Benjamin Franklin‘s founding of America’s first public lending library was just the beginning of our love affair with libraries. Some attack the idea of governments providing access to books, but public libraries remain a surprisingly relevant bellwether institution of a community’s civic health. Each has its own story.
Books and Our Town: The History of the Rutherford County Library System (2023) by Lisa R. Ramsay is a wonderful addition to this treasury of local histories. A 1942 editorial in the Rutherford Courier entitled Books and Our Town encouraged the citizens of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to create a public library. Henry T. Linebaugh answered the call, although it took several years for the community to respond to his generosity and open its first public library, named after the benefactor’s mother. For its 75th anniversary, Ramsay has gathered a rich array of stories that tell how the library became an essential part of the community. She also tells of the very real people who make it all work, including the “much beloved Helen Brown” — my mother — and current Linebaugh Branch Librarian Carol Brown Ghattas, my sister.
Lisa and I spoke about her work.
DJB: What first drew you to Linebaugh’s history?
Lisa Ramsay: My childhood connection to Linebaugh is what lured me to discover its story. As a pre-teen and teen, I spent many hours in the library when it was housed in the old Post Office building. Part of my early work at Linebaugh was assisting patrons in the Historical Research Room, where I discovered scrapbooks, photos, and early library papers. The more I saw, the more I wanted to combine them into a written history. The research and writing were done over six years, starting as articles for an internal newsletter. That is approximately the same length of time between the benefactor’s financial proposal in 1942 and the library’s opening in 1948.
You note the key role the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) played in bringing bookmobiles to Tennessee. Why would TVA care about reading?
The TVA’s early work of building a power system had men and their families living in remote areas with little access to news and entertainment sources. Keeping up the morale of those workers necessitated a plan. TVA hired Mary Utopia Rothrock to set up a library in its model company town, Norris, Tennessee. Rothrock developed a book exchange program for the outlying work sites that would later morph into a bookmobile system. Books for the People provides a nice recap of that work.
The library had a 1959 parade float with the theme, “Children Today – Citizens Tomorrow.” What can you tell us about Linebaugh’s role in building an engaged and informed citizenry?
From the earliest days, Ms. Parsons, the first librarian, wanted to provide citizens with vast resources to keep them informed. In addition to obtaining thousands of books, she subscribed to numerous newspapers and magazines, helped by local civic-minded groups that donated financially, hosted fundraisers, and contributed books to help foster public engagement. Over the years, the library partnered with organizations like the Rotary Club, the American Association of University Women, Home Demonstration Clubs, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the League of Women Voters, and more. Above all, the library has sought to include resources reflecting its patrons’ diverse interests and ideas. Those parade pictures demonstrate the library’s public engagement.
Linebaugh has been led by a number of strong women. What’s been their role in shaping the broader community?
Many women connected to the library system have made a lasting impression on our community; some have been publicly recognized for their impact. The video series Leading Ladies of Rutherford County History highlighted the lives of fifteen women, three of whom had links to the library system: Linebaugh’s first librarian Myla Taylor Parsons, Mary Scales (a Linebaugh board member from 1968 to 1985), and Myrtle Glanton Lord, for whom the library at Patterson Park was named. These women made vital contributions as leaders, helping to provide access to educational resources and opportunities.
Under the leadership of former Director Laurel Best, the School Library Journal editorial staff acknowledged the library system with the SLJ Giant Step Award in 2006 when it took over the bookmobile program after the Regional Library discontinued it. Ms. Best was also awarded Nashville Business Journal’s 2008 Impact Award because of her work’s positive effect on the residents of Rutherford County. Current Director Rita Shacklett and the library board led the opening of the state’s first bookless library when the Technology Engagement Center was opened in 2018. That same year, Ms. Shacklett won the Tennessee Library Association’s Honor Award in recognition of her significant role in advancing librarianship in Tennessee. These dedicated women are a few, among many, who have contributed to the library’s work, engaging the community to imagine and explore life’s limitless possibilities.
I love to ask librarians, “What books are you reading now?“
The most recent book I finished was Women Talking by Miriam Toews, from which the movie of the same name was based. As is my custom, I watched the movie first. I know that is counter to most librarians’ preference for films based on books, but I learned long ago that reading the book first almost always brings disappointment when watching the movie. I love movies so I switched my routine. Now, I can watch the movie and get enjoyment from it. Afterward, if I choose to read the book, I often find it even more fulfilling. That’s a win-win for me.
Women Talking is no different. Reading the book added a few other levels to the tale that I felt were interesting but not necessary for the film.
The newest book I’ve checked out is the nonfiction book of essays, Run Towards the Danger, by the screenwriter-director of Women Talking, Sarah Polley.
Thank you, Lisa, for answering my questions and for writing this wonderful book.
Thank you for the opportunity. It has been my pleasure.
More to come…
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Photo credits: RCLS.
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