Friday, August 10, 2012

The Smallest Library

Back Valley, in Morgan County, Tennessee, remains rural today. But it also has paved roads and electricity, which wasn't true in 1945 when Dot Owens Byrd moved there as a new bride. She brought with her a love of reading, but reading materials were scarce. Mary McGlothan, a local teacher, collected used books and circulated them among community members, the collection being housed in Dot Byrd's home from 1955. Eventually some building materials were collected, and Back Valley soon had its own public library.

The building measures 6 feet x 5 feet, has one window and one door, and initially housed 75 books. Dot's daughter worked for John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia, but then Superintendent of Schools in the adjacent county. He had written a couple of books and came to Back Valley for a book signing. Irwin mentioned this visit to a television reporter in Knoxville, who followed up with a story. The library was dubbed "smallest in the United States" and soon was featured in a national publication, followed by invitations to Dot Byrd to appear on nationally-televised talk shows.

Dot Byrd finally accepted an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, for which she received an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for the taping and a check for $200. She promptly deposited the check into a fund to build a new library.

The new library was built in nearby Coalfield, a small unincorporated community, and dedicated in 1994. It has 2,600 square feet and a collection in excess of 10,000 books, as well as DVDs, CDs, and recorded books. It also provides free computer access to the community.

The tiny library was moved to the grounds of the new library in 1996, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It still has the sign announcing it is never locked and inviting visitors in. The books inside are available for circulation, strictly on an honor system; if you take one you are expected to bring one back.

The shelving occupies the back wall and is filled with books.

Included are the initial 54-volume Great Books series by Encyclopedia Britannica, quite a few Readers' Digest Condensed Books, and an eclectic collection of library gifts and donated books.

Stacks of "coffee-table" books rest on the floor under the window.

It's fitting this tiny building has been moved to its present location. The modern, well-equipped library beside it might never have been built had it not been for the vision and dedication of two women, a teacher and a reader. The tiny structure stands as a monument to the power of books.


  1. What a fabulous story. A great illustration of how a single person can make a difference, can make a mark in history. And the wonderful thing about Blogs and the Internet is that such contributions can now be spread far and wide. Thanks for doing so in this case.

  2. What an awesome story! Just goes to show that one person can make a difference!

  3. Will share history story with the grandkids while in Texas.

    1. Let the grandkids see the little library first before sharing They thought the building was a 'port-a-potty.' The story was a great history lesson...Thanks for sharing the photos and story behind it

  4. What a wonderful post! I love the tiny library and the vision that led to the larger one.

  5. That is a wonderful story- I love the tiny library and its story. Jane xx

  6. Great story. Some rural red phoneboxes in the UK have been converted to libraries as they are no longer needed in these days when everyone has a phone in their pocket. The next village to mine even opened a pub in a phonebox in an attempt to get into the Guinness Book Of Records - the attempt failed as it was deemed not to be a proper pub!

  7. Love reading the comments about the library in my home town of Coalfield Tn. If you ever want to see it, just locate the school and the library is just adjacent to it. Being such a small town, the school is quite easy to locate.