Our Chattanooga Public Library system, one of the city's greatest treasures, is interwoven into the fabric of this community so thoroughly that it is difficult to imagine a time when Chattanooga did not have a multipurpose library.
The July 18, 1905, headlines heralded "Public Library Opens Monday," and the public was invited to a celebration at the "Carnegie building."
The story behind the library's opening is shared by thousands of local communities across the nation and around the world. Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie contributed to many educational and civic endeavors, but none had a more profound impact on small communities than the creation of a system of more 2,500 Carnegie libraries. Some were endowed as part of university library systems, while others enlarged the literary world offerings for smaller towns in the U.S., the UK, Ireland and Canada.
By 1929 when the program ended, there were Carnegie libraries in France, Serbia, Fiji, Australia, South Africa and countless remote communities, where access to books helped residents understand the rapid changes occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The steel industrialist recognized that knowledge was a key to bridging the divides brought on by international rivalries, rising militarism and a world of uncertainties. As a result, very few towns that applied were denied funding as long as they agreed to his terms for operating and maintaining the library.
Chattanooga's unveiling of the new "public library," located at East Eighth Street and Georgia Avenue, was open to the community on that Monday evening from 7:30 to 10, beginning with a receiving line of "trustees and their ladies," including Mayor and Mrs. A.W. Chambliss. The event was billed an informal evening of music that would allow attendees to "be shown the appointments of the Carnegie building and the more than 5,000 books that have been arrayed on the shelves," with the librarian and her assistants guiding visitor browsing.
A bronze tablet near the entrance bore the name of Andrew Carnegie plus the names of the library's directors. Almost everyone entering that evening paused to view the tablet. Once visitors were inside the stately structure, arrays of metal shelving stacked with books and the "handsome discharging desk" made quite the impression.
The ordering of books had begun in March. With the opening in July, it was obvious that Miss Margaret Dunlap, the chief librarian, and the trustees had worked long hours prior to opening night. Initially, the library's doors were open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and books were available on-site in the reading rooms, where volunteer attendants assisted patrons. The reading and reference rooms were "free to all." As the library's holdings increased, a circulation department was added, allowing readers to request books for two weeks. A special community board allowed visitors to request books on specific topics and library staff to highlight new books and periodicals arriving each week.
The Chattanooga News reporter concluded that "the opening of the Chattanooga public library will be one of the most significant episodes in the history of the city in spite of its informality." That prediction foreshadowed the importance of the library and its branches to the Chattanooga community for the next 100-plus years.
Within four months, the library expanded its services. Librarian Dunlap and her assistants, Miss Margaret Bates and Miss Nora Crimmins, who had completed their apprenticeships, announced that the circulation department would open on Dec. 11. The trustees had decided earlier that once a sufficient number of works of popular fiction had been acquired, circulation would begin. That day arrived. The ladies of Chattanooga who had volunteered to assist with acquisitions, under the leadership of Mrs. Nottingham, combined their talents to order new books and to acquire others from families across the city. In many cases, the donated items included a notecard with a personnel recommendation from the donor. All books were catalogued, put on display and made available for loan. The only requirement for selecting a book was a display of "proper credentials."
In December 1906, Lewis M. Coleman, a Carnegie foundation trustee, questioned the policy of charging Hamilton County residents, especially families with school-age children, a $3 annual membership. He noted that a free library for all residents was a necessary element of a progressive community and that an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment to lifelong learning was before the County Court. The court responded positively.
Chattanooga and Hamilton County had a true library.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, teaches a free U.S. history course at the Chattanooga Library. For more information on local history, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.