Scores come to Chattanooga Public Library to study library innovation

photo People gather around tables to talk Thursday at the 2014 Library Journal Directors' Summit held at the Chattanooga Public Library. The summit drew librarians from across the country to discuss the transformations of libraries in the digital age.

The fourth floor of the Chattanooga Public Library buzzed with conversation Thursday. A slew of bespectacled librarians chattered loudly, not a single one hissing "Shhh."

It was fitting, as they were all there to learn how Chattanooga is leaving behind the concept of a traditional library.

The more than 100 library directors and administrators from all over the continent were there to kick off an annual two-day summit put on by the Library Journal, a niche publication that focuses on all things library. The chief goal was for bibliophiles from Virginia Beach, Va., to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and everywhere in between, to share ideas about how libraries can stay relevant in a changing world.

"This is something that is trending across the nation -- how different libraries are changing with their communities," Library Journal Editorial Director Rebecca Miller said.

Nationwide, libraries are losing funding, information is being streamed into peoples' homes and more and more libraries are becoming static places. Miller said Chattanooga is at the forefront of overcoming those challenges for public libraries.

But the Chattanooga library's renovated second-floor children's center and its fourth-floor creative lab are two examples of how the local library has engaged the public and worked toward bringing more people in, Miller said.

The second floor is open only to children and teens and includes music and video studios, a teen center and a space for infants. The fourth floor is a vast creative space that is home to a 3D printer and a computer lab. The space also serves as a meeting place for various tech-savvy groups.

The spaces are lauded, but library Director Corinne Hill faced heavy criticism when she removed much of the library's archival collection to make room for them soon after she was hired in 2012. The local library has been scrutinized for its management of more than $40,000 in travel expenses over two years.

A city audit found that Hill, along with two other library employees, had been inappropriately reimbursed for nearly $3,000 in travel expenses. The findings led to former Systems Administrator Meg Backus resigning and Assistant Library Director Nate Hill being suspended after the auditor found they had been paid for speaking engagements while on library time. Both were reported to the Tennessee Comptroller's Office for suspected fraud.

But Corinne Hill said on Thursday that exploration and travel are the way the library as an institution will survive.

"I think this demonstrates how we all work, because we learn from each other. Librarians are curious people," Hill said. "It just happens that we are in a global community. It's not just Nashville and Atlanta anymore."

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said during the event's opening ceremonies that the library has the full support of his administration and is a key part of the community.

"We are taking what libraries have been in the past and transforming them into the modern day," Berke said. "Those same functions that libraries have served our communities then are there for the people who need them."

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.