January: A warmer than usual day, lots of sunshine. It’s after lunchtime on a quiet Sunday in downtown Knoxville, and I’m out for a walk. Down the block, I see a small gathering on the library steps, waiting for the doors to open at one o’clock. No special event, just the usual library lizards, a scene that always affirms my belief in democracy.
February: A slow day in Rothrock, the library’s tiny used bookshop. Only one customer, a man on his knees browsing the boxes of vinyls lining two walls. Vinyls and sheet music are the specials of the month. “Now this,” he says, holding up an LP in its blue cardboard jacket, “is worth much more than a dollar.” An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer is the title. I have never heard of Tom Lehrer, a fact which must be apparent in my blank gaze. “1959,” the man goes on, “recorded live at Harvard. Lehrer was a songwriter for a TV show in the mid-Sixties called That Was the Week That Was.” When I say I remember the show but not anything about it, he begins singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Nice voice—obviously he knows all the lyrics, but I’m glad he stops before the security guard notices. By the time he leaves, after buying a half-dozen or so albums, I have added another genre, songwriting, to my limited knowledge of political satire.
March: Standing at the circulation counter, I hear a yell, a staccato discharge cracking the silence, something like I imagine the barbaric yawp Whitman made over the rooftops of the world. I look around and see only one other person near the magazines whose expression must match my own. Everyone else, library staff and other patrons, seem not to have noticed. Then I see him, a tall, thin young black man wearing a windbreaker and ball cap loping out of the fiction stacks, his low-slung, baggy pants flapping like sails. He yawps again. I soon realize that he probably has Tourette’s or Asperger’s and that everyone knows him because he is a regular, that he is a regular because he feels comfortable here, that he feels comfortable because no one judges him. There are many things I love about libraries—their free access to knowledge, their amazing music and film collections, their bookish, no-nonsense personnel (Lily Tomlin: “if truth is beauty, how come no one in the library has their hair done?”)—but what I love most of all is that libraries are non-discriminatory. They welcome people of all ethnicities, interests, backgrounds, social or economic classes, physical or mental capabilities.
April: Another beautiful spring in Old Gray Cemetery just north of downtown. I’m walking past the gravesite of Mary Utopia Rothrock, the city’s first library director. You wouldn’t know it was here unless someone pointed it out. Typical of Topie, as she was called by friends and family, hers is no fancy monument, just a small flat marker totally obscured by a mass of Lenten roses. Rothrock was born in Trenton, TN, in 1890 and graduated from the New York School of Library Science in Albany in 1914, a school
founded by Melvil Dewey himself and which he directed until 1906. In 1916, at age 26, she was hired as Chief Librarian of the Knox County Library System, a position she held until 1933. From 1933 until 1948 she served as Supervisor of Library Services at TVA where she was responsible for establishing small circulating libraries in remote Tennessee communities. Many of these 4-5,000 book “libraries”
were in unlikely places–post offices, stores, even filling stations. She died in 1976, five years after construction of the new downtown library. I hope she got to see it. I sit down on the new green grass flecked with wild violets and small white clusters of star of Bethlehem. I open my library book. I read.