While libraries have existed since 700 B.C.E., they were closed to the “common folk,” to protect the books which were handmade and to control the populace. Those in charge understood the power of knowledge. Only the privileged, the wealthy, the churchman, and the scholar had access. The printing press in 1450 made books more available and libraries more common, but Franklin’s was the first to allow ordinary people to take books home, the first small step toward what would become a fundamental American institution: the public library.
However, it would be another 100 years before a library truly became public. In 1833, Peterborough, N.H., opened the first library funded by a town and “open to all classes of the community” without restriction or fees. Other towns slowly followed suit, but we have socially conscious women and a “robber baron” to thank for the growth of free public libraries.
Andrew Carnegie began educating himself in Scotland in the Tradesman’s Subscription Library his father had founded. After his family emigrated to Pennsylvania, he borrowed books from the personal library of Col. John Anderson, who opened it to his workers every Saturday. Industrious, ambitious, and reputedly unscrupulous, Carnegie became one of the richest men in American history and one of our greatest philanthropists. He believed in helping working people who were “anxious to help themselves” as he had been helped and wanted to provide opportunity for others “to acquire the knowledge to be successful.” The first of the Carnegie libraries opened in Braddock, Penn., in 1889, near one of his mills. By 1929 there were more than 800 of them worldwide and nearly 1,700 in the United States.
Nearly 80 percent of those 1,700 libraries resulted from the efforts of women’s clubs of the 1890s through the 1920s. Working at the local level, they raised funds and petitioned the Carnegie Foundation for grants, which required public support for any library it endowed - a financial commitment from the community to maintain and operate it. This, Carnegie believed, would prevent the “public from ceasing to take interest in it.”
Thus, Chattanooga’s first library was built and opened in 1906 with a $50,000 Carnegie grant. Designed by New York architect Stanford White, the stately building still stands at the corner of 8th and Georgia. The library relocated in 1940, and the Community Chest, YMCA, and other groups and businesses occupied it over the years. It was known for some time as the George H. Patten Building and is now owned by Cumberland Trust and Guaranty.
Volunteers in Signal Mountain were actively involved in developing libraries even before its own was opened. In 1920, they hosted 100 librarians from seven states for the organizational meeting of the Southeastern Library Association (SELA). Three more meetings were held on the mountain; in 1922, they discussed library services for African Americans and training facilities for black librarians. (Carnegie libraries did not serve black patrons in the South, but the Foundation endowed separate libraries for them.) In 1924 and 1926, SELA took up promotion of library development in the region, standards for school libraries, and standards for degrees in librarianship.
The first public library opened in Signal Mountain Grammar School in 1926, again organized and operated by volunteers. It remained there until 1954, when the old post office building on James Boulevard became available. In 1970, it was moved to its present location on James Avenue, where it was “housed in a house” and quickly became overcrowded. Karin Glendenning, who volunteered there, remembers, “We had books stored in a bathroom, on a shelf laying across top of the tub.” It took another 17 years, but in 1987, with donations from mountain residents and funds from the Town, the house became a home to David Dolan (who bought it, then had it moved it to James and Cauthen Way) and the present library building was constructed. It operates as a department of the Town of Signal Mountain and is funded by the property taxes and donations of Signal Mountain residents.
The mountain’s little gem of a library thrives for three reasons: community support; devoted volunteers; and a dedicated director. One of Signal’s own, the director Karin Smith Glendenning grew up in the town and attended Signal Mountain Elementary (as did her mother, who was in the original first grade class of SM Grammar School in 1926). After graduating from GPS, she majored in French at Wesleyan College in Macon. Later, with her late husband Lou Glendenning and children, she made their home in Signal Mountain, and Lou worked with Karin’s father, Alfred Smith, at his store, Hardie and Caudle. Her father also served as police and fire commissioner and the Signal Mountain mayor.
Perhaps she was destined to end up in a library. “I love reading so much,” Karin said, recalling her favorite book “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which she read as a girl. “The study hall was held in the library, and the librarian knew how much I loved to read, so she let me ... I’ve reread it several times. Something about the idea of escaping like that, the excitement of it ...” Her wide smile said it all.
Life led her to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in the mid-1980s, where she was book editor, then community news editor. Library director followed in 2006. As patron Nancy Williams said, “She’s just done a wonderful job; she’s gotten so many new books and is so willing to help people. If someone wants a book we don’t have, she orders it for them.” The collection includes e-books and Audibles (both quite expensive to provide), CDs, new releases, magazines, journals, and other reference materials, including the Tennessee Electronic Library, which contains dozens of databases not typically accessible to individuals and extremely useful for research.
In 2019, a fundraising campaign began to expand the existing building, and construction has already begun. “The money has come entirely from community donations,” Karin said. “This community really supports us and we are so appreciative of their generosity.” The project includes an elevator to reach the lower floor, an emergency ramp for access to the parking lot, a beautiful extension from the first floor with fireplace and large windows for reading, researching, or just gazing out at the trees. The room will provide cover for the patio downstairs, with a second fireplace and overhead lighting, creating another space for reading or gathering. Karin had high praise for the ongoing assistance of Jessica Stack and Craig Peavey, the local architects on the project.
Four library staffpersons work with Karin: John Atkinson, assistant librarian; Laura Wooden; Lisa Garbee; and Kathy Rupe. Volunteers, who donate hours of time, are vital to every library. “We couldn’t function without our volunteers,” Karin said. The Friends of the Library, an organizational board, helps raise funds, holds book sales, and maintains the Book Nook. And the Mountain Library Foundation maintains a fund for special needs beyond the usual operating expenses.
In today’s world of increasing access to information, public libraries may seem less necessary. Au contraire. Only 10 percent of the 117,000 libraries in America are public. All the others restrict use and circulation. We actually need more libraries because access to knowledge and information is fundamental to democracy, and libraries are fundamental to access information for many, many people.
Most importantly, libraries are community spaces open to anyone, where everyone is accepted, to sit and dream, to ponder and imagine, to discover and learn, to inhabit other worlds, to be entertained, to enjoy the pure pleasure of reading whatever you like. Its spaces host meetings and book clubs, lectures and educational programs, lost souls and social gatherings.
“The boundary between society and the library is porous,” said Susan Orleans. “Nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad.” In her story “The Library Book,” the L.A. Public Library itself is the hero of the 1986 fire that nearly destroyed it. A million books burned but volunteers transported the water-damaged books to fish processing plants in Long Beach, where they were saved by being packed between frozen shrimp and broccoli florets. “The library,” she says, “requires many people together.”
Maybe the most unlikely proof that libraries are essential is that even prisons have them (though funding them is a low priority). In her memoir “Reading Behind Bars,” prison librarian Jill Grunenwald shows us that people, no matter who, what, or where they are, want to read, learn, improve themselves. “Entertaining and enlightening,” according to one critic, this book gives us “a fresh perspective on why libraries are crucial to society today.”
Whatever form books take in an increasingly digital future, libraries will always be both repositories of past wisdom and places for to explore new possibilities. Of paramount importance to a free country, they must be preserved, protected, and supported.
On the side of a shelf in Signal Mountain Library is this quote from journalist and author Caitlin Moran: “A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered places where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”
by Carol Lannon