New director, young guns guiding Chattanooga's library system through a renaissance

photo Justin Hoenke, Corinne Hill, Nate Hill, Alei Burns, and Meg Backus, from left, are bringing new and innovative programs to the library, such as the 4th Floor creative lab and the teen and children's center.
photo Alei Burns, youth service manager and early literacy specialist.
photo Justin Hoenke, teen librarian.
photo Meg Backus, systems administrator and chief "maker."
photo Nate Hill, assistant director for technology and digital initiatives.
photo Corinne Hill, executive director.

ABOUT THE TEAMALEI BURNSAge: 38Hometown: New York City.Title: Youth service manager and early literacy specialist.Favorite book: “The Tale of Despereaux” by Kate DiCamillo.Last book she read: “Monster High” by Lacey Harrison.Favorite literary genre: Young adult fiction.Twitter handle: @AleiRawkJUSTIN HOENKEAge: 33Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa.Title: Teen librarian.Favorite book: “Big Joe’s Trailer Truck” by Joe Mathieu.Last book he read: A choose-your-own-adventure book.Favorite literary genre: Music biography.Twitter handle: @JustinLibrarianMEG BACKUSAge: 33Hometown: Mason, Mich.Title: Systems administrator and chief “maker”Favorite book: “The Brothers Karamozov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.Last book she read: “Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership” by Lewis Hyde.Favorite literary genre: All of them.Twitter handle: @MegBackusNATE HILLAge: 39Hometown: Vestal, N.Y.Title: Assistant director for technology and digital initiatives.Favorite book: “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman.Last book he read: “The Snowy Day” by Jack Keats.Favorite literary genre: General nonfiction.Twitter handle: @NateNateNateCORINNE HILLAge: 50Hometown: St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.Title: Executive director.Favorite book: “Watership Down” by Richard Adams.Last book she read: “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action” by Simon Sinek.Favorite literary genre: General fiction.Twitter handle: N/ALEARN MORE• For general updates on the library, visit• See what’s happening on the 4th Floor at• View the personal websites for Justin Hoenke and Nate Hill at and

When Corinne Hill came to town in March 2012 to take over as the executive director of Chattanooga’s library system, her first act was to give her new home a bath.

“I had the building power washed,” Hill recalls, sitting at the head of a long wooden table in the downtown branch’s third-floor conference room. “You get that grime off, and it’s amazing what you find underneath.”

After the walls were taken care of, Hill tackled other cosmetic improvements to the Broad Street building, including touching up the landscaping and bringing long-forgotten works of art and pieces of designer furniture out of storage. She also gave the maintenance staff the task of getting the water flowing once more over the stack of metal books in the entrance plaza fountain.

But her plans go far deeper than just surface-level looks. Over the last 18 months, Hill has fostered a culture of change and innovation that has affected nearly every aspect of the library, from how its book and film collections are managed to its newfound role as a technical and creative brain trust for the city.

To help realize her vision for a library that could serve a new, expanded role in the digital age, Hill headhunted a group of young, free thinkers from around the nation, individuals whose novel ideas and projects already had made them veritable rock stars of the library world.

They came from all over — Maine, upstate New York, California and Texas — and brought video games, programming tutorials, 3-D printing and even rock music into a space some people still think of in singular terms as a dusty, quiet storehouse of books. In 18 months, they have, in no uncertain terms, turned the decades-old concept of what the library is and the role it can play in Chattanooga on its head.

In the process, their work has attracted national and international attention and put them in the spotlight as resources for other libraries to follow suit.

But first, Hill says, she had to get out of their way.

“I didn’t want to come here and work the way I’ve worked in other libraries,” she says. “I didn’t want that structured, bureaucratic environment where you couldn’t make anything happen.

“I wanted to create an environment where people could come and do really exciting things for the community, really give back to the community. I think we’re making great strides to doing that.”

She and her team say that, by shoving the lumbering behemoth of bureaucracy out of the way — as much as possible — they’ve been able to act on new proposals and gather data on how the public responds to them instead of sitting around a conference table, prematurely sabotaging ideas in their infancy.

“I don’t want to sit around and talk about it,” Hill explains. “I don’t want to say, ‘In three years [we’ll make it happen].’ I want to do it. You can do that here.”


Sitting together at the same table last week during a rare lull in their schedules, the four new hires turned their energy and enthusiasm to applauding each other’s successes.

“I’m now working with this whole system that’s full of people who are approaching it from the same angle that I am, so it feels like the wind is at my back,” says systems administrator Meg Backus, who Hill wooed away in September from the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, N.Y., where she served as public relations director and programming coordinator.

Backus came to Chattanooga with a history of inventive projects already under her belt, including the LibraryFarm, a half-acre organic community garden on her former library’s property in New York, and a creative maker space she established at the Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, N.Y.

“I don’t do a lot of public stuff, but it doesn’t feel like I’m behind the scenes or in the background,” she says. “I feel like I’m part of it.”

Backus was Hill’s second hire. She joined Nate Hill, who took over as assistant director for technology and digital initiatives in July 2012. Teen Librarian Justin Hoenke was hired in November 2012, while Youth Service Manager Alei Burns came onboard in April.

Despite their different areas of expertise, team members say they see themselves as a single working unit that’s reinventing the library.

“I think the chemistry we have is absolutely essential to the change that we’ve brought to this place,” Nate Hill says. “If the chemistry was wrong, it wouldn’t work this way.”

The most recent target of their collective back slapping is a story from national news outlet about a “Ms. Pac-Man” arcade cabinet that teen librarian Justin Hoenke found on Craig’s List and set up in the library’s teen center. The article references an “inspiring essay” Hoenke wrote about using video games to build a sense of community in libraries.

“I always think about how, during my teen years when I should have been in the library, I was in the arcade. There was a community that developed around the arcade machine. I wanted to bring that memory I had to life in the library,” Hoenke explains, a tattoo of Link from the video game “The Legend of Zelda” prominently emblazoned on his right forearm.

“Ms. Pac-Man” is the latest in a string of creative outreaches to teens that Hoenke has made since moving to Chattanooga from the Portland Public Library in Portland, Maine, where he also was a teen librarian. Formerly housed in a first-floor alcove in the downtown branch, the teen center swapped places shortly after he arrived with the library’s adult nonfiction collection on the second floor. Now, the center is an adolescent playground full of video game consoles, computers, comics and Japanese manga.

With the center sitting opposite the children’s section, the library has concentrated its collection and programming for young readers on the second floor. Corinne Hill says she and her staff are pushing harder than ever to attract readers early and keep them coming back for more than just books, from the new Baby Bounce program for infants to serving as members of the library’s teen advisory board.

Like Corinne Hill, youth services manager Burns came from the Dallas library system, where she was a children’s librarian and a branch assistant manager. She says it’s critical that libraries reach out to children as early as possible, a view that has been driving force for the programs she has implemented since she came to Chattanooga.

“They’re never too young,” she says. “I would sign kids up in utero for summer reading if they would let me. They’ve kiboshed that so far, but I’ll work on that for next summer.”

The renaissance to the children’s/teens’ floor echoes a similar transformation that occurred two floors up.

The library’s fourth floor languished for years as a storehouse for archives and unused furniture — 14,000 square feet of wasted space. Under the direction of Nate Hill, formerly a web librarian at the San Jose Public Library in California, it has been transformed into a creative laboratory, providing access to cutting-edge “maker” equipment, including a high-resolution flatbed scanner and 3-D printer as well as the library’s gigabit Internet service.

In a Jan. 29 interview with Fox Business’ “Money” program, former mayor Ron Littlefield specifically mentioned the evolution of the library’s 4th Floor — the library’s rebranded moniker for the space — as an example of how Chattanooga is effectively luring technology specialists to the city.

“We’re making sure they have all the digital technology,” Littlefield told “Money” host Melissa Franics. “[That] floor is where they have all their geek gatherings, and it’s become the most popular floor in the library, if you can believe it.”

Vintage chairs by designers such as Harry Bertoia and Eero Saarinen once gathered dust here, but the same chairs now host the posteriors of the city’s creative thinkers. The formerly bare walls now serve as massive whiteboards covered in notes scrawled in dry-erase markers like a 21st-century version of Paleolithic cave paintings.

In the last year, the 4th Floor has been the venue for many events, including a computer “hackathon” in June, celebrating the National Day of Civic Hacking, and a Maker Day event in March touting the growing popularity of 3-D printing technology. The latter event attracted 1,200 people and garnered a mention in a June 25 article by Time magazine.

Earlier this week, the 4th Floor was the site of the Gig Tank competition’s demo day, during which teams of specialists pitched proposals for effectively taking advantage of Chattanooga’s high-speed Internet connections.

“It’s been so, so awesome being here and meeting all the people and letting loose their energy on what is essentially their own space,” Nate Hill says of the 4th Floor. “I’m really proud of the way that we’ve positioned the library as a relevant player amongst all the other players in the community. We’re at the table for the conversations, and that’s huge.”


As a result of the new blood, the new energy and the new attitude, the library’s slew of programs has placed Chattanooga on the map and attracted national attention.

Library Journal, an industry periodical, has referenced the library about a dozen times in the last year, specifically pointing to the 4th Floor as a sign of the evolution that libraries must undergo to survive in the digital age.

“The 4th Floor will set a standard for the next evolution of what we consider a library,” writes Library Journal columnist Michael Stephens in an April 18 op-ed.

Visitors from other libraries regularly show up on the library’s doorstep to see what all the fuss is about, like pilgrims traveling to view a celebrated religious relic. In recent months, the library has hosted guests from libraries as far away as Seattle, Kansas City, Mo., Detroit and Australia.

“We’re in the spotlight right now,” Nate Hill says. “We really are.”

In recent months, the group has preached the advantages of library’s new philosophy during a spree of domestic and international appearances. So many appearances, in fact, that they categorize milestone events like the late June mention by Time as “a while ago.”

“I’ve done a whole bunch of crap,” Nate Hill says, laughing. “It’s hard to keep it all straight, but it’s been fun. You’re telling the Chattanooga story and getting out there what we do and helping inform other people’s decisions.”

Since April, Hoenke has hosted teen center events such as a rock concert and a month-long summer computer coding camp. Traditionalists might think such unconventional programming is out of place in the stereotypical quiet libraries that are associated with, but they helped earn Hoenke a spot on Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers feature on March 18.

“I like it when people come in here and say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in a library,’” he says, laughing.

In June, Hoenke spoke about personal branding at the American Library Association’s national conference in Chicago while, at the same event, Backus co-hosted a workshop on turning libraries into communal maker spaces.

Each member of the team has become something of a library celebrity.

Earlier this year, Nate Hill was named to the International Network of Emerging Library Innovators, a three-year program through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of the network, he will participate in an international convention this fall in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

He also has spoken at the University of Toronto iSchool Institute Symposium in Canada and participated in an innovation seminar at the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D.C. In June, he and Corinne Hill were presenters at the NextLibrary 2013 Conference in Denmark.

At the Federal Communications Commissions’ 2013 Broadband Summit in February, Corinne Hill was invited to speak about ways anchor institutions such as libraries can take advantage of access to broadband Internet. She also has been elected to a four-year term on the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Governing Board’s Standing Committee.

On Friday, she and one other U.S. representative — Miami-Dade Public Library System Director Raymond Santiago — will travel to Singapore to speak at the committee’s World Library and Information Congress’ 79th General Conference and Assembly.


Although Hill and her recent hires are arguably the ones whose work is receiving the most attention outside Chattanooga, they say the changes at the library would never have been possible without the cooperation and shared enthusiasm of the rest of the library staff.

Shortly after she arrived, Corinne Hill replaced the Friends of the Library Book Store near the first floor entrance with Shush Cafe, a coffee bar that, unlike the bookstore, now is turning a profit. Instead of hiring new staff members to run the cafe, however, she had the existing circulation staff, some of whom had worked there for decades, trained as coffee baristas. Rather than balk at their new responsibilities, they wanted to know if they would get to wear aprons.

“It’s incredible how people have embraced the changes,” Burns says.

The culture of enthusiastic acceptance of new ideas is systemwide, from the maintenance staff to the other branches, Nate Hill adds.

“It’s much bigger than the coffee,” he says. “It’s the fact that everyone here is excited and rallying and is down with the newness. That’s just super cool.”

But the success of the library’s new programs comes with its own set of responsibilities. Now that they’ve set the pace, the team members say, they must maintain it. Moving forward, Nate Hill and Backus say they want to forge more relationships with other organizations in the city’s tech sector and to maintain the 4th Floor’s role as a breeding ground for creativity and innovation in Chattanooga.

Burns says she is determined to improve citywide literacy by expanding library programs such as Baby Bounce and Every Child Ready to Read, which will be integrated next month into children’s programming at all library branches to help build foundational reading skills.

Hoenke’s goal is more straightforward.

“I just want to keep having fun and showing the community how much fun the library can be,” he says, laughing again. “I want this to be the place teens are talking about.”

Corinne Hill says her long-range plan is to expand downtown’s programs to the city’s three neighborhood branches and to reach out even more strongly to young readers. All goals — both hers and her team’s— are achievable so long as the library and its patrons continue to be open to new ideas, she says.

“Libraries have to change, … [and] that’s what we’re doing here,” she says. “You can call it innovation and leading the pack and all these things, but what we’re doing is evolving.”

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205.