February 16, 2018

Julie Webb: Tennessee’s Friend of the Year

julie-webbAt their Trustees/Friends luncheon on April 8, the Tennessee Library Association and Friends of Tennessee Libraries (FOTL) jointly honored longtime Friend Julie D. Webb with their Friend of the Year Award, which celebrates a group or individual that has made a significant contribution to a Friends organization and the advancement of libraries in the state.

Webb began working with the Knox County Public Library (KCPL) Friends in 1986, and helped found FOTL in 1991 at the instigation of Patricia Watson, director of the Knox County Library System. Webb served as FOTL’s second president from 1993–97, and on its advisory board from 1997 to the present. In 1996, she recognized the important work being done by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the nonprofit organization Parton founded to provide free books to East Tennessee children from birth to age five. FOTL encouraged libraries statewide to provide the local support necessary to bring the Imagination Library program to their own communities.

At 90 years old, Webb still works with FOTL, serves on the nominating committee of the KCPL Friends, and sits on the KCPL Foundation Board, which recently raised more than $600,000 to help fund the Knoxville News Sentinel‘s campaign to digitize its newspapers from 1922–90. LJ caught up with her recently to find out more about her work with FOTL.

LJ: How did you get involved with libraries?

Julie Webb: I grew up in Jacksboro, TN. It’s a very small mountain town not too far from Knoxville. As a child we didn’t have a real library, but my father was an educator and I married an educator, so that was helpful. I went to the University of Tennessee [Knoxville], as did my husband.

[When] we moved back to Knoxville the [KCPL] Friends group was sort of in the beginning throes. My involvement to begin with was for book and author dinners, and they were very successful. We didn’t do it to raise money—we did it to invite people who were interested, so it was [reasonably priced], and we had a lot of good Southern authors. Probably our most prominent one was Pat Conroy, and he of course sold out.

Then I became more involved—I was president for a while—it was about the time [Watson] said she thought that it would be a good idea for us to have a statewide organization. I went to a state meeting in Nashville and I met Frances Darnell and…several others. Frances was one of those key people. She was a dynamic soul, and I knew she’d be a good person and she was. We got the framework for the FOTL, and pretty soon after that it started.

How did your work with the Imagination Library begin?

About that time, Dolly Parton started her Imagination Library in Sevier County, which is just down the road from Knoxville. It gave a child a book a month, any child who signed up from birth to five. She paid for these books in her county, and she offered to get the books to any other counties that wanted them, but we had to raise private money. That was encouraged for every group to do, and the Friends of KCPL got behind it in a big way.

We circulated this idea in FOTL. There were a couple of women who went to Nashville and met with the governor, and he decided that Tennessee would match the private money in each of the other counties for the books and the shipping. The Friends of the Library in Knoxville was one of the main donors, and they still are. It’s a program throughout the country, but Tennessee leads it and Knoxville is the leading city in our state for the number of kids who are enrolled. It’s really a marvelous thing.

We stop people in the grocery store—at least I do—and say, “Is your baby enrolled?” Sometimes they are and sometimes they’re not, and all we have to do is go to the library and sign them up.

How long did it take the KCPL Foundation to raise the funds for the Knoxville News-Sentinel digitization project?

We raised it in about two years. It was not as hard as we expected it to be, because we got several generous foundations [to help]. There are always some people in the town that help out, and a lot of individuals came through, and that was wonderful. We were all impressed. It’s going to be just invaluable to people for research.

What advice would you give other Friends groups?

You need to be in touch with the funding bodies throughout the year. Be nice to them, not only before they make their budget but all year long, so they’ll know you’re interested. And so they know what you do. We need to keep people aware of… all the kinds of services we offer. People don’t know unless we get the word around.

Are you still active with the Friends?

Yes. We have a [continual] used book sale downtown and I happen to live downtown, so I do that once or twice a month. And other things that come up—I’m on the Foundation board. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of because it’s so important. I’m thrilled to be working with them. They’re all just marvelous people.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.



  1. Judy Greeson says:

    Julie Webb is a treasure for Tennessee Libraries. Thank you LJ for doing an article about the work Julie Webb has accomplished in her work with libraries and Friends of Libraries.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful interview with Julie Webb! We at the Friends of the Knox County Public Library are so grateful for all she has done for our organization, and for libraries across Tennessee.