This story was originally published in the 2014 December/ 2015 January print issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
If visions of endless shelves of books and librarians ready to “shush” you at a moment’s notice are the only things that come to mind when thinking of the public library, perhaps a trip to the ℹ️ Chattanooga Public Library is in order.
While there certainly still are shelves upon shelves filled with novels and nonfiction and you may still want to use your inside voice, the Chattanooga Public Library has distinguished itself over the past few years by embracing new technologies and being open to new ideas.
Many of these new programs and services are credited to the Director of the Chattanooga Public Library system, Corinne Hill. After working as a librarian in Dallas, Hill was offered the job as director in Chattanooga at a time when the libraries in the city were not very successful.
“I was really interested in being given the opportunity to essentially build a library from scratch,” says Hill. Since her arrival in March of 2012, the library has undergone a serious overhaul, including significant structural change. Since its establishment in 1976, the library was officially called the Chattanooga Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, reflecting that it received funding from both the city and the county. Just before Hill arrived in 2012, the city of Chattanooga became the sole source of funding for the library system, resulting in a name change for the downtown location to the Chattanooga Public Library. Other branches in the Chattanooga system are Eastgate, Northgate and South Chattanooga.
“We are what is called a quasi-department. The city provides us with funding and we are governed by the board,” she says. “This has given us a certain amount of freedom to test out new ideas. We continue to experiment and think. We are trying to create a culture, an organization of learning.”
To say Hill has been successful in this endeavor would be an understatement. In 2014, the national publication, Library Journal, took note of the positive change occurring in Chattanooga and named her the 2014 Librarian of the Year. The fact that her staff nominated her for the award was “a complete honor” Hill adds.
She isn’t the only one to relocate to Chattanooga for the library. Nate Hill, no relation to Corinne, had already worked in libraries in Brooklyn, New York and San Jose, California before moving to Chattanooga to assume the position of deputy director.
“I chose to come here because it was an opportunity to reinvent the library into what it was supposed to be,” says Nate. “The 4th floor was also a major selling point for me. Knowing I had the ability to reshape 12,000 feet of space was so exciting.”
Before Nate’s arrival, the 4th floor was essentially an oversized storage closet. Less than three years later, it is one of the downtown branch’s most notable and attractive features. It serves as a venue for events and meetings, a beta-like test zone to try out new ideas for internal library development and as an innovative space for the community to create and design their own projects.
“The 4th floor is for a specific type of new library user. The new services are not meant to replace preexisting services that people have always enjoyed at the library, like checking out books,” explains Nate. “Because Chattanooga is so technology focused, there are many tech opportunities on the 4th floor. The idea behind it is to allow people to be able to generate knowledge at the library, rather than just consume it.”
In order to best serve that purpose, the 4th floor is split up into different labs. The Civic Lab hosts the Chattanooga Open Data Portal, a data collection center for the City of Chattanooga. The popular Maker Lab is often used by freelancers who take advantage of its laser and 3D printers and vinyl cutters to create their own projects for their small businesses. There is even a loom available for individuals interested in working with textiles. In November, the more high-tech Gig Lab was launched, which provides users with their own separate EPB connection and access to state-of-the-art equipment.
The labs are different from one another but all are designed to suit the needs of the community. “Programs come and go and we expect that,” says Nate. “All the labs can rotate and interconnect with each other. We are intentionally organized so that we can change on a dime according to the community demands and needs.” While the 4th floor is unique, it is still very much integrated into the library system. “The 4th floor is not some sort of separate stand-alone organization. It is a feeder into everything else we do at the library,” he adds.
Overseeing the 4th floor is only one of Nate’s many responsibilities as deputy director. Collaborating between library floors and across branches also falls under his domain. “People seem to like to keep to their own floors. I think we have done a really remarkable job of bridging that gap, a prime example is the relationship between the 4th floor and the 2nd floor,” he explains. “The spirit of design and development on the 4th floor has completely blended into the children’s floor.”
Justin Hoenke, coordinator of Teen Services for the library, agrees. “The 4th Floor really inspires a lot of the work that we can then pass on to kids, tweens, and teens,” he says. “For example, we don’t have a giant loom on the children’s floor like the 4th floor does but we do offer a program called SEW WHAT, which introduces kids, tweens, and teens to the basics of sewing. We feed off of each other’s ideas. It’s a really nice process and we inspire each other a lot.”
Hoenke, who hails from Portland, Maine, has been a key player in transforming the 2nd floor of the library into more than just a kid-friendly space. “Delivering youth services the past year and a half has been a top priority,” says Corinne Hill. “And Justin thinks about youth services in a way I’ve never experienced before.”
When he arrived, Hoenke focused on turning the children’s section into a space truly meant to serve the kids. The floor is split in two, one half designed for younger children and the other for tweens and teens. Every program offered by the library meets a national educational standard, so even while the kids are playing, they are learning. This is not only true at the downtown branch, but at the other three as well. In fact, the South Chattanooga branch has recently been flipped to serve primarily as a children’s library, as that was the most desired service in that neighborhood.
For Hoenke, it’s vital that kids have positive experiences at the library. “If kids don’t have a bond with the library when they are young, they’ll most likely forget about the library when they are older and not make use of the many services offered by the public library.” He explains, “We need to show these age groups that we are here to support their ideas, dreams, and goals.”
The Chattanooga Public Library has also recently partnered with Hamilton County Schools so that every child enrolled from Kindergarten to 12th grade has a library card. The entire catalog of youth nonfiction, often used as reference materials for homework, has been made available for access online. “We still encourage students to come to the library for help with their homework,” says Corinne. “But we also wanted to make sure they have access to resources no matter where they are.”
Over the past few years, the libraries in Chattanooga have drastically changed for the better and their mission to meet the community’s needs has never been more clearly defined. “When you think of the library as a platform that the community builds on, that is the right approach,” explains Corinne. “We are completely devoted to youth development, economic development and public safety, which are the same goals as the community’s. You have to be totally connected to your community to be successful.”
Visit chattlibrary.org for more information.
Photography Courtesy of the Chattanooga Public Library