More people are using The Public Library in Chattanooga and Hamilton County than ever in our past. Though use is now driven by requests for Internet service, books, media, and downloads, very little that is in high demand is otherwise free. High-speed Internet and computers cost money. The best medical, financial, and learning materials are expensive. Even new entertainment comes at a price. Public libraries were created in the nineteenth century to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. By providing citizenship information, language instruction, school support, and the details of functioning in our world, the enterprising are able to solve their own problems. A child can explore the whole world at the public library. The only limit is on individual drive and imagination. Unfortunately, the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider than it is now.
In most of the twentieth century, the great city libraries and universities offered unique higher-level access to the world of books and periodicals. There were massive card catalogs and huge indexes to periodicals. The number of books and magazines on library shelves grew at an astonishing rate. All of this changed at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. Neither public nor academic collections are growing any longer. Now, most of what is useful is available at a price online and the key to success is building the best way to find what you want on the Internet and then simplify delivery to the final destination. In our busy world, public libraries are not threatened by free content, but rather by cheap fee-based convenience through sites like Netflix and Amazon.
The Public Library in Chattanooga and Hamilton needs a convenience makeover. We are remaking the downtown departments in a way that should enable us to expand hours in the branches with the same funding we have now. Over 86% of our patrons access our library from home, school, or work. 92% of our patrons have a computer and Internet access at home. Those who do visit our buildings prefer the branches with good parking near their homes and they would gladly take advantage of self-service options if they were faster and came with more convenient hours.
Our prime focus is on an upgrade of our white-elephant library automation software and equipment. We built the existing system in 1996 based on software that requires a unique high-end computer. The world of library technology has grown to include new and cheaper delivery & handling solutions that operate off of much cheaper and smaller computers. Not only would this investment pay off in sharply reduced annual computer maintenance costs, but we would also save money in personnel, shipping, printing, electricity, and postage, and provide better & faster service.
The new downtown library will include an Internet cafe on the second floor with charging stations at each table, high-speed wireless, loaner e-book readers with access to current news & financial information, and small conference rooms with video-conferencing capabilities. Not only will you be able to scan the days news from around the world while drinking your coffee, but you will be able to set up business meetings and discussions off-site as a change of pace. The third floor will function as an archive for serious research into local history and government resources, while the first floor will contain all the popular collections including DVDs, music, audio-books, fiction, graphic novels, computers, and all the library's reference resources as a one-stop-shop for anyone entering the building.
Please bear with us as we pull all this together. There is no question that the public library has a very bright future, but it needs to be cost-effective and convenient in this age of high government costs. The library of the future is going to be online even if much of what it delivers to patrons is still on paper and in packaged media. Those who cannot afford to buy computers or Internet service or books are still going to need help in helping themselves, because the alternative isn't pretty in crime, remedial education, and disaffection from the community. The public library is a community promise, just like clean air, water, and good schools. We look forward to working with you to build a stronger and brighter future for all our citizens.