman David Lilienthal lobbied for state support for the libraries TVA had started. In 1943 Tennessee lawmakers allocated funding to continue them; the communities of Guntersville, Ala., and Hiwassee, N.C., also established permanent libraries.

Rothrock held her post until 1948 and then returned to work as the most distinguished librarian in the Knox County system. Just as TVA had hoped, state funding and community support began to fill the gap in rural library services. Today nearly everyone in the Tennessee Valley region has ready access to a public library, in many cases thanks to TVA.

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