An Homage to a Bold Library Director, on Her Birthday

Julie Webb is a woman of quests. It was 55 years ago that she helped found Webb School of Knoxville with her husband, Robert Webb. More recently she has been a leader of Friends of the Library and co-founded the activist group Scenic Knoxville, known for opposing flashy billboards.

Her latest quest, unless there’s a newer one she hasn’t told me about yet, is to properly memorialize a personal hero.

It’s a name all students of history ought to mention every now and then anyway, but maybe especially just now, with a vacancy in the Knox County library director’s post.

Mary Utopia Rothrock was born 120 years ago this Sunday. In 1916, Knoxville merchant-historian Calvin McClung persuaded the young West Tennessean, who had a couple of degrees from Vanderbilt and another from the famous New York Library School, to head up the Knoxville public library, just as it was moving into its longtime location at the corner of Market and Commerce. She moved to Knoxville and spent the next 60 years of her life here, eventually living on Kingston Pike near Sequoyah Hills. Her friends liked her middle name and called her Topie for short.

Rothrock’s administration saw the beginning of the branch system of what was then a city library system, as annexations doubled the city’s size. She supervised the construction of the Carnegie Free Colored Library on East Vine (Jim Crow laws barred blacks from the main library). She was co-founder and first president of the Southeastern Library Association; she later became president of the American Library Association.

In 1929, under Rothrock’s leadership, Knoxville became the focus of an unusual effort to spawn regional libraries far beyond our metro area.

By 1930, Rothrock was perhaps the city’s most prominent female professional. In the late summer of that year, she challenged the mayor to a public debate.

Knoxville Mayor James A. Trent believed that one solution to the rising unemployment of Hoover’s America—5,000 were unemployed in Knoxville alone—was for married women to quit their jobs, deferring to men. It wasn’t fair, he said, for a woman to have both a job and a husband. Trent’s point required some circular logic: Because men were the breadwinners, women should surrender their jobs.

At the terrace of the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street, Mayor Trent and the formidable Mary Utopia Rothrock sat in cane chairs and debated. “With due solemnity and proper decorum,” the Journal reported, “the issue was laid bare,”

A woman, Trent declared, “should become economically dependent that some man might become economically independent.”

Rothrock could hardly contain herself. “But, but—” She had two basic points. Basic fairness was one: “When you deprive women of the possibility of economic independence, you have enslaved them,” she said.

The other was that Trent’s proposal was inefficient. “There can be no question that there are certain types of work that women can do better than can men,” she said. “They can’t do the work she does.”

The debate ended when “the mayor had nothing to say.”

Four years later, TVA hired her to be their system-wide librarian. She became nationally known then, for her ingenuity in getting books to workers, especially dam builders in remote areas, through unorthodox means, like packing a box of books to be sent to work sites with the saw-blade sharpener. Scholars since then have traced how Rothrock’s initiatives evolved into permanent public library systems in rural areas in several southeastern states. Those efforts earned her the Lippincott Award, which cited her “rare vision and intelligence.”

At home, in 1946 she edited the first comprehensive history of Knox County, The French Broad-Holston Country. It is, believe it or not, still the only comprehensive history of Knox County. If you don’t keep it as a handy desk reference, there’s a lot of stuff about our community that will remain puzzling.

In her 60s, she was county library director, looking forward to retirement after a distinguished career, when she found herself at the center of a Cold War controversy. It was 1953, the Red Scare. Rothrock’s book Discovering Tennessee, a state history textbook repeatedly approved by the state for use by public-school eighth graders for 17 years, suddenly alarmed some hyperpatriots. In 1953, some thought, the best way to prove you were patriotic was to claim you were a little farther right than the next guy.

Prominent Nashville attorney Sims Crownover declared Rothrock’s book should be banned from schools because it showed “tendencies toward pacifism.”

Even though it was 1953, Rothrock was happy to tell reporters that she considered Crownover’s concerns hilarious. She referred to a famous U.S. veteran’s remark that “War is Hell.” While admitting that her book did imply that war is sometimes troublesome, she said, she never criticized war quite as harshly as Gen. Sherman did.

Well, Crownover countered, the book “left out the finer points of war.” And maybe might give the Soviets reason to believe America wasn’t ready to fight.

The state board approved the book anyway. Crownover dropped that campaign, and turned his sights on other East Tennesseans. He would soon be charging that Sen. Estes Kefauver, who refused to sign a Southern segregationist manifesto, had been brainwashed by the NAACP.

Rothrock retired as a librarian in 1955, and spent more time at her cabin in the mountains, but kept writing and editing, historical and library-related subjects. Her old Kingston Pike neighbors remember that, even in old age, she loved to stay up late talking with friends over a beer before a roaring fire. She died in 1976, at the age of 85.

Rothrock’s memory survives. In 1995, the national Library Quarterly ran an article by University of Illinois scholar Mary Mallory: “The Rare Vision of Mary Utopia Rothrock,” called for a “comprehensive biography” of Rothrock (none has ever been published), describing her as the “architect of regional library services.”

And now Julie Webb is eager to memorialize Rothrock in some conspicuous and permanent way. She’s entertaining ideas.

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