Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke explains to Harrison Elementary School kindergarteners about the library cards he handed out last week.


If the Chattanooga mayoral term of Andy Berke accomplishes nothing else, his annual allocation of funds that allows every Hamilton County student access to the Chattanooga Public Library could change scores of lives.

The library is funded by the city and allows all city residents to check out books and use its online services, but county residents who live outside the city are charged $50 for membership.

Berke, a year ago, made it a priority to set aside funding to allow all Hamilton County students to be members — 24,000 have used their cards — and last week helped hand out library cards to new students at one elementary school. He'll never know how many lives he might be affecting.

When the city's 45-year-old sales tax agreement with the county expired in 2011, an agreement that detailed financial arrangements for agencies jointly funded by the two governments, county officials decided they could no longer fund the library.

Since Chattanooga took over full funding of the library, it understandably decided to charge county residents for its services.

In 1964, prior to the inking of the last city-county agreement, similar action was taken. The then-Chattanooga Public Library board decided to levy a $5 fee for the use of its facilities by nonresidents of the city.

The action lasted less than three months, and county residents spoke by staying away. Circulation fell, and only 142 adults and 66 children paid the new fee.

Today, the city hasn't changed its mind about the fee for non-city residents, but Berke made an exception for Hamilton County Schools students, who now make up 11 percent of the library's circulation.

Fifty years ago, just prior to the signing of the last city-county sales tax agreement, the library was mostly but not exclusively a repository for books residents could borrow. Now it is so much more.

Oh, the books are still there, but so are computers, ebooks, audio books, digital music, talking books and services which can be accessed from home. A variety of programs for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, teens and adults are also available.

Children who have access to books do far better in school than children who don't, according to study after study, and Berke's initiative opens that possibility to all Hamilton County students.

Their parents and grandparents even had access to books that came to them.

As early as 1931 and as late as 1991, one or more mobile libraries visited areas around the city. A book truck under the supervision of the County Extension Service began supplying books to Hamilton County Schools for recreational and supplementary reading in 1931, and the public library picked up the work in the summer to provide books to what were referred to as "outlying areas."

The library, according to Times Free Press archives, employed an improvised Jeep station wagon that made eight stops a week in 1949, six at segregated white recreation centers, one at historically black Lincoln Park and one at Third and Holly streets.

Later that year, the library purchased its first Bookmobile. Within 11 years, it was offering nearly 3,500 volumes at 35 stops around the city.

By late 1962, the Bookmobile in service had fewer than 40,000 miles but was in constant need of repair. Collection boxes were even set out to help defray the approximately $17,000 cost of new equipment. Within a year, a new truck and two aluminum trailers were purchased with a special appropriation from the city.

Circulation in July 1963 was more than 43,500 volumes.

With the advent of the Bookmobile, it was predicted circulation at the central library would fall off, but it did not.

With the two trailers and a $10,000 contribution from Hamilton County, which made the library eligible for $20,000 in funds from the federal and state governments, the library extended its service to East Ridge and Red Bank in 1965.

In 1967, the trailers were making 15 stops of one hour to seven and one-half hours. By 1982, one trailer was making 16 stops of 45 minutes to three hours.

In 1991, when the announcement was made that the Bookmobile would end its service, the library had three branches and was about to open a fourth. Its service at that point was said to be cost-prohibitive.

Now, with Berke's help and with a ride to one branch or another, Hamilton County school children who may not have anyone to read to them, who may not have books at home or who may not be connected to the Internet can have all of that at the Public Library. If they can reach the library, the larger world which may seem far away when they're home can be right at their doorstep.