published Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Renovation inspiration: New York looks to Chattanooga’s library as it updates


See a YouTube video of librarian Nate Hill's presentation at the third annual Stavros Niarchos Foundation International Conference on Philanthropy in Athens, Greece. The speech begins at 36:44.

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    Calvin Robinson, second from left, works with Jarian Green, left, Tyler Hawkins, second from right, and Robert Brown as they connect circuits with littleBits electronic modules during the Electronics Engineering for Tweens program at the Chattanooga Public Library.
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Despite a long-standing reputation as havens for peace and quiet, libraries are starting to recognize that surviving in the digital age means blowing up a convention or two.

In the last two years, Chattanooga Public Library Executive Director Corinne Hill and her staff have made a lot of noise, enacting sweeping changes that have transformed it from a book repository into a technological think tank and creative incubator.

As a result, institutions around the country are using the Scenic City as a model for their own revitalization efforts. On June 29, The Wall Street Journal reported that the New York Public Library is looking to Chattanooga and a library at North Carolina State University in Raleigh for ideas to help shape a $300 million renovation of its flagship branch in Manhattan.

"It's certainly a validation that what we're doing is on the right track with providing library services in a 21st-century learning environment," Hill said, a framed copy of Library Journal proclaiming her 2014's Librarian of the Year sitting on a shelf behind her.

"Having other libraries look at what we're doing and speak to us -- beyond being supercool -- is very reaffirming about the work that we're doing," she added.

Nate Hill, the library's assistant director for technology and digital initiatives -- and no relation to Corinne Hill -- said he is in the earliest stages of discussions with the New York librarians. He worked previously with many of them before taking over stewardship of the 14,000-square-foot maker space on the fourth floor of the downtown Chattanooga branch.

Hill said he expects the discussion to touch primarily on space planning and staff organization, both of which have been crucial to some of Chattanooga's innovative services, such as the Fourth Floor creative lab and many of the teen and pre-teen initiatives on the second floor.

New York is the latest in a long line of libraries whose interest has been piqued by the recent efforts in Chattanooga. It has attracted representatives from libraries as far away as Kansas City, Seattle, Denmark and Australia.

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    Zac Offutt connects circuits with littleBits electronic modules during the Electronics Engineering for Tweens program at the Chattanooga Public Library.
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Many of Chattanooga's librarians also have preached about the challenges and rewards of innovating at conferences around the world. Nate Hill just returned from a speaking engagement at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Conference on Philanthropy in Athens, Greece. On Thursday, Corinne Hill will speak about The Library of the Future at the WorldFuture 2014 conference in Orlando.

The library's tight embrace of technology has earned it plenty of attention as well. Last year, Chattanooga was featured in a Time magazine article on the future of libraries. In April, the library received a Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund grant to create a cloud-based musical education collaboration in partnership with Barger Academy of Fine Arts.

The interest in Chattanooga's library isn't the result of the staff breaking new ground, Nate Hill said, but rather because they are acting on initiatives that never advance beyond the conference room at other institutions.

"People like to have something that they can actually reference rather than a whole lot of theory," he said. "It's government, so when someone else has done it first, it makes it that much easier to do it in your own city."

One of most important takeaways New York and other libraries can have from Chattanooga's success, he said, might be the realization that it isn't inextricably tied to a monumental budget.

"There's this interesting impression that people have that, 'We can't do that. They just have so much money in Chattanooga,' but that's totally not the case," Hill said, laughing.

"For this change to happen all over the place, people need to let go of the feeling that, 'I don't have a lot of money, I can't do this.' It's all about working with other people."

Contact Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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