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TL v59n1: History of the TVA Libraries
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 1



 History of the TVA Libraries: From Book Boxes to Computers


Frances Edna Bishop, Technical Library Retiree


How much does kudzu grow in a day?

What are dancing conductors?

How hot must the water be to scald a hog?

Nancy Atkins, retired TVA librarian, recalled these questions asked by TVA library patrons (personal communication, June 4, 2009). 

Ed Best, (personal communication, June 29, 2009), also a former TVA librarian, emailed the author about an unusual question - The story of the TVA Quilt:  “In TVA’s formative days, an African American educator was hired to develop an education/work program for African American TVA employees and their families. Ruth Clement Bond, the educator’s wife, organized the wives of African American TVA construction workers to make crafts, especially quilts. I recall going through lots of archival TVA central file microfilm to learn of this activity” (1).

These are only a few of the questions answered through the years by the Tennessee Valley Authority Library. TVA was established in May 1933, and a special library was set up in Washington, DC, to make information available to the young agency. The first book put in the library was a dictionary, followed by a postal guide (2).

When TVA’s headquarters moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, the library was placed under the TVA Coordinator. In March, 1934, Harry C. Bauer joined the organization to establish the technical library. On October 1, 1934, Mary Utopia Rothrock was appointed as Coordinator of Libraries and in cooperation with the Training Section, Rothrock set up library service for employees at construction sites.

Norris Dam was the TVA’s first big project. TVA not only built a model village near the site, but prior to construction also undertook the challenge of employing Reservoir Clearance workers to remove brush, trees, and buildings from a huge 21,000 acre area. Fourteen crews of 60 men often worked miles away from even the nearest country roads and progressed as much as a mile from each day’s starting point, so Rothrock knew a bookmobile was not practical. Besides not being able to get to the crews, the bookmobile could only distribute books before eight and after four. Rothrock noticed that each crew had a tool box. Every day the saw-filer issued tools to each man and checked them in at the end of the each day’s work. She thought it would be possible for him to also check out and receive books as well. A waterproof box with lock and key holding about 60 books was placed next to each tool box. The saw-filer checked books in and out with a book card for each book on which he wrote the man’s TVA employee number and the date due.

The innovative circulation system was a great success. The books in each box were about one third nonfiction, one third fiction, and, surprisingly, one third children’s books. About 60% of the men had families, so it was hoped that even if they did not want to read they would check out books for their children. The TVA librarian, based at the library in Norris construction village, made the rounds of half of the crews once a week in a Ford V-8. The car carried requested books and a reserve supply to make changes in the boxes.

Figure 1. The Toolbox library at construction camp.
Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority

Boxes were set out in February 1935. In March and April, the circulation was 1,607 books. There were 800 books and as many potential borrowers. Circulation was 25% juvenile, 20% nonfiction, and 55% fiction. Of the 55% fiction, westerns and mysteries were most popular with Zane Grey being a leading author. Classics, such as Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe, also found readers. Much of the nonfiction was in the 900 and 600 sections of the Dewey Decimal System. Books on art, literature, and science were in less demand; however, books on forestry, woodworking and electricity found interested readers. When library service began, 28 of the 840 men had no schooling and 26 had one or more years of college. The average amount of schooling was seven years. Through this program TVA hoped to give workers, who had previously had no contact with library service, information to help them in their jobs, prepare them for new jobs, and, perhaps start a reading habit (3).

The Training Section’s program involved not only occupational training, but also general adult education. TVA’s plan for a community called Norris, Tennessee, included a village library. According to R. Russell Munn, librarian at Norris, he circulated 7,802 nonfiction books and 16,814 fiction books in 1935. After Norris Dam was completed the community library functioned as a branch of the county system, with TVA continuing to contribute some funds.

Mary Rothrock’s goal was to have these libraries administered by TVA during the construction period, then taken over and made part of regional library systems. Under her new title, Supervisor of Libraries, she worked through local groups or libraries whenever possible. Rothrock contracted with local groups for library service at Huntsville, Alabama, where Guntersville Dam was being built.

The Watts Bar Dam construction site in 1940 drew workers from Loudon, Meigs, Rhea, and Roane counties. Seventy-five percent of the population was rural with no library service in their area. TVA made an agreement for employee library service with the Tennessee Department of Education and the Knoxville Board of Library Trustees. This contract served as a blueprint for library service at later TVA projects. A library was established at the Watts Bar construction village. It is not clear if African Americans had access to this library. A community building for African Americans held a second book collection. A regional librarian based in the Knoxville Public Library distributed books to TVA employees and other residents in the four counties where 69 branches and deposit stations were installed. The contract asked the Tennessee Department of Education and the local agencies to work toward establishing permanent non-TVA supported libraries. This arrangement was used at Fort Loudoun, Cherokee, and Douglas Dam sites. By the  time Rothrock’s appointment ended in 1948, library service had become a program of the people rather than of the Authority. For her work encouraging libraries in Tennessee through TVA, Mary Utopia Rothrock was awarded the first Joseph W. Lippincott Award in 1938 by the American Library Association (4).


Figure 2. Exterior Library Building, Lenoir City, April 30, 1941.
Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority

While Rothrock was encouraging cooperation between TVA and local and state institutions, Harry Bauer was organizing the technical library in Knoxville. It was merged with other divisions in 1935 under the Director of Information, who was concerned with giving information to the public and press. The library collection specialized in mechanical, civil, electrical and chemical engineering, agriculture, industry, power, public utilities, navigation, and law. Need for other information was filled by interlibrary loans from other libraries. Technical and other magazines were shelved by title, with the current issue on the shelf and previous issues circulated to those who had indicated an interest in them before they were shelved in the stacks or bound. Acquisitions and cataloging were centralized in the Knoxville library. As TVA grew, libraries were established in Chattanooga, Norris, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Each library stressed publications for the divisions of TVA in its area; however, the card catalog in each unit showed the holdings of all the libraries (5).


Figure 3. Cherokee Dam Construction Camp - Library and People Reading - April 29, 1941
Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority.

By 1984 TVA had five libraries. Knoxville covered administration, engineering, economics, community development, architecture, and natural resources. Chattanooga library had material on production, distribution, and sale of electricity, land purchasing, and mapping. Forestry, fisheries, wildlife, and recreation were Norris library’s specialties. Muscle Shoals library, as always, concentrated on fertilizer and the soil, chemistry, agriculture, the TVA international program, health and safety and programs for industry. In Golden Pond, Kentucky, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area library collected materials on recreation and folklore. In later years, as TVA concentrated more on the  power program, the TVA branch in Norris was closed and Land Between the Lakes was transferred to the United States Forest Service (6).

Of course no library, however focused, could have all the materials needed for research and engineering by a government agency. This meant interlibrary loans for some books and articles.  Nancy Atkins, a former head of the Chattanooga TVA Library, described how the interlibrary loans were done (N. Atkins, personal communication, June 4, 2009). They contacted the library that was nearest and would be most likely to have the information wanted. The Chattanooga TVA library usually started with the University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or the University of Georgia first before trying other possible sources. Then a written request or call was made to a library. When the library received it, they searched, by hand, their holdings. This would have to be repeated until the item was found at a library that agreed to lend it (B. Reavley, personal communication, June 5, 2009).


Figure 4. Chattanooga Times, November 9, 1967
Courtesy Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Like other libraries, TVA library began to think of ways to speed up finding items. For example, the Knoxville Library clipped all references to TVA in the valley newspapers, magazines, and also kept books concerning it. Automation came to the library in 1960s with the Eastman automated storage and retrieval system called Miracode. Bernard Foy, head librarian from 1943 to 1968, brought the installation first to the Knoxville library for their collection of clippings and articles about TVA. Later he had the Miracode installed in the Chattanooga library, and Muscle Shoals Library. To the modern viewer it seems big and clumsy, but was a vast improvement over searching thousands of documents by hand. The Eastman Miracode did not interconnect between the libraries. Each library programmed the Miracode collection of documents for their area of expertise. Documents had to be entered into each library’s machine. Nancy Atkins described how she designed a thesaurus for the subjects covered by the Miracode in Chattanooga and assigned numeric descriptors for each entry. Every item with its descriptor was photographed and entered in the machine and could then be called up by punching in the subject numbers to view it on the screen and also print it if needed. The Miracode could search 100 feet of film in 15 seconds, this film containing up to 500 items (7).

For 52 years TVA had the traditional card catalog in each of its libraries with each catalog containing cards for all the books in the library system. When I filed catalog cards in Chattanooga TVA library, I remember receiving boxes of catalog cards that were over a foot long. We were always filing cards.

In the 1980s Knoxville published a weekly TVA News Index which included all the clippings from newspapers, magazines and TV coverage of TVA. Besides filing clippings on TVA, the librarians scanned the magazines TVA libraries subscribed to and marked not only articles about TVA but also any articles of interest to TVA technical and management employees for use in their work. These citations were formed into a current awareness list and circulated so employees could request copies of articles they considered useful. When the new issue of magazines came, the library routed the back issues to employees before they were filed in the stacks. The route slips were computer generated and affixed to the cover of the magazine. This service continued until the librarians could provide desktop access to most of the journals (8).

Dean Robinson remembered that during the 1980s I set up the first computer in the library system – a TAVA. It was primarily used to track uncataloged technical reports. Later we found we could connect through the telephone lines and use it and others for searches on Dialog and Department of Energy databases and access OCLC. The computers also were used for all administrative functions.

Margaret Bull, head librarian from 1986 into 1991, implemented another advance in automation in 1986. The card catalog was put on microfiche. We got a new microfiche periodically and, in between, an update microfiche to show new holdings was sent. TVA was, and is, a member of OCLC with its huge database of catalog records from the many member libraries in the United States. This simplified cataloging, because the cataloger could use these records as a source if the book being cataloged was on the database. If the book was not in the database, it was added as an original cataloging record.

Inside TVA interviewed Margaret Bull about the library, its new name, and services in 1991. Corporate Library described the Knoxville and Chattanooga libraries in line with TVA’s planning for the 1990s. These libraries were part of TVA Information Service. Muscle Shoals library with its connection to the National Fertilizer & Environmental Center kept the name Technical Library and was independent of the other two. In 1991, the Libraries scrapped the microfiche catalog and instead each had a public-access electronic catalog which patrons could search in any TVA library to access the holdings of all the libraries. The DataTrek (now called EOS) software used by the catalog imported OCLC Marc (Machine Readable Cataloging) records. This software is still used in the catalog TVA now has (9).

TVA began doing interlibrary loans through OCLC in about 1978 (E. Best, personal communication, June 18, 2009.) These loans and bibliographic searches were done on a Texas Instruments “Silent 700” acoustic couple terminal, which had ten characters-per-second, dot-matrix printing on thermal paper. Joining this system and being able to search OCLC records made great changes in interlibrary loans. Most libraries in the United States are in the OCLC system. Imagine how thrilling it was the first time the screen instantly showed which libraries had a wanted item.

The TVA library also subscribed to six other online systems which gave them access to 200 databases on various topics. These could be used to compile bibliographies on subjects requested by employees. The average search took about ten minutes using the computer databases.

By now TVA’s libraries each had established areas of interest. In Knoxville the collection is geared to hydropower, environmental issues, engineering, administration, and valley history. The main focus in Chattanooga is power information – fossil, hydro, and nuclear, and transmission. Muscle Shoals library is mainly agricultural and fertilizer information (10).

The 1990s were a time of changes for the library system, according to Dean Robinson, Chief Librarian from 1991 through 1995: “The library’s new mission was to primarily support corporate functions such as finance, environmental compliance, hydro, fossil, and nuclear power plant operations and maintenance, transmission systems, corporate management, general business activities, and the changes in the industry fostered by utility deregulation” (D. Robinson, personal communication, June 29, 2009).

TVA was decreasing nuclear plant construction at that time. There were also budget cuts and a smaller work force. The library system now consisted of only Knoxville and Chattanooga, with Muscle Shoals an independent unit.

Mary Rothrock and her ragtag band of librarians would not recognize the TVA Research Library of today. In 2003 the library was renamed the Research Library and the collection was reduced to focus on engineering, environmental and energy and publications about or by TVA. Books on all other subjects were removed because, on the rare times they are requested, they are available via interlibrary loan. Discarded books were put in TVA’s Book Exchange Centers and made available to employees. Others were donated to public and private collections or recycled. The library’s space was reduced by more than 50%. Even though the libraries have been reduced in size their content is available faster and easier to employees.

Information in all three collections (Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Muscle Shoals) became accessible electronically. From their workstation computers employees can now access the library catalog and various databases useful in TVA projects. The library’s internal web page also carries a library newsletter and four current awareness lists – corporate, environmental, nuclear and power – available online for employees to read the abstract or link to the complete articles. This eliminates the circulation of paper lists and the library staff does not have to receive requests and make copies for users. In 2003, Manager of Information & E-Business Management Karen Gillis was quoted in Inside TVA as saying “the combination of the availability of low-cost improved technology and the Board’s challenge to reduce office space enabled the staff to pursue its dream of a ‘library without walls” (11). 

Figure 5. Showing TVA installations. TVA has present day libraries at Knoxville, Chattanooga and Muscle Shoals. Courtesy of Tennessee Valley Authority.


1. For more about the TVA quilt see

2. Capital sideshow. (1933, September 20). Herald-Post, p.6.

3. Munn, R. Russell. (1935, September 15). Saw-filers and book boxes. Library Journal, 60(16), 720.

4. Mallory, Mary. The rare vision of Mary Utopia Rothrock: Organizing regional library services in the Tennessee valley. Library Quarterly, 65(1), 62-78.

5. Bauer, Harry C. (1947, January). A recollection of the TVA technical library. Pacific Northwest Library Association Quarterly 11, 67-70.

6. Broadwater, Barbara S. (1984, May). TVA technical library. SLA Bulletin.

7. TVA library has new equipment. (1967, November 9). Chattanooga Times.

8. Alston, Roland. (1980, August 26). Operating an answer shop. Inside TVA. p.2.

9. Andrews, Jim. (1991, July 16)). Library offers many services. Inside TVA, p.6.

10. Smith, Donna. (1986, August 19). Make it ‘high-technical’ library. Inside TVA, p.2.

11. Sewing, Sue. (2003, July). Cyber-ry library cuts costs, helps reduce DCOP. Inside TVA, 24(8).


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