Should the City Reclaim the Downtown Library?

A modest solution to the public library's quandaries

It's getting tougher to write this column, and it's not just my drying synapses. My resources are more limited than they used to be. Most of the stories I've found to fill this space have come from two sources: the Lawson McGhee Library, with its 130 years' worth of local newspapers; and the McClung Collection, our best repository of organized regional history.

Both are still there, but after budget-forced cutbacks in recent months, both are open fewer hours than they've ever been in my memory.

Over the years, I've done most of my research into my hometown's past after office hours. Today, our main library is open after 6 only five hours a week.

Knox County government is not appropriating enough money to run the library system, at least not as it's set up now. After cutbacks this month, the McClung remains open after 5 only on Monday. The rest of the week, it's open only four to six hours a day.

This year our main library is open 51 hours a week. Maybe that's not to be compared to some larger cities, like Charlotte or Atlanta, where the main library is open 70-plus hours a week. Of course, if you get to downtown Knoxville in the early evening with a pressing need to look up something before 10 in the morning, and find the library closed, you do have recourses. One is to drive 20 miles south, to a place called Maryville.

Maryville's library is open until 9 p.m. four nights a week—69.5 hours a week in all. Blount County's main library is also bigger than Knox County's main library.

Knox County library defenders would be quick to add that Blount County's system is unburdened with branches. The central library is the whole thing. Maybe some Blount County communities feel lonesome and resentful of that fact, but from the point of view of somebody who needs the library for work, branchlessness can look like an advantage.

Another option to Knoxville's hogtied main library is the Oak Ridge Public Library, which is open until 9 most nights, 65 hours a week in all. It's a city system, which may offer another clue for improving Knoxville's plight.

In Knox County, even people who never go to the library are proud they have a branch down the road. Here, a library branch has become an acknowledgment of official Community Status.

Using library sources, I did a study, a few years ago: Knox County has more library branches per capita than any other system in America—except for one unusual rural system in Minnesota.

Branches are great for taxpayers who are willing to pay for them. But they're expensive, requiring duplication of services, multiple computer terminals, multiple magazine subscriptions, staffing even when nobody's visiting (in some branches, that's not a rare circumstance), lawn care, plumbing, etc.

At the same time, efforts to build a long-needed central library raise hackles out in the county, from taxpayers who resent downtown. It's the administrative center of Knox County. Downtown supports the county courts and the county clerks and the county jail. But to some, downtown is just a rival community that's getting too big for its britches. A few years ago, a countywide coalition of rural and suburban stalwarts sank a plan to use a modest wheel tax to build a long-needed new central library.

A public library's first role, as a community's primary repository of information, was long its only role.

In more recent decades, though, library branches have played a second role, as community centers: a place to drop off your kids, a place to meet with your knitting group, a place to go to the bathroom when you don't think you can make it all the way home. They're comfortable places to meet your neighbors and kill time with a People magazine.

I like my own neighborhood branch. It's a friendly convenience, and I have memories of my parents taking me there at night, when I was learning to read—back in the days when the Knoxville Public Library was open long after supper.

But I visit the main library 100 times as often. Lawson McGhee has much more of what I need for research. A reporter or researcher, anyone doing serious work, needs the central library. If you're a competitive swimmer, 17 baby pools are no substitute for one Olympic-size pool. Or, to use an analogy more familiar to some commissioners, 17 fine pellet guns are no substitute for one assault rifle.

If they closed my neighborhood branch, I would be sad. But I could hardly protest in any persuasive way to county government. This is a low-tax county, and folks seem proud of that. Closing branches might make it possible to maintain that status.

My childhood memories of a library system that stayed open until 9—and that, when Knoxville needed a new, larger, more-modern central library, we just built one—got me to thinking.

The city government, not the county, was in charge of the library back then.

The library began as a city project. For decades, the city alone was in charge of our public library system, which included, as its first priority, downtown's Lawson McGhee Library. By the 1930s, the city-taxpayer-funded library sent bookmobiles out into the county, as a charitable gesture.

Over a period of years—I've heard it was seen as a solution to a debt—the city handed over the reins of the library system to Knox County. In recent years, hearing some commissioners' remarks about public libraries has helped convince me that was a big mistake.

It's not necessarily irrevocable. What if the city buys back Lawson McGhee, to run once again as the Knoxville Library? One with all the amenities of a 21st-century urban library, equipped with enough computers, and enough seating, and enough shelving. Imagine. It might even be open at night.

The county, if it chooses, can keep running lots and lots of branches as Community Centers with Books. Or without books, if they prefer.