The Chattanooga Times recently reported on what’s been going on at the Chattanooga Public Library … and what’s happening should shock and alarm everyone! So, what’s going on at the Chattanooga Public Library, you might be asking yourself?
In 2009, the library boasted nearly half a million books that included some impressive and valuable collections. Five years later, that number was down to almost 200,000 books. Hundreds of books were allegedly taken to the Orange Grove recycling center and it’s alleged that a number of the books pulled from storage or off the shelves and dumped weren’t documented.
While it’s true that some items such as some of the magazines could only be recycled, some of these magazines were valuable. The Chattanooga Public Library had Atlantic Monthly magazines that dated back to 1867 … just two years after the U.S. Civil War ended. To better understand why such a collection would hold valuable insights, let’s take a look at some of the important events that transpired from 1867 onward.
In 1868 Andrew Johnson was impeached (and acquitted by the Senate), and Ulysses S. Granted was elected President of the United States of America. 1871 witnessed the Treaty of Washington and the following year, Yellowstone National Park was created. The Civil Rights Acts of 1875 happened the same year as the National Baseball League was created, and the year after that was the Battle of Little Bighorn. And in 1879, Thomas Edison created the first functional light bulb!
Whether the Atlantic Monthly magazines published articles on these specific topics is immaterial. What matters is that these historical events shaped America, and that shaping would be evident in the articles published in the Atlantic Monthly magazines.
In 1880, the population of the United States of America topped 50 million and surely the magazine would have made mention of what Billy the Kid did in 1881 (shot and killed Pat Garrett) and what happened to Jesse James in 1882 (he was shot and killed by Robert and Charlie Ford). The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 (a momentous event especially in light of the oft-used idiom of the bridge proper) and 1885 saw the Washington Monument completed. And it was in 1888 that the National Geographic Society was formed (keep this in mind for later reference).
The 1890s had a number of auspicious moments from the creation of Yosemite National Park to Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah becoming states. General Electric was founded and the Wounded Knee Massacre was widely reported. For those who have no idea who Stagger Lee was, 1895 was the year Lee made a mark on American society (read up on that in history books). Gold was discovered in the Yukon’s Klondike, the Boston subway was completed, the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War, and Hawaii was annexed.
All of that helped to shaped America into the country it became. And all that insight into Americana has been lost with the disposal of the entire Atlantic Monthly magazine collection.
Stepping into the 20th century, William McKinley assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt was elected President. The very first World Series was played, and in 1903, both the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the Ford Motor Company were formed. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was established in 1908 (a very important bureau, especially during the Prohibition Era, and onward) and Robert Peary reached the North Pole.
The Indianapolis 500 ran its first race ever in the second decade of the 20th century, and both the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. were chartered. The Federal Reserve Act was enacted and Henry Ford developed the modern assembly line that exists into the 21st century. Both the Titanic and the Lusitania sank, and New Mexico and Arizona became states. And let’s not forget World War I!
The decade after that experienced the first radio broadcasts out of Pittsburgh and Detroit, Charles Lindbergh made his first trans-Atlantic flight, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre took place. The 1930s (the Depression era) was filled with historically important events that would have been reflected in the articles published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, not the least of which included the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and World War II breaking out.
In other words, every decade had important moments that were either chronicled in magazines, or that were reflected in how society reacted to those important moments as shared by writers and authors of magazine pieces.
That one collection — which was complete — is now gone. This generation and those that follow won’t have those magazines at their disposal. They’re sitting in a landfill somewhere on the American landscape. And remember when I asked you to keep the National Geographic in mind when I mentioned it earlier in this article? Well, the Chattanooga Public Library began collecting National Geographic magazines in 1906. They’re all gone as well. Destroyed.
Allegedly most of the niche collections and biographies that had been purchased with an endowment of three millions dollars were cleared out with little to no regard for how those niche collections and biographies were originally acquired. Much like the magazine collections, they were considered obsolete and useless, taking up too much valuable real estate within the library’s walls. But why would a library gut themselves so utterly and completely in the first place?
The claim is that libraries are changing with the times, and need to include things such as meeting spaces and coffee shops along with online connectivity, computers, and interactive technology such as a creative lab and a 3D printer as well as video games and a technology based music studio.
That’s great that libraries are changing with the times, but does it have to be at the expense of history and literature? And should it be done without proper checks and balances, and consideration of options other than destruction of niche collections and other priceless books?
There are children’s hospitals that would have gladly accepted some books for their own on-site libraries, as well as small town libraries as well as small school libraries that would have embraced some of those destroyed books and magazines. Donating some of those books to the Good Will and Salvation Army stores would have resulted in sales where money would go to support those in need. And let’s not forget the used book store owners that might have been able to not only save some books, but earned some money by way of increased sales in the months that followed. A number of private collectors would have been interested in taking some of those books off the library’s hands, and more than a few everyday regular people would have traveled to Chattanooga to bring a few treasures back home with them.
Being trendy, fashionable, and up-to-date shouldn’t mean that what is old and valued by others should be upended and thrown away. After all, how many of us consider a book or two from our own childhood or youth to be among our oldest and best friends? I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have at least one book they cherish from their younger days.
Maybe it’s time for libraries to open their doors to those of us who would be more than happy to “adopt” books that are marked for death. We could refer to them as “rescue” books, and those who adopted these rescue books would gladly give them a good home where they could live out the rest of their lives in peace, safe from danger, and well-loved by their new owners.