Chattanooga Public Library has evolved to meet changing demands

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Michael and Nikki Bryant peel off vinyl for their shirt designs on the fourth floor of Chattanooga Public Library's downtown branch on Friday.

When Nikki Bryant was a child, the library was a place for books, research and the occasional puppet show. Now, standing on the fourth floor of the Chattanooga Public Library's downtown branch, things look a little different.

Her husband, Michael Bryant Jr., and sons, Nikolas and MB, make T-shirts, using a computer to print words and symbols onto a vinyl sheet and then pressing the heated material into the fabric. After finishing his shirt, which is inspired by the cartoon "Naruto," MB dons a pair of virtual reality goggles and uses them to guide a small creature through a digital landscape.

The family is on holiday, Nikki Bryant explains, and MB, who has been to the library before, insisted they take a trip to the building Friday. The membership director at the Hamilton Family YMCA, Nikki Bryant said she now plans to suggest the library as a field trip.

"This is great," she said. "I would love to bring the camp kids up here just to have an experience. ... Not all of the kids get to see things like this."

Around them, guests are engaged in various other creative endeavors. A full-time graphic designer, Mars Michael is making a topographical map of the Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers for her roommate, using a computer-guided laser to engrave the design into a piece of wood.

"He'll go multiple times a month even in the middle of winter," she explained. "He really loves that place."

The fourth floor creative space is emblematic of the ways in which the Chattanooga Public Library has adapted over the years to meet the changing demands of the public. As the city emerges from the pandemic and prepares to appoint a new library director, the system is again at a point of transition. The former director, Corinne Hill, announced her departure in October after 10 years on the job.

"I think it's a natural evolution," interim Executive Director Richard Beeland said about the increasingly diverse opportunities for visitors. "Libraries have always provided people with what they wanted in the format that they wanted."

Back when videotapes were a common way to see movies and shows, libraries were loaning them out to people who didn't want to pay to rent or purchase them, Beeland said in a phone interview. That progressed to DVDs, and now, the downtown branch has 3D printers, a recording studio for podcasts, sowing machines, a studio for professional photography and a clinic where people can receive free COVID-19 and flu shots every Monday and Friday.

Beeland said the library tends to provide items many people can't afford or would otherwise struggle to find anywhere else.

"We want to make sure that for those who can't, those options are here for them," Beeland said. "The community tells us what they want, and we figure out a way to get it."

Climbing circulation

The library has seen its digital and physical circulation grow over the past 10 fiscal years, moving from 830,165 in 2014 to 1,062,606 in 2022. The library's fiscal years run from July to June. Circulation peaked in 2019 at more than 1.1 million before dipping during the pandemic to 959,013 in 2020 and then 780,931 in 2021.

Those numbers rebounded the following year, and circulation has reached almost 500,000 in the first five months of fiscal year 2023. The circulation figures take into account digital downloads, in-person checkouts and people using the facility's tool-lending library.

"While we saw a slight drop during the pandemic, we saw a large increase in people utilizing our digital branch," Beeland said, which included downloading audiobooks and e-books. "We're still seeing a large usage of that, but we're also seeing a lot more in-person circulations, too."

The library briefly closed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beeland said, but reopened shortly thereafter to offer curbside service and online programming.

"There's a lot of built-up hunger in the community for programming," Beeland said. "People were really ready to get back out and do something, so we had to gear back up and staff back up so that we're able to provide those services."

The library hosted more than 700 programs in fiscal year 2022, which Beeland said is when the organization began ramping up in-person activities as the pandemic started to wane. Fiscal year 2020 was mostly in-person except for March through June of 2020, Beeland said, but all of the 1,134 programs held in fiscal year 2021 were online.


Board questions

Beeland said almost all the library's dollars come from the city. In the past, Hamilton County also provided some funding for the library, but the city became the sole supporter after the expiration of a sales tax sharing agreement in 2012. The library had revenues totaling about $7.6 million in fiscal year 2022.

During the budget planning process earlier this year, City Councilmember Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, had questions about the return the city was seeing on its investment in the library. As part of a conversation about governance and accountability, officials toyed with the idea of seeking a change in state law that would allow the library to report directly to the mayor rather than a governing board.

At a strategic planning meeting Nov. 1, Mayor Tim Kelly's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, told council members that staff had asked the local legislative delegation about the move, but legislators did not have a tremendous amount of interest in making those changes, which would be statewide.

Officials would need to consider, he said, how much of the city's limited political capital they would be willing to spend on the issue, which would likely affect other local governments across the state.

Ellis Smith, the director of special projects in the mayor's office, reiterated in a phone call that the issue was ultimately a nonstarter with the delegation, but council members appear to be pleased with the level of accountability they're now receiving from the library.

"We're in a good place," Noel said in a phone call Dec. 5. "Are we 100% where we want to be or we feel like we need to be? No. But we have definitely addressed some of the concerns that we had, and things are looking good right now."

Going forward, Beeland said, the library is seeking City Council approval for anything spent more than $50,000, and officials will provide quarterly reports on the budget as well as programming and circulation numbers.

"It's a lot of money, and they provide oversight," Beeland said. "It's important that they know how that money is being spent, and we agree with that. We're willing and able to do anything we need to to know we're spending that money responsibly."


Director search

To find Hill's replacement, officials are now forming a search committee, which will be composed of representatives from the library's board of directors as well as the City Council, the mayor's office and the Chattanooga Public Library Foundation.

Beeland said the selection committee will ideally be in place by mid-January and will start the search process then. Although he's unsure how long it will take to find a new executive director, he hopes that will occur within 60-90 days.

According to a news release issued in October by the city of Chattanooga, Hill solidified the library as a 21st century learning destination, with officials citing growth in circulation and other achievements.

"You do a lot, you accomplish a lot, but at some point everybody moves on to the next chapter," Board Director William Sundquist said by phone about Hill's departure. "That's where she was, so we supported her decision. But, we won't take our foot off the accelerator ... and (we will) build on the foundation that she left us."

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249.