The dollar doesn’t buy as much as it used to. It buys less food, less gas and less house, among other commodities.
But there is one asset people can use to acquire more than ever – and it doesn’t cost a dime: a library card.
Historically, libraries have provided free public access to untold volumes of printed materials. Records, DVDs and books-on-tape eventually wormed their way in, but children’s books, classic literature and reference volumes were still the bread and butter of the library.
And they still are, says Christina Sacco, public relations coordinator for the Chattanooga Public Library.
“Books remain our most popular item. We’ve consistently circulated over 1 million books a year over the last five years,” she notes, referring to the physical and digital tomes the library makes available. “Things slowed down at the start of the pandemic, but once we started our curbside service, they took off again.”
But as a stroll through the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library reveals, the modern library is not your grandparents’ – or even your parents’ – library.
Rather, from tomato seeds to power washers, cardholders can check out a litany of goods and equipment that don’t have a category in the Dewey Decimal System.
Located on the first floor of the downtown Chattanooga Public Library, the Seed Exchange is the first hint that something is different in the building, which began serving residents in 1976.
The small cabinet containing hundreds of packets of tiny seeds rests cozily in same space as a graphic novel by Julie Dachez titled “Invisible Differences” and physicist Richard Muller’s scientific treatise, “Now: The Physics of Time.”
Although cardholders are able to “check out” the seeds, the library doesn’t require people to return them – or the produce they grow, Sacco jokes.
Budding green thumbs can also leave with an armload of gardening books, as well as the tools they need to do the job.
“You can check out everything you need to plant a garden except the soil,” Sacco adds.
Just around the corner from the Seed Exchange is the downtown library’s newest service – a health clinic.
Opened in partnership with the City of Chattanooga’s Office of Community Health, the clinic is open Mondays and Fridays, when a registered nurse can provide general health assessments and refer people to free or low-cost services.
Sacco says the clinic provides a way for people who are uninsured or unhoused to talk with a medical professional.
“We’re a community resource. Our mission is to provide lifelong learning, and you can’t help someone who’s on that journey without also addressing their health.”
Many journeys begin with a dream. The second floor of the downtown library is a space that can make the aspirations of the musically inclined a reality.
Simply called The Studio, it’s a fully equipped, state-of-the-art recording space that’s free for cardholders to use as they see fit.
Capable of simultaneously recording 48 microphones, as well as live sessions in which band members are isolated in different rooms to maximize the quality of the audio, The Studio comes with its own instructor: Sam Mentzer, a professional sound engineer.
As studio manager, Mentzer wears several hats – including repairman and secretary, he laughs – but he says his most gratifying role is teaching people how to use the equipment to bring their ideas to life.
“People can use a library card to reserve a couple open sessions a month, and while they’re here, I’ll teach them what they need to know. They might want to record a podcast or do some voice-over work. We’ve even had people bring in their religious manuscripts, some of which were really out there.”
As Mentzer speaks, a trio of musicians files out after the conclusion of their session. Mentzer says they were inspired to write and record a song together in the studio after watching a Beatles documentary.
“And they did it. It was really cool.”
Generally, Mentzer tutors people who have no studio experience but do have a project in mind. From a county musician who lives in Soddy Daisy to a jazz pianist who resides in Chattanooga, every session is different, he says.
“Maybe you’re a young parent who has to work long shifts, or maybe you can’t afford to go to school, but we can give you access to equipment that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars to use.”
Despite The Studio’s accessibility, Mentzer claims it’s not cutting into the business of nearby commercial studios.
“Our mission is to educate people. We don’t want to take away from the commercial studios. No one has accused us of stealing their clientele.”
Funds from the Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations allowed the downtown library to purchase equipment for The Studio, while annual State of Tennessee tech grants make it possible for the library to offer what Sacco says is another invaluable resource: the Maker Space.
“You are in the right space,” declares words painted in a decorative flourish on the wall facing the fourth floor elevator. It doesn’t matter what someone is there to do, Sacco says, they can make it happen here – all because they possess a library card.
If a person were blindfolded and brought to the space, they likely would not guess they were in a library.
There are no bookshelves, no carpet and no stern librarian shushing noisy guests.
Instead, the concrete that was poured when the library was built serves as the surface on which a jumble of workstations rest. Here, cardholders can make everything from color posters advertising an event to T-shirts publicizing an aspiring garage band.
“For years, this was storage,” Sacco explains, her voice echoing throughout the 12,000 square foot chamber. “We were one of the first libraries in the country to dedicate an entire floor to a maker space.”
Several work stations are visible from where Sacco is standing, including a large format printer, a sublimation printer (sublimation printing uses heat to combine ink and fabric), a laser cutter, a vinyl plotter, MakerBot 3D printers and more.
A beat station with two computers, a pair of keyboards, headphones and microphones is available for people who want to record music, while a CNC Router is available for intricate woodworking projects. (The router must be reserved in advance.)
Not all of the equipment exists at the high end of the tech spectrum. A loom is also available, as is a screen printer and a “zine making lab.”
Sacco says “everyone” is using the maker space.
“Kids come in to make stickers, people have made T-shirts for their family reunions and entrepreneurs are running their businesses out of here. Some of this equipment is very expensive and would be difficult for a new company to buy.”
Like the studio, the absolute accessibility of the maker space has created an equitable resource, Sacco proposes.
“If you have something you want to do, chances are you can do it for free, or very cheaply, at the library.”
Also like the studio, a dedicated staff mans the maker space and is available to train anyone and everyone on how to use the equipment.
“If you want to use a certain piece of equipment, you can book an appointment and request a maker to show you how,” Sacco reports.
Clearly, these instructors are not your grandparents’ – or even your parents’ – librarians.
The fourth floor is also home to an eclectic assortment of tools and equipment people can check out.
Using the Bose mobile PA system, microphones and stage lights, someone could host a backyard concert, Sacco suggests. They also could power wash their house, courtesy of the library’s newest piece of home care equipment. And that evening, they could record the event with the library’s video camera.
Analog tools include woodcarving gear, a rotary drill, a tile cutter and more.
“I’ve put down tile in two houses using our cutter, but I don’t need to keep a cutter on hand,” Sacco says. “These are things people might need only a couple of times.”
On the other hand, someone who interested in making clothes might check out one of the library’s sewing machines and discover a new passion.
“After you try sewing for free using one of our machines, you can invest in your own if you like it.”
All of this and more serves the library’s mission to be a community resource.
“We’re a safe space,” Sacco says. “You don’t have to spend money, you don’t have to dress a certain way and you don’t have to follow any rules. You can relax and stay here all day and no one will bother you.
“Think of these things as an extension of our unique identity and the library as a welcoming space anyone can access.”