Chattanooga Public Library director introduces new strategy

photo Corinne Hill

Standing before a seated group on the top floor of a library, her library, Corinne Hill offered a cold eulogy.

"A library that clerks these huge warehouses of stuff with that musty smell where you were always just a 'Shhhh' away from getting in trouble?" Hill started. "Absolutely that library is dead. It's gone. It's over."

Hill, the Chattanooga Public Library's executive director, met with the City Council and others on the fourth floor of the library Tuesday morning to present her vision for the facility's future. When she moved to Chattanooga a year ago, Hill said, that same floor was used for nothing more than storage -- "30 years' worth of hoarding."

Now, it's for meetings. It's a community space, one she doesn't want to define until the citizens define it themselves. The rest of the Public Library needs to change, too, she said. It needs to push the use of technology further. It needs to emphasize customer service more.

Hill rarely looked at her notes and often clicked her black high heels against the concrete floor Tuesday morning. When talking about the purpose of her job, she referenced the first known libraries from 3,000 years ago. Halfway through, she pulled up a consultant in Toronto named Stephen Abram and projected his image on a wall for a philosophical Skype session.

Last January, the Public Library board hired Hill to upgrade operations, and they did so at an upgraded price. The city pays her $121,000 per year, according to Time Free Press archives. David Clapp, the previous director, took home $84,423.

Hill said Tuesday that the library will use technology better going forward. When one member of the staff left, she filled the position with someone who could write HTML code. The new hire didn't have a background in libraries, but Hill didn't care. She needs someone to make the computer catalog look prettier so it is easier to use. She also wants to improve the library's online presence.

"Our website bites," she said. "It's so bad."

She thinks the library should teach children how to use technology. She wants to host a "code camp" about writing computer programs. She wants to change the library's summer reading program. They shouldn't just read books, she said. They should read blog posts and make videos and review stories online.

For the most part, Hill said, the library can make these changes without increased funding. Since she took over, she has shifted how it spends money. She stopped paying for reference books that tell you everything you need to know about American companies, for example, because Hill thinks people can find that information online for free. She also stopped paying for some publications like medical journals because, she said, doctors and med school students aren't exactly rushing to the public library to learn the newest developments in neuroscience.

For some ideas, like the restructuring of that fourth floor where she spoke Tuesday, Hill concedes that she would need more money from the city. This year, Chattanooga gave its library about $5.7 million.

Councilwoman Pam Ladd attended the library's planning meeting last year as well as Tuesday's presentation.

Depending on who wins the mayor's race, "I'd be surprised if we don't see at least the same level -- if not an increased level -- of interest in funding," she said.

Hill also talked Tuesday about how library employees need to understand their customers. They need to be smart about spending money.

As she spoke about this, Hill hopped in her heels, yelling, "I'm a 'give-them-what-they-want' girl!"