A number of people were surprised that I was going off the beaten track down to Chattanooga for the last stop of my study tour. However Chattanooga Public Library is led by 2014 Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year, Corinne Hill, who in the past three years, with a team of hand-picked librarians from around the States, has turned the library’s fortunes around quite dramatically. Corinne was brought in as Executive Director in 2012 following an independent consultant report which deemed the library to be failing and irrelevant. Chattanooga Public Library is a big space but it does not have the big budget that some of the other libraries I’ve visited have. It is a challenging 1970s concrete building with large open spaces, the floors are reminiscent of aircraft hangers, but by using the space to their advantage Corinne and her leadership team have demonstrated what can be done, providing innovative new spaces with a limited budget. It is still a work in progress and so far most effort has been concentrated on the 4th floor makerspace and the 2nd floor Teens/Tweens and Children’s areas. Much has been written and talked about Chattanooga’s 4th floor and it has been heralded for it’s creative innovation, however it was the 2nd floor Teen/Tween areas that really caught my eye…but I’ll start at the top.
I met with Corinne Hill and Assistant Director Mary Jane Spehar, they gave me an insight into some of the changes that have taken place in the last couple of years.
The 4th floor is the best known area putting Chattanooga at the forefront of the makerspace movement in libraries but a lot of other changes have taken place. One of the major changes has been the way the library order’s stock, in the past up to 19 people selected the stock, this process has been streamlined, stock is now ordered by two people and new stock is pre-processed. Corinne’s view is that when a book is released it should be available in the library on the same day. If a new book is popular and there are many reservations for it, additional copies are now purchased.
Corinne introduced a patron request system, the premise being that it is cheaper to purchase a paperback book than pay for the cost of staff time and postage for inter-library loans. The promise is that the library will purchase requests that patrons ask for and the patron will be the first person to borrow that book or DVD. It is not a complete carte blanche, the items requested have to fit within the bounds of the collection policy and be available to purchase. Since 2012 there have been 11,000 patron requests. The library is now finding that by adding to their collection in this way, they are purchasing a broader range of materials that are popular with patrons and may not have been chosen by librarians. The process of actively partnering with the community to build the collection is very popular with patrons, patrons feel that the library is listening to them and requests can be turned around within a week.
They have bought into many online services including several for eBooks and eAudio books and an online film streaming service. Very extensive weeding had to take place to make room for the new areas which was quite controversial at the time.
Other changes that took place were investment in customer service training and practices and changes to recruitment. Customer comment cards are placed all around the building for customers to give feedback, every comment is followed up by Mary Jane. Corinne visited an Apple Genius Bar to get her phone fixed and was impressed with the service and staff so she asked Apple for their job description and application form and had them adapted for the library, they then advertised for ‘smart people’. This gave them some new staff who have different skill sets to complement existing staff with library backgrounds.
There has been an institutional cultural shift underway at the Chattanooga Public Library, not all staff have reacted well to the changes that have been made but the process is ongoing and Corinne believes that to create institutional change takes five years. A forthcoming staff day training will be used to highlight to all staff the different activities that happen on the 2nd and the 4th floor.
I was shown around the 4th floor makerspace by Mary Barnett (4th floor operations) and Elizabeth Gaffney (assistant). The floor had been used as a storage space prior to Corinne’s arrival, it was completely cleared and now offers 12,000 square feet of public laboratory and educational space. After trying various hours and days they decided that the best times for the floor to be open are Tuesdays to Saturdays 2-8pm. The space is staffed by three part-time assistants, it is often single staffed and occasionally double staffed. The mantra on the 4th floor is that the library is there to facilitate, it is all about self-directed learning, the staff are learning too so won’t do the work for people but can help if needed, the ethos is to allow people to learn themselves. Originally the floor was designed to be a conduit for people to be self-organised, however they are now trying to start some introductory workshops to help people get started in the space. Where possible they ask people in the community to come and share some of their skills rather than relying on staff to learn enough to teach. The focus of the 4th floor is to support production, connection and sharing of knowledge by providing access to tools, facilities and space.
The most popular item on the 4th floor is the 3D printer, the filament is charged at cost ($0.06 per gram) so most items printed cost no more than about $1.50. Other popular items include a zine making area – essentially cutting, sticking and folding to make small magazines. There is also a fabric making area with a loom and sewing machine, a vinyl plotter and a laser cutter as well as an area with traditional tools.
The floor also houses the GigLab, Chattanooga is the Gig City, one Gigabit per second internet speed is available to every household and business in the city by super-fast fibre optic broadband. The GigLab offers one Gigabit of connectivity throughout the library and through the WiFi, it also offers a 4K extremely high definition screen, an audio visual streaming system and virtual servers. Popular recent additions are two Oculus Rift headsets enabling virtual reality gaming.
The 3rd floor has more of a traditional library feel and houses the genealogy and local history collections as well as a computer suite dedicated to local studies and family history databases.
Teens and Tweens area
The Teens and Tweens area covers over half of the second floor, it used to be the adult non-fiction area but in the last couple of years it has been completely cleared out. Now there are Chromebooks for teens to use in the library and there is no enquiry desk, there are usually one to two members of staff who floorwalk and the space is filled with lots of interesting ever-changing things for teens to do.
Megan Emery is a librarian based on the 2nd floor, she designs the programming for the teen and tween department and also the programming for the 4th floor makerspace. She is currently focusing on parallel programming ideas between the 2nd and 4th floors, making the 4th floor more family orientated and a natural progression for young adults from the teen area. This will enable trips to the library to become a greater whole family experience.
Megan has worked on Etsy’s Entrepreneurship Program for libraries, with her knowledge from this programme she has developed a weekly Saturday teen camp called Camp EtsyNooga, it runs over five weeks and is aimed at helping teens start their own small creative businesses. The teens need to come along with a product that they have made or designed and sessions concentrate on helping them with pricing, replicating their product and marketing. At the end of the camp they attend and sell their products at a craft fair.
The 2nd floor has an interesting range of walk up program stations, these are not operated by staff and again the focus is on self-directed learning. Through a series of focus groups they asked teens and tweens what they would like to see in the space, so the programming is developed with the users’ input. The stations include a gaming area, Minecraft stations, a MaKey MaKey station (currently glasses of water linked to making music on a Chromebook), science experiments, Spirograph, a tracing table, button badge making and an iPad Instagram photo booth. There are also areas for theatre, art and a big screen for weekend movies. One of the programmes that was on while I was there, which really appealed, was “Let’s take things apart”, old electronic devices that no longer work, e.g laptops, VHS machines, radios etc., are donated to the library and the teens can spend an hour taking them apart. The programme an hour later is “Let’s put things together” here teens and tweens spend an hour making new weird and wonderful things from the items they’ve taken apart in the previous session.
Programming on the 2nd floor is extensive with multiple activities each day, many of them are advertised in the events pages but many are just put on at short notice if teens want them and there are always a range of walk up stations.
There is also of course a book area and some staff recommendations to help teens decided what to read. The manga and graphic novels are particularly popular. Teens are encouraged to sit back and read for 20 minutes if they are spending time on the gaming station and want to change a game.
Megan operates a teen volunteer programme where she has about 180 teens and tweens who help out. There are no set roles and no set times. It is very flexible, they can turn up and there is always an ongoing list of (real) things to do which maybe about developing programmes, designing craft areas, art projects, helping on walk up stations. Volunteers are initially trained to do pop-up programmes, take statistics, engage with patrons. Some experienced teens also provide peer to peer learning, teaching and supporting new volunteers. Over 800 hours were donated in August alone.
I was shown around the Children’s area by Lee Hope, Youth Services Coordinator. This area had been rows and rows of shelving with no seating, it is now an open space where children and their carers want to spend time. Similarly to the Teen and Tween area there are lots of walk up programme stations, fun things for children to do based on STEAM learning (STEM plus the arts). These include Lego and Duplo tables, sensory pods, hopscotch taped on the floor, postcard writing, a dressing up area and magnet letters. Story times take place in a separate children’s events room and it was interesting to hear that they also deliver a regular sensory story time, they find these are particularly good for children with autism as well as visually impaired or deaf children.
The entrance of the library combines a coffee shop with the circulation desk, all circulation staff make coffee as well. It is aptly named ‘Circulation and Percolation’. The coffee shop breaks even, it is not there to raise funds but provides an additional service to customers. The rest of the 1st floor houses the adult fiction, non-fiction, 20 public computers, magazines, DVDs and audio books.
I’d like to thank everyone at Chattanooga Public Library for their time and the information they shared. There are many inspiring ideas here that can easily be adapted to suit other libraries.