Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA)

The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) collects and preserves books and records of historical, documentary, and reference value and encourages and promotes library development throughout the state. It is the state agency responsible for preserving materials which document Tennessee’s people and history.

TSLA operates within the Division of Public Libraries and Archives, which also includes the Tennessee Regional Library System. The chief policy-making body of the Division is the State Library and Archives Management Board, which consists of the secretary of state, who serves as chairman and chief administrative officer; the state treasurer; the comptroller of the treasury; the commissioner of education; and the commissioner of finance and administration. The state librarian and archivist serves as executive secretary to the Management Board. The secretary of state, acting through the state librarian and archivist and the Division of Public Libraries and Archives, is empowered by law to execute the rules, regulations, policies, and programs adopted by the Management Board.

The Tennessee State Library was founded in 1854 through the efforts of its first state librarian, Return Jonathan Meigs, former corresponding secretary and librarian of the Tennessee Historical Society, which was founded five years earlier. Until his departure from the state just before the Civil War, Meigs and his son acquired and processed rare books that were collectors’ items even in their day; many of these books survive today. Meigs also developed his own classification system, which was replaced in 1871 when Dr. George S. Blackie compiled the Catalogue of the General and Law Library of the State of Tennessee and developed his own classification scheme in the process. The Catalogue listed 18,383 volumes; the collection doubled over the next thirty years. In 1901 a newly formed Library Commission appointed Mary Skeffington state librarian; she held that position until 1919, longer than any previous librarian.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Tennessee State Archives, which had existed more as a concept than an institution, received legislative attention and funding and in 1919 became part of the Tennessee State Library and Archives, with John Trotwood Moore serving as the first state librarian and archivist. Moore expanded the role of TSLA through his relationship with the Tennessee Historical Society and his projects to collect official records, including military records dating to the War of 1812. When he died in 1929, the office of state librarian and archivist passed to his wife, Mary Daniel Moore. She guided TSLA through the Great Depression and its last years in the State Capitol. Moore retired in 1949, only three years before the dedication of the current State Library and Archives Building.

From 1952 until 1971 TSLA operated under the direction of historians Daniel Robison, William Alderson, Sam B. Smith, and Wilmon Droze, who enhanced its role as a repository of historical information. Later, interest in family history, or genealogy, brought a new kind of researcher to TSLA. This interest shows no sign of waning.

With the passage of the federal Library Services and Construction Act in the 1950s, TSLA assumed a new role in the development, promotion, and construction of public libraries in Tennessee, as well as in the further development of the regional library system. Kathryn C. Culbertson became the first professional librarian to head the TSLA. She remained in office until 1982, when TSLA passed from the Department of Education to the Office of the Secretary of State. Through the efforts of the secretaries of state, financial support for TSLA increased markedly, and the Division of Public Libraries and Archives achieved greater public visibility.

The World Wide Web and other on-line information systems transformed the way TSLA functions as an organization and as a provider of information services. By the mid-1990s TSLA had established a statewide catalog of all public libraries and, through federal and state funds, facilitated on-line access to the Internet.

Currently, TSLA holdings total over one million items (exclusive of original records), approximately half of which are books and periodicals. The other half consists of maps, photographs, tapes, microforms, and other nonprint materials. Archival and manuscript collections, dating from pre-statehood days to the present, consist of 27 million official records and 4.8 million manuscripts occupying some 31,000 cubic feet of space. The staff includes over ninety archivists, librarians, assistants, and specialists in microfilming, photography, and computer networking.

The holdings on Tennessee, regional, and national history–areas of primary interest to historians and genealogists–are central to its collections. TSLA features a photographic archive of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pictures; special collections of sheet music, political pamphlets, and broadsides; official records of the state and the counties of Tennessee; letters, diaries, and family papers of Tennesseans; newspapers from Tennessee towns and cities; research materials on Native Americans; and a general reference collection. TSLA is a depository of all state publications and a partial depository of federal documents dating from 1784. In 1995 the State Planning Office Library was incorporated into the Public Services Section of TSLA.

In addition to the reference and information services provided by the Public Services Section, TSLA provides a range of services to special clients and populations. Since 1955 TSLA staff have recorded all sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly; these tapes are available to the legislature, other government agencies, and the general public through the Legislative History Service. The Restoration and Reproduction Section provides microfilming, document restoration and preservation, and photographic and photoduplication services for state government and the public. This section stores 54,000 rolls of camera-negative microfilm containing newspapers, archival records, manuscript collections, and local records.

The Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH) cooperates with the Library of Congress in bringing free reading materials and other library services to visually and physically handicapped Tennesseans. The Technical Services Section staff acquires, processes, and catalogs materials in the collections to assure their usability. Records specialists also work with local governments on records management and preservation.

The Planning and Development Section of TSLA administers the state’s contractual agreements with the Regional Library System and promotes public library development throughout Tennessee by means of continuing education, summer reading programs, direct grants to public libraries, and network coordination and development.

Suggested Reading

Edwin S. Gleaves, “From the Vulgate Bible to the World Wide Web: Preserving the Past for Tomorrow in Tennessee,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (1996): 292-309; Mrs. John Trotwood [Mary Daniel] Moore, “The Tennessee State Library in the Capitol,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 12 (1953): 3-22

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA)
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018