The Public Library System we know today can be said to date from the opening of Lawson McGhee Library on October 28, 1886.
The first Lawson McGhee Library was a subscription library. At least four earlier public libraries had been created in Knoxville between 1804 and 1873, with the last of these library associations, known as the "Public Library of Knoxville," having been founded in 1873. Its assets were merged into those of Lawson McGhee Library in 1885 prior to the Library opening. Although the founding date for the Knox County Public Library System could arguably be 1873, one unbroken element of the continuity, the name Lawson McGhee Library, can be clearly dated to 1886.