Hamilton County: Library faces 'daunting' list of problems

Hamilton County: Library faces 'daunting' list of problems

January 18th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier in News


* The library lacks a clear vision and strategic plan.

* Its governance and organizational structure is inefficient, with no clear lines on authority or responsibility.

* The library is underfunded and fails to make good use of the funding it receives.

* The library has not expanded/updated facilities to meet population growth and needs.

* Its buildings are inadequate and unattractive.

* Technology is dated and use is limited.

Source: "Challenge of Change" preliminary report

Hamilton County's public libraries are ugly, irrelevant and mismanaged, according to an extensive assessment presented to library board and task force members.

"It is blunt, and it is comprehensive," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said of the preliminary report from national library consultants June Garcia and Susan Kent. "It's a good dose of reality."

The city paid $50,000 for the consultants to review every aspect of the downtown library and its four county branches. They examined everything from the library's governance and organizational structure to facilities, collections and technology.

Nearly every aspect of library operations needs significant improvement, the report states.

Board members, consultants and elected officials were careful not to point fingers at who is to blame for the state of the library, but the problems didn't happen overnight, the mayor said.

"It's an indictment of us as a community that we've allowed things to get like this," Mr. Littlefield said.

Library Director David Clapp and most of 14 board members weren't surprised by the consultants' findings.

"I'm always defensive, but the essential facts are accurate," Mr. Clapp said. "We've talked about a lot of these things for years.

Although the consultants acknowledged a "daunting" list of issues, they said the report should be seen as a road map for the future.

"There are a lot of things on the list, but it's nothing other libraries haven't overcome. The difficulty you face is the sheer number of things (to fix)," Ms. Kent said. "It's an opportunity that should be seized."

"Exactly," Ms. Garcia added during their presentation Friday in the mayor's conference room. "Look what you did to the Riverfront. Why not the library?"

"daunting" challenges

The consultants compared the Chattanooga library system to public libraries in other large cities in Tennessee - Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville - as well as comparable cities in the Southeast such as Birmingham, Ala., and Greensboro, N.C. Chattanooga's library is at the bottom of the list in most categories, the consultants' data showed.

The Chattanooga libraries spend about $2.04 per capita on materials, almost $2 less than most other libraries in the benchmark group.

The money the library does spend is overwhelmingly used for books and periodicals for adults - 88.5 percent - which the consultants called a poor allocation of resources because almost 35 percent of materials checked out are for children and teens.

Many materials in the library are rarely used, such as federal documents, which are largely available online but take up nearly an entire floor of the downtown library, the consultants said.

At one library branch, Ms. Kent said she found a college guide from 1998, something that should have been discarded years ago.

"They kept it because they didn't have the money to replace it and figured something was better than nothing," she said. "There are a lot of instances when nothing is better than something."

Fewer people visit the downtown library and its branches than visit most of the libraries in the benchmark group, according to the report. There also are fewer library buildings in Hamilton County than other areas, and those that are here are smaller than most, the report states.

Many people avoid the downtown library in particular because of a lack of parking and because they consider it unsafe, according to the consultants.

what went wrong

The complex governance structure of the library, which is funded jointly by the city and county, is largely to blame for its current state, the consultants said.

The library's internal administration also is convoluted and highly centralized, the report states, with 16 positions reporting directly to Mr. Clapp. As a result, there is no clear chain of command or organization of library resources.

The cumbersome governance compromised fundraising and building relationships with elected officials who appropriate money, the consultants said.

Other public libraries are rarely funded by two governing bodies, Ms. Garcia said.

"This is a very atypical model," she said.

Mai Bell Hurley, a member of the library board and the community task force appointed by the mayor to identify the library's needs, suggested perhaps it was time to turn governance of the library over solely to the city.

Some board members admit they are responsible for not planning far enough into the future, said David Turner, who will become the library board's chairman in July.

Board members will discuss the report at their meeting Tuesday and start developing a plan of action, he said.

looking to the future

Although the report offered a bleak picture of the library, board members had a fairly positive response, saying they are energized about future possibilities.

"We needed a new sense of direction," said board member Herb Cohn.

Karen McMahon, who works for the mayor and organized the library task force, said the board seemed relieved that the consultants acknowledged some of their long-standing frustrations.

"I think it's comforting to know that the issues they've been grappling with are going to be shared with the community," she said. "Ultimately, we'll have a library worthy of one of the best midsize cities in America."

Mr. Littlefield said he is confident the community will get behind the library's cause, similar to public and private support for the Tennessee Aquarium and the Riverfront.

However, overhauling the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library will require a massive effort, including city and county officials, the Chamber of Commerce, private donors and community at large.

But if it works, the result will be worthwhile, the mayor said.

"I don't know of any great city that doesn't have a great library," he said. "It reflects the kind of community we want to be."