Those who haven't visited the Chattanooga-Hamilton Bicentennial Library's downtown flagship in several months should do so. They'll be pleasantly surprised by what they see and experience. Though the renovating, refurbishing and updating is not quite complete, they'll discover that much has changed for the good since their last visit. The library is now more open, inviting and accessible than it has been in the past. That's beneficial to the institution, to its patrons and to the community.
The changes are significant. Some are cosmetic and decorative. New paint has been applied in public areas, and pictures, maps and other items from the library's holdings - many long relegated to storerooms and unfamiliar to even the library's most long-term patrons - are now on public display. Other changes are substantive. Half of the shelves on the first floor have been shortened. That provides better access to books and lets in natural light from large windows on the Broad Street and 10th Street sides of the building. The difference is striking in a very positive way.
In addition, all audio-visual items, DVDs, CDs, books on tape and the on-demand rental collection are on the first floor, as are the library's reference collection and popular fiction titles. Most of the library's public computers are located on the first floor, too. That allows patrons to ask for and receive quick assistance from nearby library staff.
The children's department and the library's entire non-circulating collection are located the second floor. Prior to the current reorganization and renovation, the latter was divided by category and between floors. Now they are in easy-to-access order on the same floor. That solves a major problem for patrons and researchers, who often found they had to travel from one floor to another to find needed material.
Work continues on the popular children's department. If all goes according to schedule, it should have a new ceiling, new carpet and paint by month's end. Funds from the library's Club Lib event will underwrite those projects. Other changes in the department are in store, too.
A custom-designed interactive children's literacy station, funded by BiLo Charities Foundation, will become the focal point of the revamped department. When completed, the new look and offerings should prove attractive to the library's youngest visitors.
One of the library's most important changes is not easily visible, but it is vitally important if the library is to keep pace with enhanced technology. The downtown facility has converted to fiber optic cable, thereby increasing the site's Internet speed to 100 megabytes. That was necessary if the library is to continue to meet growing demands on library computers by those doing homework and business research and to meet other needs.
Still other improvements at the library are planned, but must await repairs to a nonpublic elevator used to move heavy equipment. A welcome allocation of funds from the city and county will cover the cost of the elevator work, but completion is a couple of months away.
Much remains to be done if the library's physical plant and its collections are to keep pace with public demand and changes in technology. What's needed is a dependable infusion of funds from the governments that lend their names to the library. Political machinations in both city and county in recent years have made that impossible, forcing the library to operate on far less than it needs and deserves. Until that situation is reversed, the library, despite its recent positive changes, is likely to continue to play catch-up rather than be the equal of its peer institutions.