Nestled in the corner of Church Avenue and Walnut Street lies the original branch of the Knox County Public Library – the oldest continuously operating public library in Tennessee.
Knox County Public Library celebrated its 125th birthday this year. In 1886, Col. Charles McClung McGhee founded the original branch, the Lawson McGhee Library, as a memorial to his daughter. Over the years, different reasons pushed the library from one downtown location to another and then another, but never once did services stop.
The current location has been home to the library since 1971, when the McCarty, Holsaple, McCarty architecture firm designed the iconic building. Sky-lights and the two-story atrium make the library feel wide-open, yet secure, while the beautiful interior offers a place where learning and growing are encouraged; the brick-exterior is a little more discreet.
"I didn't realize I was walking by a library until I peered into a window and saw shelves and shelves of books," Kelsey Delaney, senior in religious studies, said about her discovery of the downtown library.
Books are packed into almost every nook of the building, but they share the space with other resources offered by the library.
In 1945, phonograph recordings were added to the circulating collection, followed by 16mm sound films three years later. The Lawson McGhee Library has always embraced multimedia materials; DVDs and CDs dominate the second floor of the library.
In addition to the tangible technological materials, the library offers other Internet-based content. There are e-books, audio books and a recently-introduced service that offers downloadable magazines. All of these are accessible if one has a library card, which is free to any Knox County citizen.
"This library is so much more than books on the shelves," Mary Pom Claiborne, director of marketing and community relations for the library, said. "I just downloaded the new Rolling Stone magazine on my smartphone; we really are keeping up with the technological demand."
Claiborne, who has been with the library for 10 years, was not initially drawn to the establishment. Her vision of libraries, as a non-library user, was that they were dusty and out of date. She assumed no current materials would be available and that everything would be at least 10 years out of date.
After a suggestion from a friend and a conversation with the director, Claiborne joined the staff.
"The director at the time was this real avant-garde, crazy kind of guy," Claiborne said. "He painted a picture of what the library could be. It was very much the people's university. It was programming, lecture series, a place for community conversations."
Libraries serve people from all walks of life, from new moms to folks learning to use computers to students looking to escape the commotion of campus and Hodges.
"I think it's a good idea for students to branch out and find new environments for learning," Jay Brown, junior in communications, said.
The Lawson McGhee library plays a part in enhancing the Knoxville community with their programs. Library officials organize the "Movies in the Square" series in the summer, and also host visiting authors, like "Eat, Pray, Love" writer Elizabeth Gilbert.
With 125 years of history and a bright future, the Lawson McGhee library remains fundamental for the Knoxville community.
"Our library," Claiborne said, "is a gateway to the entire universe."