Mary Utopia Rothrock: Innovative librarian

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

Books are a way up and a way out.

– Michael Dirda, senior editor, Book World, The Washington Post, 2001

How true! Books really are a way up and a way out. Mary U. Rothrock (1890-1976) proved that axiom during her 24 years as head librarian at the Lawson McGhee Library and during her 14 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority Library.

When she was supervisor of library services at TVA (1934-1948), she instituted an innovative system for providing “do-it-yourself” guides and other books to employees and their families at the various construction sites. Often boxes of books would arrive along with boxes of tools at remote locations throughout the valley. She knew that books promoted enhanced job skills and provided pleasure and she wanted ambitious workers to have access to them.

Innovative changes Mary Utopia Rothrock made in the Knoxville-Knox County Libraries and at the TVA Library were modeled throughout the Southeast and resulted in a vast expansion of library services that were a benefit to the public.   Photographs courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection
Innovative changes Mary Utopia Rothrock made in the Knoxville-Knox County Libraries and at the TVA Library were modeled throughout the Southeast and resulted in a vast expansion of library services that were a benefit to the public. Photographs courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection

TVA was Appalachia’s “Marshall Plan,” and its network of dams gave impetus to the area’s emergence from the Great Depression (1929-1940) and made Alcoa and Oak Ridge and other developments possible. Rothrock’s initiatives assisted the recovery and evolved into systems that enabled rural areas in several southeastern states to provide library service. Later, her innovations earned her the prestigious Lippincott Award and her “rare vision and intelligence” were cited during its presentation.

Mary Utopia Rothrock was born on Sept. 19, 1890, in the hamlet of Trenton (pop. 1,293) in Gibson County in northwest Tennessee. She was the youngest of five children of Rev. John Thomas Rothrock, a Presbyterian minister, and Utopia Ada (Herron) Rothrock. Pvt. J.T. Rothrock had survived the Civil War as a member of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s brigade in Holman’s 11th Tennessee Cavalry.

After completing grade school and college preparatory school, Mary matriculated at Vanderbilt University and attained her B.S. in 1911 and her M.S. in 1912. She then attended the New York State Library School in Albany and received her B.S. in Library Science in 1914.

After graduation she became head of the Circulation Department of the Cossitt Public Library in Memphis. In 1916, longtime Library Trustee Calvin M. McClung (1855-1919) was designated by the board of Lawson McGhee Library to look for a new head librarian for the new free public library. The old subscription library had just been reborn as a tax-supported public library. Most of the existing funds of the older library were used in the construction of the new public library building.

Knoxville Public Library on Market at Commerce (1917-1971). Its design by Grant Miller of Chicago’s Patton and Miller architectural firm had “horizontality” features like the Sullivan-Wright Prairie-Style. Many felt it was an outstanding example of the best in architecture.
Knoxville Public Library on Market at Commerce (1917-1971). Its design by Grant Miller of Chicago’s Patton and Miller architectural firm had “horizontality” features like the Sullivan-Wright Prairie-Style. Many felt it was an outstanding example of the best in architecture.

When McClung visited Memphis in 1916 to begin his search, he was immediately impressed by “(a) little red headed librarian,” Mary U. Rothrock, and offered her the job. She worked with McClung and his wife, Barbara Adair McClung, on both library and local history projects until his death in 1919.

When C.M. McClung died, she encouraged his widow to donate his personal library of some 4,000 volumes of books and numerous historical papers. That collection became the centerpiece of today’s McClung Historical Collection, the most comprehensive source for East Tennessee history to be found anywhere.

Upon her arrival in Knoxville, Rothrock immediately became involved in the planning for the move to the new library at Market and Commerce (Summit Hill). The design was by Grant Miller of the prestigious Chicago firm of Patton and Miller Architects who utilized the so-called Chicago Style with elements of “horizontality” typical of Louis Sullivan’s and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style. Miller would later design several buildings for the University of Tennessee, including Ayers Hall.

The building was occupied in January 1917 and remained Knoxville’s Main Library until 1971, when the current building at Church and Walnut was built. The old library had become a victim of the extensive redesign of streets on Summit Hill and was so venerated that protest about its overnight destruction led to the founding of Knox Heritage.

(That old library holds fond memories for the author as it was there that the then high school student discovered Francis T. Miller’s 10-volume “Photographic History of the Civil War,” which kindled his interest in that era of American history that lasts to the present day.)

As early as 1922 Rothrock recognized the need for branch libraries and established the first one in Park City in 1925 followed by others in Lonsdale, Burlington, North Knoxville and Vestal.

Rothrock could not resist the challenge when the Tennessee Valley Authority asked her to become their Supervisor of Libraries in 1934. She joined the massive project and held her position until her resignation in 1948 but remained their consultant until 1951. While at TVA she developed the aforementioned multi-county rural library program that has been a model throughout the Southeast, the achievement that earned her the Lippincott Award (1938).

She returned to public library work in 1949 as Knox County librarian and worked to consolidate the city and county libraries into one system. She retired in 1955 but continued to maintain a very active interest in local history and spent many pleasant days at her mountain home on Roaring Fork in Gatlinburg.

During her long career she contributed greatly to local, state and national organizations and causes in these positions:

president, Tennessee Library Association (1919-20 and 1927-28); president, Southeastern Library Association (1922-24); founding member, East Tennessee Historical Society (1925) and its president (1932 and 1937); author of “Discovering Tennessee,” a public school textbook (1936); president, American Library Association (1946-47) and editor of the landmark local history “The French Broad-Holston Country” (1946).

Mary Utopia Rothrock passed away on Jan. 30, 1976, at her home on Kingston Pike. She was buried in Old Gray Cemetery, survived by a niece and several nephews.

Her friend and fellow librarian Lucile Deaderick observed of her: She brought to (her) profession a keen mind and broad intellectual interests, a hard-headed approach to problems, and a sensitive appreciation of people. This combination of qualities guaranteed her great professional success, and under Rothrock’s leadership a modern library system was established in Knoxville.

Leave a Reply