Reimagining Libraries: The Front Door of the Innovation District

Reimagining Libraries: The Front Door of the Innovation District

In this series, guest columnists write about what’s working at their library, how they are adjusting to the digital age, and what their community expects from a library. Gray Gill, Content Strategist and Writer at Southside Creative, writes about the community impact of the Chattanooga Public Library.

How the Chattanooga Public Library has succeeded by balancing traditional services with modern experimentation. 

On October 22, 2017, Andre Walker, a columnist for the New York Observer dared to tweet that “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in school libraries.” Then something incredible happened.

Librarians, teachers, students and patrons rallied in support for libraries and bombarded Walker with evidence that they’ve never been more popular. At first, the columnist stood his ground. But after two days of an unrelenting onslaught of tweets highlighting the fact that this public institution is still vital in 2018, Walker tweeted, “Dear #Library users, I surrender!”

Corinne Hill never joined in the fray that played out online, but she is proving that eighteen years into the 21st century, libraries have never been more relevant or essential to the development of cities. Since becoming the executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library in 2012, Hill and her staff have reimagined what a library can offer everyone it serves. Because Hill believes “Community needs shift. So it’s about being aware of those shifts, and adjusting to make sure we can meet those needs.”

After topping one million circulations for the first time in its history, for the 2017 fiscal year, it’s clear that more people than ever are using the library. But there’s more to this milestone, because the stat doesn’t simply mean that one million books were checked out—it refers to audiobooks, e-books, and the variety of technological services housed in the library. Rather than treat the library like a “warehouse” where countless tomes collect dust, Hill wants “to be evaluated on how the building’s being used” by the community, rather than how her staff is using the building.So how is the library being used these days?

In her six years as executive director, Hill has helped the library launch a slew of modern amenities—all free to library card-holders. The first floor still has the appearance and function of a conventional library. “The ultimate goal was to make the first floor look like a downtown branch. So you had full services, you had computer access, fiction, nonfiction, etc. You had all those things you could find in a branch,” Hill says. 

The upper floors of the library have taken on a new life and have been transformed into modern spaces for the digital age. As if Hill were creating a new HGTV show titled ‘Extreme Makeover: Library Edition, she says “We took our fourth floor, which was used for storage, and cleared it out to create a maker space.” Hill aims to have “the things you’re seeing on TV, the stuff you’re reading about and that everyone is talking about” are present in the downtown branch. Now, patrons can get hands-on with 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters, virtual reality, and photography studio.

Most libraries go to great lengths to preserve silence and order, but Hill has a different view. She wants the downtown branch to be “a public meeting space, a place where people can come and gather, where someone with an idea can come, you can talk and make noise and move stuff around.”

In July of 2017, Hill made some noise by opening a professional recording studio on the second floor. “We’re seeing a lot of podcasting come out of there right now. We’ve got formal curricula through a nonprofit called Dynamo Studios.” Dynamo has provided instruction for children and teenagers who are interested in sound engineering, who dream of one day winning a Grammy, or who want to become the next Terry Gross. But adults are also enjoying the studio. Two local podcasters are taking advantage of the library’s equipment to grow their following: Monty Bruell’s ‘Start It Up’ and Matt Busby’s ‘The Camp House Podcast’ both record in the downtown branch’s studio. 

As the library has added more technological tools in recent years, Hill and her staff have made inclusivity a priority. In 2017, many major names and companies in Silicon Valley came under fire for their hiring practices and work culture concerns. It’s become evident that the tech world looks a lot like traditional corporate America—by not fostering talented women and people of color. Hill and her team her team want to ensure their progressive ideas don’t leave anyone out. 

In early 2018, the library launched the Chattanooga Memory Project, an online record where anyone can contribute stories about organizations or individuals who have had a hand in shaping Chattanooga’s identity. “When we started looking at our local history archives, we realized they’re pretty homogenous,” says Hill. “They tell pretty much the same story about the same people and the same families. That’s not what this town is. Chattanooga is much bigger than that.”

Hill isn’t the only one tracking Chattanooga’s rapidly evolving narrative. In their new book, New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak use the city of Chattanooga as a positive case study, describing how the once “most polluted city in the United States” began to wipe away its industrial grime during the 1990s. Then in 2009, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB) laid the groundwork for “21st century businesses and 21st century lifestyles” by bringing Gig-a-byte speeds to the city with more than 9,000 miles of fiber installed in the metropolitan area. Before long, the Gig City rebranded a 140-acre expanse in the heart of downtown as the Innovation District.

As the city hustled to repurpose abandoned buildings and develop new structures to accommodate the influx of new people and ideas, many entrepreneurs set up shop at the downtown branch of the library. “A lot of the first startups that came to town and needed a place to hang out and get some work done,” Hill says. Even though new coworking spaces and incubators soon arrived downtown, the kinds of places with “beer on tap”, the library’s role in the startup scene has not been diminished. In fact, the downtown branch just hosted a Creative Entrepreneur Conference.

The place with the craft beer she’s referring to is the main hub of the Innovation District, today: a ten-story building known as The Edney. The library faces this two-tone slate grey tower that houses several startups, nonprofits, and hosts numerous networking events. Hill sees the library not as a competitor with The Edney, but rather a place where someone can bring an idea “and experiment and see if it has legs.” If it does, then they can graduate to The Edney, where there are industry connections and organizations to help secure funding. Hill sees the library as “the front door” to the Innovation District.

The Chattanooga Public Library has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people in the past few years, but Hill is still excited for future projects. She says, “I come in everyday and I’m terrible—I only see the things that still have to be done. And people have to remind me that we’ve done a lot in six years.”

So, what’s next for the downtown branch?

On the second floor, along with the recording studio, Hill envisions a full commercial kitchen where young people can learn simple culinary skills and gain crucial nutritional knowledge. Hill expresses that this cooking school, like the sewing lab before it, are not 21st century home economic classes—she does not want to perpetuate outdated gender roles. Instead, she’s focused on creating places where anyone can learn a new skill.

Hill is cooking up other ideas as well, like an outdoor venue on a second floor rooftop area. “We already get calls from people who want to get married here. So I can see it being a venue option in the Innovation District—with a view of the Innovation District.”

There is a mix of pride, excitement, and awe in Hill’s voice when she talks about the Chattanooga Public Library. By listening to her creative team and the community, she’s made incredible advancements both technologically, and philosophically, in the library. But she admits there was one voice she ignored early on. “I remember when I first came here, there was a report that recommended the library be sold and moved, but I felt the energy in this city. I remember it like a magnet … and I knew we were right in the middle of it. So I said, there’s no way we’re selling. This is the center of what’s happening.”

Supplemental Reading