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TL v59n3: History of the Libraries at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 59 Number 3



 History of the Libraries at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Janette Prescod

Government Documents Librarian and Subject Librarian for the College of Communication and Information



The late John C. Hodges, University of Tennessee English Professor, benefactor and namesake of the John C. Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee is quoted as saying, “The mark of a great university is an excellent library.” Striving for excellence in library service has been the hallmark of the University of Tennessee Libraries throughout its existence. It is little wonder then that a small collection of books set aside for student use in a professor’s private office developed into the system it is today. Building from humble beginnings, the University of Tennessee Libraries provides a strong pillar of support for the teaching, research, and public service programs of the state’s premier learning institution. 

Early Years

Founded in 1794 as Blount College, the school’s presidents took special interest in establishing the library. Samuel Carrick, president and instructor, started the school’s first library with his personal collection of around five hundred volumes. Renamed East Tennessee College in 1808, the school closed its doors a year later when Carrick died. When it reopened in 1820, the president, Reverend David Sherman, permitted student use of his private book collection. He also negotiated free access to the holdings of the fee-based Knoxville Library Company where he had worked as a librarian. The next president, the Reverend Dr. Charles Coffin, achieved modest success soliciting donations for buildings and library resources. The 1838 catalog mentions a library tax of fifty cents per student for the expense of books and a collection of 3,000 well-selected volumes.

Land grants figure prominently in the development of the university and the libraries. A federal land grant accompanied state authorization of the school as a public institution following another name-change to East Tennessee College. Another name change to East Tennessee University was granted in 1840. Although recognized as a critical necessity, the library survived solely on gifts until 1841 when $500 a year was appropriated. Support for a more secular curriculum during the 1840s impacted library holdings. The library no longer purchased classical books and attempted to sell its classical holdings. Nevertheless, by the 1850s, library holdings had increased to over 5,000. In 1853, the board specified $100 of the library’s budget for the purchase of materials.

Pre-Civil War course catalogs describe the library collection as holding books in philosophy, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. In 1860 the City Library Association donated several hundred volumes. However, Civil War troops occupied the campus in 1863, decimating buildings and the library collection. The $18,500 compensation, received in 1869, included payment for the destruction of the library. The 1862 Morrill Act designation of the university as the federal land-grant institution for the state brought additional funding. Land-grant appropriations were used to purchase materials needed to support programs in agriculture, mechanical arts, medicine, and dentistry. A graduate school was established but a promise of $10,000 to purchase farm land was not granted until 1903. In 1879 the university became a state institution, renamed the University of Tennessee.

Volunteer Librarians

Before the advent of library schools and trained librarians, responsibility for the library fell to a succession of professors elected by colleagues, subject to the approval of the trustees. Faculty willing to manage the library while fulfilling their teaching responsibilities manifested the true Tennessee volunteer spirit. In 1836 Reverend W. J. Keith, a professor of Ancient Languages, became the first faculty member to take formal charge of the library. Students, for a fee of fifty cents a term, were allowed to borrow two books at a time for two weeks. Trustees and donors of $100 or more could borrow for a longer period. Overdue fines were set at twelve and a half cents per book per week.

Many faculty stalwarts provided guidance in strengthening library collections. Most served for one or two years while others like Hunter Nicholson, professor of agriculture and horticulture, volunteered for periods totaling over three years. In 1879 William G. McAdoo, professor of history and english and librarian, reported that the leaking windows in the Old College building endangered the books in the library reading room. The efforts of teaching faculty contributed to a stronger collection and a more centralized library. They authorized a library catalog, bolstered the science and literature collection, and in 1884 appropriated $300 for Dewey Decimal System classification of about 7,000 volumes. 

Librarians on Board

Edwin Wiley, thought to have had training in librarianship, served from 1891 until 1899. Hatty Shields Jarnagin, the first female librarian, took charge in 1900. The first full-time professional librarian, Sabra Vought, served from 1901 until 1910. He opened the Engineering Library in Estabrook Hall in 1905 and approved the library’s designation as a land-grant Federal Depository Library in 1907.

A sister-in-law of University President Harcourt E. Morgan, Lucy E. Fay, was head librarian with professorial rank when the new Carnegie library building opened in 1911. She approved designation of the library as a depository for Tennessee documents in 1917. Agnes Williams officiated when Fay took a leave of absence from 1918 to 1920 to serve as acting director of the Carnegie Technical Library School. After returning, Fay served for three years before departing in 1923 to teach at Columbia’s library school. Mary E. Baker was librarian from 1923 to 1943. The capstone of her career involved planning for a new library, which opened in 1931, but rising enrollments resulted in an overcrowded library. To resolve the problem of missing and mutilated books, Baker closed the library’s 50,000 volume collection and instituted a paging system to fill requests for materials.

William H. Jesse, the longest serving head librarian (1943 -1970), was the first accorded the title of Director of Libraries. He received training under Lucy Fay at Columbia and had experience at the University of Nebraska, Brown University, and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. His responsibilities in 1943/1944 included three branch libraries, 25 staff, a $19,000 budget for periodicals, books, and binding, and a collection close to 243,000 volumes. Jesse emphasized service, collections and facilities. He oversaw the expansion of facilities, the addition of branch libraries, and the creation of new library departments such as collections and acquisitions. Three branch libraries were already in operation -- Agriculture, Engineering, and Law -- and six others were initiated. Chemistry and Music opened in 1947, the latter consisting of scores and recordings arranged by David Van Vactor, head of the Department of Fine Arts. Biological Sciences began in 1948 and Physical Sciences in 1949. The Education Library opened in 1957, followed by the Business Library in 1958. An associate director’s position was created in 1952 with responsibility for all major departments and branch libraries.
The University of Tennessee Library Lecture Series, inaugurated in 1949, was one of Jesse’s innovations. The intention was to build relationships between librarians and teaching faculty and to showcase the professional stature of librarians. Jesse’s connections with former colleagues and teachers enabled him to attract prominent library educators to Tennessee. Maurice F. Tauber, School of Library Science, Columbia University, presented the first lecture entitled “Book Classification in University Libraries.” Shortly thereafter the library began a seven-year reclassification of library materials from Dewey to Library of Congress. At the third lecture in 1950, the library building was renamed the James D. Hoskins Library in honor of the university president. All professional librarians were awarded academic rank that same year.
Other milestones of Jesse’s leadership included the establishment of the Mary E. Baker scholarship fund (1950); admission to the Association of Research Libraries (1962); the acquisition of the millionth book; and, the hiring of the first African American professional librarian (1969). On Jesse’s death in 1970, Gene M. Abel served as acting director until the appointment of Richard W. Boss.

Facilities - Past and Present

In 1827 the main library and various reading room collections were housed wherever available building space on campus existed. The library was hard-pressed to meet the needs of the broadening academic curriculum. In 1873 the university won a civil suit against the city of Knoxville for non-compliance with the Morrill Act and was awarded a $20,000 settlement. The Act required that $5,000 be set aside to fund a library building, but eight years passed before the money was paid. When the university reorganized into three colleges in 1877 library space was deemed inadequate to support the demands of a large university. The administration pledged new volumes and expanded services for the library but no building. Another reading room collection was established in 1880 by the School of Agriculture, Horticulture, and Botany.

The many resolutions and plans set forth for the erection of a library building came to naught until the presidency of Charles W. Dabney. In 1894 the library occupied four large rooms in the newly completed Science Hall. The collection now stood at 12,000 volumes with another 3,000 in the Agricultural Experiment Station. Through Dabney’s efforts, the Carnegie Fund granted $40,000 for library construction. The first library building, completed in 1911 at a cost of $54,000, stood at the north end of the Austin Peay building. The new building, with a collection of 38,000 volumes, was declared to be one of the most impressive libraries in the South, but within ten years it had reached full capacity. By 1921 space was again at a critical point and some collections were transferred to other buildings. A new building on Cumberland Avenue, completed in 1931, was fashioned in Collegiate Gothic architecture style with brick facings and stone trimmings. It featured elaborate ornamentation with murals, etched glass, pillars, arches, groined ceilings, and decorated beams. The reference room displayed a series of paintings portraying the development of the book from ancient to modern times. This ornate structure, the James D. Hoskins Library, had the capacity for 200,000 books and 200 seats and was home to the main library for over fifty years.

Increased financial support during the 1950s enabled building a more comprehensive collection. An addition to the west wing of the Hoskins library, constructed in 1959, provided space for specialized user services: an undergraduate collection, special collections, administrative offices, technical services, and conference rooms. Since 1944 William Jesse had advocated for a librarian to develop archival and manuscript collections of Tennessee materials. This position became a reality after another wing, sponsored by Governor Frank Clement, was constructed in 1966 to house the Estes Kefauver papers and a replica of his Senate office. An undergraduate annex was opened in the West Wing of the Hoskins Library during the 1960s. Increasing enrollments pressed the need for a separate building dedicated to undergraduate services. The John C. Hodges Library building opened in 1969 in the center of campus with a popular new 24-hour reserve book service.

The Hoskins Library, commonly regarded as the graduate research library, reached its shelf and seating capacity in 1979, necessitating the move of some materials to remote storage. Rather than constructing a new building, UT chose to renovate the centrally located Hodges Library and merge collections. Plans for a separate Science-Engineering Library never materialized. Library services for graduate and undergraduate students were integrated into the six-story, ziggurat-shaped edifice completed in 1987. The 350,000 square foot building was completed at a cost of $29 million. The floor arrangement of stacks, student/faculty spaces, and staff offices complemented the distinctive shape of the building. Book stacks stand in the center away from direct sunlight with study areas along the periphery benefitting from natural light. Hodges Library remains the main home of the UT Libraries and continues to inspire the creation of new spaces and services to meet the needs of its twenty-first century user population.  


Richard W. Boss’s tenure ushered in a new management style and structure. Until that time, the library was organized along functional lines. In 1970, Boss implemented a reorganization plan that included three associate director positions with responsibility for public, administrative, and technical services. The Systems Department, a university archives unit in Special Collections, and a business/personnel office were created in 1972. Library stacks were reopened after thirty-five years and a new book security system installed. The budget had increased to $3 million in 1972/73, yet only 68% of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s (THEC) formula. Boss consolidated the Business and Education libraries into the Main and Undergraduate collections, and merged Biology, Science, and Engineering collections. The operation of the Music Library became the full responsibility of the Library, and the first music librarian was appointed. To benefit from resource sharing, the Libraries joined the Center for Research Libraries, the Southeastern Library Network, and affiliated with OCLC. When Boss departed to become Princeton University’s Librarian in 1976, his divisional style of library leadership had become firmly established.

Under the leadership of Donald Hunt, the expanded and refurbished Hodges Library set the stage for a new focus on patron services. The new facility opened with state-of-the-art audio and video stations and new technology for operations and access services. In 1986, the Libraries introduced the Geac online catalog with access capability via terminals inside and outside the library, and patron-initiated database searching with InfoTrac. The collection now topped one million volumes. Although faced with significant budget underfunding for acquisitions and rising periodicals inflation, the Libraries continued to invest in new information technologies.
By Fall 1988, University Libraries was a unit of Academic Affairs and the new Dean of Libraries, Paula Kaufman, reported to the Provost. Kaufman moved from the hierarchical management style to one that emphasized teamwork. She flattened library organization by shifting more responsibility to department heads and supervisory staff. Except for Public Services, all associate dean positions were eliminated. The Library Management Group was created to handle major policy, planning and operating issues. Reference librarians were organized into subject groups for Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science/Technology with emphasis on subject liaison, outreach and instruction.

In 2007/2008, Dean Barbara Dewey implemented a reorganization to transform library spaces, programs, and services to support digital scholarship and technology-enhanced teaching and learning. The administrative structure was realigned, new departments were formed, and others were merged or eliminated to emphasize digitization and an improved technological infrastructure. The Research Services department provides research support and instructional services for graduate students and faculty, while Integrated User Services focuses on undergraduate services.  


As a public institution, the University of Tennessee’s budget is supported by state funds, student tuition and fees, and supplementary funding from auxiliary enterprises, contracts, and grants. Private donations to the Libraries enhance collections and support the acquisition of specialized subject materials, new technology, rare book and manuscript collections, and a growing menu of high-end resources.

English Department faculty were at the forefront of early development initiatives. Dr. James D. Bruce, English Department Chair during the 1920s, donated his personal collection of Elizabethan drama and medieval romance to the library. John C. Hodges, known as the library’s greatest benefactor, spearheaded the Library Development Program in 1959 with the aim of growing the collection to a million. The Libraries continue to benefit from Dr. Hodges’ generous contribution of the proceeds from the Harbrace College Handbook. Dr. Kenneth Curry started a library endowment fund for the purchase of materials in English and American Literature.

Lindsay Young, a Knoxville lawyer, donated $1 million during the 1989 Tennessee Imperative Campaign. His endowment continues to support acquisitions in the humanities. Paula Kaufman doubled library endowments during the University’s Twenty-first Century Campaign in 1995. A development officer was assigned to the Libraries and a Library Friends support group was organized. The 2005-2011 Campaign for Tennessee, the Friends of the Libraries, and the generous contributions of the Miles, Lancaster, and Lutz families continue to support the acquisition of premier resources that enhance the learning experience of the university community.

UT Libraries Today

The Libraries continue to promote services, technology and resources that meet the educational, instructional, and research needs of the university. Dean Barbara Dewey leads the commitment to excellence in library service, assisted by an Executive Associate Dean for Administrative Service and an Associate Dean for Public Service. A Library Council composed of department heads and selected staff advises the dean on policies and programs. Fifty-eight professional staff and ninety-seven support staff provide input for governance through faculty and staff committees. Library representation for teaching faculty and students is vested in the Faculty Senate Library Advisory Committee and a Student Library Advisory Committee.

A milestone year for the UT Libraries came in 2007 with celebrations for the 100th anniversary of participation in the Federal Depository Library Program, the 75th anniversary of James D. Hoskins Library, and the 20th anniversary of the opening of the expanded Hodges Library. The John C. Hodges Library, the Webster Pendergrass Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine Library, and the George F. Devine Music Library are currently operating. The James D. Hoskins library building houses the University Archives and Storage Collections. Since 1989 the Libraries has administered a Social Work Library in Nashville. In 2009, the suite of research services offered in Hodges Library was expanded to include Map/GIS Services and Special Collections, which were moved from the Hoskins Library. Collections now total approximately 3.5 million.

In the past five years, new initiatives have focused on virtual services that meet the changing needs of today’s fast-paced, techno-savvy generation. The Commons offers a technology-enhanced learning space that brings together the latest library and technology resources for easy access and delivery. Technology is integrated into individual and group work spaces, group study rooms, and practice presentation rooms to provide optimum functionality. The Studio, a multi-media production lab, offers equipment and software to support the creation of media-enhanced instructional products. Digital Media Services provides a range of digitization services for faculty and staff including streaming and webcasting. Interlibrary Loan and Library Express deliver materials via electronic desktop to campus users, and Digital Library Initiatives (DLI) creates digital collections from significant special collections. A grant funded project, Volunteer Voices, led to the digitization of unique items from counties in the state. Digital resources such as EEBO and Archives of Americana provide access to formerly hidden content for the support of research and teaching. Access to outside collections is enhanced by memberships in digital archiving systems such as Portico and JSTOR, library partnerships such as the Information Alliance, and consortium projects such as TENN-SHARE and KUDZU.

A Diversity Librarian Resident Program developed from the Libraries’ strong commitment to the University’s intercultural and international initiative, Ready for the World. Since 2003, this two-year residency career growth program has trained recent library school graduates from underrepresented groups for academic librarianship.

Days when the Libraries used to be a small collection of books have long passed. Old standbys like the card catalog and the periodicals room have disappeared, but the culture of excellence in service is still the driving force that motivates the creation of new and improved learning opportunities for today’s students. The volunteer spirit lives on in leadership, librarians, staff, student assistants, and library friends who work together building the legacy of the Libraries at the University of Tennessee.


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Klein, M. J. Brief historical sketch of the University of Tennessee. Retrieved August 17, 2009, from

Marshall, J. D., (Ed.). (1967). The Library in the University: The University of Tennessee Library lectures, 1949-1966. (Contributions to Library Literature No. 7). Hamden,  CT: Shoe String Press.

Miller, T. J. (2003). University of Tennessee Libraries. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (Vol. 1, pp. 2980-2989).

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