Library Events Nurture a Sense of Place
by Martha Rudolph
February 29, 2024  •  7 minute read
Documentary filmmaker Ashley York, left, chats with UT’s Elaine McMillion Sheldon during the Wilma Dykema Stokely Memorial Lecture. (Photos by Shelly O’Barr, UT Libraries)

Anyone who attended the UT Libraries’ public events during the 2022–23 academic year would have come away with an enhanced sense of place.

First on the libraries’ calendar of fall events was a discussion of University of Tennessee history. In 2022, the University of Tennessee Press published Bearing the Torch: The University of Tennessee, 1794–2010 by T. R. C. Hutton, the first book-length scholarly history of the university to be published in over 30 years. The UT Libraries, the Knoxville History Project, and the East Tennessee Historical Society hosted a conversation between author Bob Hutton and local historian Jack Neely at the East Tennessee History Center.

UT began as a small school for the privileged elite, founded by Presbyterian minister Samuel Carrick two years before Tennessee became a state. The university celebrated its 225th anniversary in 2019. But the trajectory from its founding in 1794 to its current status as an eminent public research university was far from unbroken. At various times the institution was nearly derailed by squabbling among the trustees, by the Civil War, and even by religious sectarianism.

In fall 2022, UT Libraries marked the 50th anniversary of Title IX—the law enacted by Congress in 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program that receives funding from the federal government. The libraries hosted a panel discussion among three UT Press authors whose books address the impact of Title IX and the power of sports to change women’s lives.

From left: Sarah Hillyer, Mary Ellen Pethel, and Debby Schriver hold their respective books.

Debby Schriver, author of In the Footsteps of Champions: The University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, the First Three Decades, noted Title IX’s unanticipated consequences. The bill addressed equity in educational programs, and no one expected it to lead to a revolution in women’s sports.

Mary Ellen Pethel, author of Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories, spoke about the diplomatic skills demanded of trailblazers in women’s sports. “On the one hand, they had to show that women’s athletics were not going to challenge men’s sports or compete with men’s sports. But on the other, they had to show that women’s sports were worthy of respect and recognition.” Thanks to Pat Summitt and many other trailblazers, Tennessee became a national leader in advancing women’s sports.

Sarah Hillyer, director of UT’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society and a contributor to Strong Women, Better World: Title IX’s Global Effect, talked about the power of sport to transform lives and communities around the world.

The Wilma Dykeman Stokely Memorial Lecture is hosted annually by the Friends of the Knox County Public Library and the John C. Hodges Society of the University of Tennessee Libraries. The 2023 lecture featured documentary filmmakers Ashley York and Elaine McMillion Sheldon—also an assistant professor in the School of Art—discussing York’s film Hillbilly. The film contrasts stereotypes of Appalachia with the complicated realities of the region. 

Singer-songwriter Maggie Longmire

To challenge those stereotypes, Hillbilly uses a combination of personal narrative, regional history, and conversations with Appalachian residents—including York’s own grandmother. York contrasted her empathetic treatment of the region with the typical documentary approach to Appalachia, which, as she stated, “comes from a tradition of gawking.” In making the film, York felt that she needed to step away from the accepted journalistic ethics that dictate arms-length reportage. “Really the demand of the film required that I step up and say ‘I am from this place.’”

Singer-songwriter Maggie Longmire was the featured artist at the UT Libraries’ unique series Boundless: Artists in the Archives in spring 2023. Longmire’s original ballads of Tennessee coal country spoke of the hard lives of coal miners and their families, and a hoped-for end to our reliance on fossil fuels.

Boundless invites musicians and other artists to visit the libraries’ archives and create original works inspired by what they discover there. Longmire was drawn to resources that chronicle life in East Tennessee coal mining communities at the turn of the 20th century. For Longmire, who grew up in LaFollette, Tennessee, and is the descendant of a coal-mining family, Boundless was an opportunity to revisit Campbell County history. In particular, she wanted to honor the spirit of strong women like her great-grandmother who, despite many hardships, uplift the lives of others.

Recordings of the original compositions that Longmire created for Boundless: Artists in the Archives are available at alongside the works of earlier Boundless artists.

In film, song, and the written word, UT Libraries events celebrated Tennessee’s history and cultural heritage.