In 1933-34, only 16 counties in Tennessee provided public library service through 25 libraries. Two-thirds of the state’s population was without library service. The country was in the throes of the depression.
The regional library program was developed in Tennessee because of the large population, the distances between the cities, and the lack of public library service across the state. The program was authorized by state legislature in 1936 but was not funded until 1939, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) contracted with Lawson McGhee Library in Knoxville to provide service to four counties in East Tennessee. These counties surrounding Watts Bar Dam (Meigs, Rhea, Roane, Loudon) came together to form the first region. It was called the Loudon County Region, later renamed the Fort Loudoun Region. TVA started building their first dam (Norris) in 1933 and saw the need for library service for their workers . . . as “aids to employee training and morale.”
Today, the Regional Library System is composed of nine multi-county regions – now named for major local rivers – serving 211 small and medium-sized public libraries throughout the state of Tennessee. Membership in the Regional Library System is voluntary. The four metropolitan library systems (Memphis Public Library, Knox County Library, Nashville Public Library, and the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Bicentennial Public Library) now operate independently of the Regional Library System, but still receive services and resources directly from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
See the documents below for more details, including a visual history of the growth of the regional system via maps and a county by county chart.