The Public Library here — perhaps still more familiarly known to most by its original name, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library — is in a state of flux. At a time when a broad segment of the community is in need of its services, politically-fueled budget issues and other concerns have forced it to effectively reduce its client base and to carefully husband meager resources rather than expand its outreach. Unfortunately, the library here is not unique. Many libraries across the country face similar and even worse problems.
Indeed, the contemporary library story across the United States is all too familiar and depressing. Some libraries have closed because communities either could not or would not fund them. In other places, libraries have sharply reduced operating hours, severely limited purchases of new material — including increasingly vital Internet services and electronic subscriptions — and consolidated branches. Strangely, many of these actions have taken place at a time when visits to the library, the circulation of books and demand for computers and related services provide continues to grow. That's happening here.
The picture is not entirely bleak. In some far-sighted communities where public officials and citizens understand that a dollar invested in a public library and the services it provides produce a significant and measurable return, libraries flourish. That should be the goal here.
Unfortunately, that's not been the case in recent years. The library — caught in a nasty flap between city and county governments — was forced to retrench a few years ago. The cuts were painful and a severe blow to a populace that rightly has come to know that a public library should be the area's greatest and most accessible source of knowledge and information.
Currently, operations of the Public Library are funded by the City of Chattanooga. Hamilton County government, which once contributed a fair share to the library's upkeep, no longer does. That's a short-sighted decision if there ever was one. The county's willful failure to provide funds for the library means, among other things, that county residents outside the city no longer have free access to many library services. That's harmful not only to those denied access to knowledge and services, but to the community's image.
In a place that is widely known for its inclusive and harmonious approach to a wide variety of issues, including the riverfront development and industrial recruitment effort that have given the city a new civic vitality and economic muscle, the county's adamant refusal to fund the library is strikingly out of tune.
The county has an obligation to fund a library for all its citizens — including the majority of county residents who live within the city's borders and pay county as well as city taxes. Indeed, a majority of the county's tax base comes from property and business owners in Chattanooga. The ratepayers within in city limits, however, get little in return for the county taxes they pay. Hamilton County officials hoard the money, and when they do spend it, the funds pay mostly for services limited to county residents who pay a far lower share of taxes to the county than city property owners.
The library seems to emerging from its worst days, but that's no excuse for the county to continue its neglect. Hours, to be sure, have been extended, facilities upgraded and some services restored. But it's not enough. The system here still operates on a truncated schedule that poses difficulties for many patrons, particularly those who don't have ready access to reference material or a computer at home. It also struggles to maintain a full and accessible collection of up-to-date books, data and electronic services that are the hallmark of the modern library.
Whatever the broader political issues surrounding shared expenses between governments here, surely county officials can remove their blinders long enough to see the importance and necessity of a library open to all residents of Hamilton County, and the county's responsibility for the funding to make that possible. The library is a singular issue that transcends petty political squabbles. A public library is a necessity. It should not be held hostage to political expediency and personal ego.