Chattanooga Public Library

This is Circulating Ideas, I’m Steve Thomas. I was pleased recently to spend some time at the Chattanooga Public Library in Chattanooga, Tennessee where in addition to traditional library services, they do some great stuff with kids, teens and maker spaces. I was given a tour of the downtown branch by branch manager Mary-Jane Spehar and was able to speak with some staff members on the second and fourth floors, and finally director Corinne Hill. I hope you enjoy learning as much as I did.

We’ll start off on the 2nd floor which houses the children’s and teen collections. First up, Justin Hoenke.

We have this really unique opportunity with the second floor because we have like 14,000 square foot of space and with all that great space comes this opportunity to build something that I don’t think hasn’t been built before, where we take kids, tweens and teens and instead of sectioning them off in their own little areas in the library, to sort of bring them all together and bring families together. So, our goal is to sort of mesh services for kids, tweens and teens and families. That’s the goal. I always point this out, I’m very influenced by, I always call them creative discovery museums, but people refer to them as children’s museums. I like how you can walk into those buildings and the first thing that they want you to do is just touch everything. Like play around in the sand, play around in the water, move these blocks around and I’m sort of taking that approach with the second floor as well. Where the, we have the tradition library stuff, the books, the computers etc, but there’s also a very welcoming presence when you step off the elevator or the stairs. It’s like touch this, play with this, possibly break this, it’s okay. So the idea is just like these creative stations that you can drop in, drop out at any time you want. It started with a button maker, like a $200 button maker and I, I seriously just set it on the table with old magazines and showed some people how to do it and like boom, like 30,000 buttons later. Any time I go out in Chattanooga, people are wearing these 1 inch punk rock size buttons that are made at the library. And it’s just, I mean my thinking behind that was  I’m just gonna get something that’s cheap and quick and easy to do and see how that goes and from there spawned like an art table, a 3D printing station, a music station, we have a record player on the second floor where, I know a lot of adults will gasp when I say this, we let 5 year olds come and pick up vinyl records and put the needle on them and scratch them and stuff. So it’s really just been, and I hate to use this term, organic process where we find things, we say are these better off in the closet or out on a table where people can try things out? And we just put them out and we see how they work. Some things work, some things don’t and we just adapt from there.

And you have your photo booth and, and you have to talk about the Awesome Bear, too. [laughs]

Yeah, I mean the photo booth is, it’s really simple, it’s seriously just an iPad in a custom designed box. So, the iPad sits in the box and it looks like a photo booth and people just come up to it and they’re like, they really just take a picture of themselves, people are really into selfies. Ha. That’s the best way that I can describe it.


And Megan Emery came up with the photo booth idea. She took a, one of those authors, you know those sort of events that publishers put out every once in awhile, like win a chance for this author to come to your library and Megan took that and was I’m not going to create a display, let’s have a photo booth. So now we have this photo booth and the awesome bear is a, a tweeting bear. I don’t think it was working when you were here but we’re, we’re making it wireless right now, so that’s why.

Okay, okay.

But, yeah it started off as, it’s a, it’s a cookie jar, like a plastic cookie jar and I always remember having a jar of ideas as a kid. Where, you know, you’d write something down, put it in there or put your wish in, something silly like that and that was a lot of fun. And, you know, you empty out the bear and you’re oh, look at what all these people wrote, that’s kind of cool. So the fourth floor people came to me one day, I believe it was Meg Backus and James McNutt and they both sort of said at the same time, you should make this bear tweet, cause you tweet a lot Justin so, you’d like that. And James came up with a very simple Python script, I think it’s 8 lines long and we hooked up the keyboard to a raspberry pi, attached it to the bear and now anything that people put into this keyboard that’s just sitting there goes in the raspberry pie, our staff can access that and then tweet it. And it’s just this kind of cool, neat thing. You know, some people haven’t tweeted before, or some people want to say something anonymous, it’s like PostSecret, but with a plastic bear and a Raspberry Pi in a library, so.

[laughs] You got, you all have a lot of creative ideas going on just in that, the library there in general, but on the second floor in particular and on the fourth floor. Do you get a lot of sort of institutional support for your ideas? Is there a good culture of experimentation there?

That was definitely one of the reasons why I came here to Chattanooga, because there is, I’m having trouble putting it into words, there’s so much support. This is, this is a library that says yes. You can give them your craziest ideas, you can give them some ideas that might not work in the long run, but the administration will always be supportive, they’ll always be willing to give it a go. We just bought a, let me think, 30 Google Chromebooks, last week actually, and we’re just going to start giving those out to patrons here on the second floor, because we needed more computers that just basically access the internet and our approach sort of to that was we’ll just have them and see how they work and if they don’t work for this use, we’ll find something else. It’s not that much of a cost and we can always put the cost somewhere else.

Right. The one thing I really liked about the second floor and you kind of alluded to it earlier is that it really is, it’s a kids only space, I mean adults are really not allowed to be there at all without an accompanying child. Do you think that gives, makes it more of a safe place for kids to sort of empower them?

I definitely think so. It, it’s been a challenge because we do want the parents and guardians to be on the floor. I think that’s really important, mixing all the generations, I always think about how it seems like in America we love to put our senior citizens in nursing homes and how I’m, I think about that and I’m, man we’re missing out on some great years with these great people who have these great stories and ideas. And here on the second floor I want that, I want that 12 year old who’s really into 3D printing to maybe run into the parent or guardian that’s hanging out with their kids on the second floor, that’s really into 3D printing and all those people just to come together and share stories and experiences. But, in terms of keeping the extra adults out, I don’t know what else to call them, the one, it’s been a challenge, you know, I think there are people that say well, you know, you have a, you have a video game arcade up in your second floor, we don’t have that. So, it’s been a challenge to sort of figure out how to explain to them yeah you don’t have that, but you know, this is why we created this space for this age group and so on and so forth. But, yeah, I, I see a lot of kids run up off the stairs and they know this is their floor now, this is their space and I guess that detachment from their parents or guardians, you can tell that’s exciting.

Also, from the second floor, I had the chance to talk to Rebecca Dunn and Megan Emery.

[Rebecca:] Our goal is to kind of make, to collaborate together so we’re all creating experiences for all ages.

[Megan:] Yeah we’re interested, I talk a lot about the seamless transition between children’s department and teen department and then teen to adults, so we’re really looking at creating a fluid experience where there are no gaps in the programming. Tweens are addressed, our earliest babies are addressed and nobody sort of falling through the cracks.

And also the idea of mentorship, so having, Megan has create, is, is developing what I think is a really innovative philosophy for teen volunteering in libraries and not just a, be helping with cutting things out or, or assisting, but to actually be involved with kids programs and that’s, I mean, what my hope is is for to have that teen participation in kids programs and then kids can see the, that leadership and aspire to that, so we can create a system of, of helping one another.

So teens are teaching teens, teens are working with kids, it’s part-mentorship for the younger people, but it’s also a peer-to-peer experience where they are sharing their knowledge and skill set in a way that they aren’t normally elevated to do so.

Justin was saying earlier that it, one of the things you’ve been wanting to try and do on the second floor is to bring the whole community together so there’s, there’s that idea of not having adults alone on the second floor, you know like parents and there was somebody that can be like on there, but you want to have sort of that whole community together, you want to have the grandparent, the parent, the kid all together, all learning together. It’s not just, not separated out, not, not only kids here and only adults there, but it’s more it’s the family floor almost.

I think, I think we’re really, well our goal is creating an experience. We want everyone to, to, to take something away from when, when they visit the second floor we would like for any age, for every age to take away a little piece of what we have to offer. It’s kind of like, you know the Lego bins where it’s a big yellow tub and it says ages, you know, 3 to 99. That’s kind of, we’re going for that, we want the zero to 99 or you know 109, we want to deliver these experiences that, that meet the needs, the learning needs of everyone that visits.


What drew you to Chattanooga? What in the atmosphere or the attitude that’s going on at the Chattanooga Public Library right now, what drew you to that?

Well I got to be honest. When, like when I first talked to Justin about coming here, I was like, I don’t think I want to, I don’t want to me, I like where I’m at right now, I’m good and then when we talked a little bit more about the culture that is here and that the, what Chattanooga Public Library is trying to achieve, I found that intoxicating. I found that, that mindset very alluring and so when I came to visit Chattanooga I feel like the city is like this is well, the city, the library, the community, everyone is trying to make something really great. There are people, I, someone told me this the other day, but something like 17,000 plus people moving here a year, we are building a place where people want to be a part of that culture of creating and supporting one another and doing that together. And that’s what I found to be the selling point for me.

Yeah, I’ve only been here, I just hit my eight month mark. But for me it was similar, I was asked sort of out of the blue, hey would you consider this and I, I loved my last library and I was like, ah, you always get that reaction, like oh I can’t leave my kids. My patrons, my people and so I had the same sort of response and then Justin said to me all I want is for you to come here and be as weird as you want and just be so you that nobody can stand it and that was, I mean, that’s just like the best thing anyone could ever tell you, right? It’s like think of something fun and then do and I’ll pay you and so I moved here sight unseen, I didn’t even visit first, I just, I gave my job two months notice and I drove down alone without my family and lived here for six months independently and I found this dizzying vibe from people that everybody here, young or old, you know, every race, everybody seems focused on how can I make the world a better place. And I’ve never, I’ve, I mean I’ve visited and I’ve lived in cities all over the world and I’ve never been in a place that was so positive and so sold on the idea that of course we can change the world for better. Like, look we’re already doing it, do you want to help? Here’s how. Like it’s so inclusive and it’s so positive.

I feel like it’s, and we’re like any library, we have areas that need to, we need to overcome and we know that and, but I feel like that drive, those cogs are turning so fast that it’s like just seeing that evolve, even in the short time I have been here has been really empowering.


Yeah, and just the willingness to try new things and if it doesn’t work, try something else. I mean, just… experimentation.


I think that people, I don’t know, people… how do I say this? We’ll get folks who visit sometimes and they’ll be like we just had to see your building and they look around and it’s like yeah, we’re just like you, we don’t have unicorns roaming the halls like, we have a great staff and everybody here is super on board and that’s what is so special.

Yeah, I think and Corinne set up a culture of bringing people doing what they’re passionate about doing, and let them do it. And that is, I think.

Very hands-on.

What is, that’s, that’s pretty much Chattanooga Public Library in a nutshell to me, so, as, I mean in my short time here you can see that shining through, that, that, her vision has kind of been let’s creating this moment.


But no unicorns yet.

No unicorns walking along.


You just wait until this year’s budget comes through, you know.

That’s what I’m doing in Chattanooga this year: [laughs] Animatronics, sparkly light-up unicorns. To do my bidding.

I believe it.

With rainbows.

You never know. That’s kind of the fun thing about working here. You never know what’s, what’s going to happen when you, when you get to work that day. You just, you don’t know.

And that’s, not to bring.

You could see a unicorn.

Not to bring it up again, I know you’re trying to wrap it up but that’s one of the beautiful things about the teen volunteer program that I built, I’ve done this at every, every other library. I’ve done this at my other libraries that I’ve worked in and it’s amazing to see the change in the kids in how invested they are and how committed to the library they become and to one another and to tell them yes, the fact that you’re really good at rainbow loom makes a difference to this area and let me tell you why in real world terms, in job terms, in college application terms, in scholarship application terms and let’s turn your life around because of this skill you have. And that’s like, it’s just everyone else here and so I’m so excited that we’re the level now where we get to bring that empowerment and that let’s do good for the world thing to kids.

I am so excited.


We’re basically just one big fist bump.

And then we move up to the fourth floor, the experimental space. My guide on the 4th floor was Geoff Millener.

So my favorite thing about DC, our nation’s capital, you can walk into any museum or, and it’s free, which is what it should be. And so I love that and I love that we’re doing something a little bit like that here. And it’s what public library’s should be doing. And so this is, we think of it as kind of public workspace. We’ve got EPV’s wireless over here, so, though I am drinking coffee, like we won’t glare at you for not buying a cup if you want to sit and camp and work for hours on end. We love having people up here doing that and it’s a place where, you know, groups come up and use it to do their work together, but you also get, you know, the chance meetings and people with ideas about what other people are working on and these kind of friendships that just kind of crop up.

And you can experiment with things here. I mean you can sort of be exposed to new tools for us, I mean some of these you might have heard of a 3D printer but you had no idea what they do and so you can come over and just play with it and.

And that’s, that’s the other thing that to me, I, a teacher I had in high school, we wrote a paper on, or he had us write a paper on kind of books versus films. And after we were done he told us how disappointed he was in every single one of us because not just about everybody made this sort of, well books are educational argument. They can be, so can, you know, films. But it’s also entertainment. So, like that notion of kind of what goes on here, we’re doing some serious stuff, but also it’s fun to come and play and if we’re also tricking the next generation of engineers and designers and doctors into learning about printers that they’re going to be dealing with, and maybe get them a little bit on that path to the kind of fun path, all the better.

The library provides all these great tools. Our 3D printers, the vinyl cutter, the design stations, a laser cutter, we have a loom, we are soon to have a printing press, we’ve got traditional workshop tools, soldering irons and power tools and things like that. And it’s a, I don’t know, kind of this place to mess around, apply some of this stuff that you’ve heard about.

And it’s neat that it’s not all just the high-techy stuff, I mean it’s like you said, you have a loom, you have sewing machines, you have things like that as well.


Any kind of way you can learn and create together.

We have this crazy. Yeah, it’s this kind of crazy history of printing on this floor. It’s definitely relevant to libraries and for the longest time it, patrons come up, like oh can I print out my worksheet or something like that. Well actually we don’t have that kind of printer. You know if you could do it in 3D, sure, or if you want it as a vinyl wall decal, you know I can handle that, but no the regular printing, going to be an issue. I’m, so we have a pair of maker box, the ross stock which I was actually about to start soldering on, is one that we put together from a kit and then we just got this object 30, it’s through geek tank and it’s going to be this face that’s housed during the project, so we’ve got four printers up here now. I had not seen a 3D printer before I started working here and I have since pulled, I mean each of these ones apart a couple dozen time, times apiece. And, you know, put one together. It’s, I don’t know, become a lot of my job is keeping these things running which is not what you expect as a librarian. It’s fun, it’s been a, it’s been different, I like, I’ve worked on old cars and things like that, so it’s definitely been good for my skill set and I feel like it’s kind of the attitude we have about things up here is pull it apart, see how it works. If something isn’t working, you know, there’s a good chance we should be able to fix it ourselves so why not, why not give it a go? We also do, we have our own programming. We try and do, James teaches a sort of intro to HTML, a little bit beyond what, kind of your traditional computer classes are like. We have this Arduino Night on Thursdays, there’s always some sort of project going on but it’s this big kind of community class, the past two classes have been taught by a local high school senior, really, really smart kid. I teach a couple on 3D printing and so we’re working on kind of expanding both what we the librarians offer and getting people with all these crazy interests who come up here to be able to share those and we are, that’s the thing that we’re so lucky now that we’ve beaten all of the storage back is that we have this space. So much of what we have up here is digital, but the connection with the actually like physically making and doing and, it’s one of the things that I love about Arduino Night especially is this, you know, we’re doing the computer programming, but then we’re doing this circuit building and then moving beyond that is kind of like what can you do with them, what are the practical applications of this stuff. And I think, you know, having that, the tangible connection, that was always in college for me as well is sometimes you can get caught a little bit in the, the esoteric and, and, you know, we’ve, a lot about the fourth floor is this, you know, it the future of libraries and things like that.

It is, it is big ideas and things, but having that kind of solid connection to, you know, being, still being a real library for people and a real space to come visit and do stuff is huge and it’s, it’s more than just, you know, this kind of test tube I guess.

And finally, I was pleased to have a sit-down interview with Executive Director Corinne Hill.

I want to start with something that seems like a tiny little detail when I was looking at your website, but I thought it was, it kind of encapsulates the kind of things you’re doing in Chattanooga, which is that when you go to the sort of contact us page, administration page, your pictures are there and that, I think that’s very, I don’t, you don’t see that a lot in, on library websites. You don’t see the library administration peoples’ pictures and it’s your pictures and it’s very welcoming and opening. I didn’t know if you did that intentionally, to put your pictures right up there.

It’s most definitely intentional because we definitely want to be face out, we want to be very transparent about what we do. It’s really interesting because I just got an email from someone just this morning that he had difficulty finding my contact information on the website, so it’s one of those things that is constantly being, being reviewed and looked at and put into, you know mistakes are quickly pointed out. But the good things are quickly pointed out as well. One of the plans for that is also to drill a little bit deeper into who we are so that we can talk about our interests, not just in libraries and information, but, you know, something about ourselves personally as well so that it becomes not just our pictures, but people can get to know us just a little bit better as well.

Yeah, it’s kind of nice, especially because the branch managers are on their too so people will go to the individual branches, they know, kind of who is in charge, kind of, so they see the face of the library before they even come in, so. When you took over the Chattanooga Public Library a couple of years ago I think things were admittedly kind of not in the best shape here, but the city seemed to notice that and they really wanted to improve everything. What was the potential you saw here?

I thought the potential here was huge, especially because as you just said that the city recognized it. They recognized that they had an under-performing library and they wanted it to change. So the willingness to change is huge, right. But what I saw was a library that by getting the community involved and the community was ready to be involved, probably would make a huge change. And there were just some really basic 21st century public library things that could be done and what I kept calling low hanging fruit, right, just really basic things that we could do to make it more appealing. We cleaned up the facilities, you know, we weeded the collections, we bought stuff that people wanted, I stopped, one of the things that horrified me when I came here was that we were charging for popular materials. I mean, philosophically, you know, where do you begin with that, I mean there was just horrifying and so that was really easy to just, you don’t do that any more and you buy enough copies to meet demand.

You start getting more into a digital download environment, I realized that we were in a big city and the library was not a gig, so getting the, getting the network and the infrastructure in place for this facility so that we could provide high speed broadband to everyone, whether you could afford it or not wouldn’t be an issue, it wouldn’t be an issue. So there were just all of this low hanging fruit when I got here and I, I did read the report that June Garcia and Susan Cant wrote that came out, I think, in 2009, prepared in 2008. I’m a fixer though, I like things that are broken so that was really attractive to me. But knowing that you were coming in with huge support, I mean that’s, that’s easy, that’s an easy call.

Yeah cause I, that seems to be one of the biggest fights libraries have a lot of times, is getting that support, but it’s so nice to just walk right in and say they want you to make changes, they want you to fix this, so they recognize what was going on and I did like that, I read that one of the first things you did and you mentioned that a little bit there, that you came in, power washed the building, you got the fountain going again, it’s sort of, it’s almost kind of like that thing where they say if you’re in a bad mood, just go ahead and smile and then you’ll actually get in a good mood. I also saw when you got out of your initial interview, you went right outside and called your husband and said if they give, if they offer me this I’m coming. What his reaction to that? [laughs]

He’s like, all right, babe, we’ll talk about it when we get home. Why don’t you just head out to get your flight, we’ll talk about this when you get home. He knew I was real set, that I was ready to launch and do something really different and I wanted to be in a place where I could spread my wings and really test my medal and so, he’s incredibly supportive, in fact he’s coming on Sunday, he’s here for the summer, he’s a college professor so his schedule is pretty, is a lot better than mine, but he’ll be here for the summer, he comes tom, Sunday, so that’s kind of exciting. So he’s a huge support, he’s huge support.

Are you also living back and forth?

Yeah we’re doing the commuter thing, which actually, it’s been two years, it’s working out pretty well, but, like I said, he’s a college professor so, you know, he has spring break, he has Christmas break, he’s got summer off, it’s, so it’s not, it’s not as, it’s not like it sounds, it’s actually, yeah, and quite frankly it’s given me the space that I needed to do the work I needed to do here because I work all the time. Somebody asked me not too long ago what I did for, in my spare time, and I, I couldn’t answer them and I’m not usually rendered speechless and I just looked and said, huh, isn’t that an interesting question because I had nothing, I had nothing, so, I need to work on that a little bit I think. But if he’d been here full time that would have been much harder for me to do, so.

Yeah, well, you probably would have felt more bad that you were working all the time, that, oh he’s over there and I’m over here.

Oh yeah, it would have been, I mean it would have definitely tested the relationship in a very different way than it’s being tested by distance, right. So, but it’s all good, it’s all good.

Well, one of the things I did see also, that you used to, when you went on vacation, you did the typical library thing where you bought a big pile of a dozen books, but you’ve been converted, sure, you’ve been converted now kind of to the e-book. Do you still read a lot of e-books? I mean I know maybe you don’t have the spare time to, but when you do read, do you still read e-books generally?

I’m still on e-books, I am on e-books, it’s really funny because I got pulled into the e-book phenomenon and my husband, we used to go in this beach, we’d go on this beach vacation every Christmas and I read a lot. It was like I’m not carrying your stuff any more and I said well I’ll carry it and he’s like no you won’t, you’ll say that now but you’re not going to do it. And so I’m not doing it any more, you need to do e-books. So, this woman I knew in Dallas, 8, she’s like 85, she’s like honey you don’t have to do it all the time, you can just do it when you travel and I was like, oh, you’re so right. So now I own it, right, I really, really like it, especially when I’m on the road and when I’m in the beach and I love the idea that I can download from anywhere, I think that’s fabulous. I still can’t, I still love my magazines, I’ve got to have the, I’ve got to have that slick paper in my hands. I have, and I tried, I tried Zinio and tried doing the magazines online, it’s not the same. So I, I’m not there but someday you can mix it up right, I mean I walked the walk and it’s like oh my gosh, I can do more than one.

That’s what I always do too, I try to, I do a little bit of both. I mean because it’s nice to have sort of books on my phone or my iPad or whatever because when I’m out somewhere and if I’m standing in line somewhere I can go, I can just open up my book and read.

You read when you stand in line too?


I do the same thing, I do the same thing.

I figure it’s, yeah, I figure it’s that or I have to sit there and play Angry Birds or whatever. So, the whole little game I’m playing.

I know. If I’m standing in place at all I’ve got something open to read, it’s, and I’ve been like it my whole life, yeah, so.

Yeah now it’s just more convenient than having to shove a book in.

Absolutely, and I love how it syncs, so it’s like if I’ve been reading on my Kindle and then if I want to pull it up on my phone, I’m in the same place. Boy, talk about, I mean, I’m all about convenience right.

Yeah, sync’s very important.

Yeah it’s great, it’s so great, so.

I will, what kind of digital tools do you guys provide here at Chattanooga? You mentioned Zinio.

We buy e-books in any, on any platform we can get our hands on so that we can offer as many titles as possible. We buy everything we can get our hands on for e-books. We do e-audio, we’ve gone to Hoopla with Midwest Tape, they do streaming films and streaming audio, so you get away from having to download it, you get away from the CDs. So we’ve done that, that’s pretty exciting. You know we’ve gone back and forth on whether we were going to do music or not and we ultimately decided not to and we, in that it was a really interesting conversation in my leadership team that they, because ultimately we decided music is free and every, if you really want your music, that’s, you’ve got Pandora, you’ve got Spotify, do we really need to pay tax pay, use tax payer dollars to buy streaming music? To provide, it just seemed off to us, right, it seemed really off and I think we’re one of, you know people are like you’re not doing music? It’s like no music’s free, go to Pandora, we don’t, and again it’s like, it’s all about how do we spend taxpayer dollars and is this, does this make sense and does it make sense for us, right. So ultimately we decided against that but it was, it was a very interesting conversation with my group.

Yeah I mean you, you want to invest in all these neat things but you had, it has to make sense and it has to be responsible for the taxpayer, so.

Exactly, exactly and if there’s another way for us to get you access, or for you to have that access, then we need to consider that, you know, so, so yeah we kind of backed off of that.

Well to some degree, I mean you’re offering WiFi and so you can kind of say, you can do Pandora and you can use our WiFi to do it, so.

Exactly, exactly and I really love, love that we offer high speed broadband via wireless, that’s so sweet. That’s such a nice service and every time that I leave town and I go somewhere that doesn’t have high speed broadband and they just have broadband, like DSL, it’s, it’s so funny cause I’m just like how do you live like this? I just don’t know how you do it because it changes your life, it’s a game-changer.

Yeah I know, we just upgraded the WiFi at my library, but then I have to say I came here and just got on real quick while waiting to come up for this interview and it was just, it’s like being at my computer on a, on a straight connection. I mean the WiFi, I’ve never seen WiFi that fast before.

Isn’t it fabulous? I mean it’s just and it’s, it spoils you rotten in about a minute and a half, it really does and it’s so funny to talk to those of us who don’t, who are not from here so we go back and see family and stuff. I go to my mom’s, you know and I’m like, your internet’s down, and she’s like no it’s not and so I, I have no patience any more, but I think that is an absolute delicious service to offer community, to offer the community for free. And we’ve been spending now on getting electric plugs, everywhere I can put them in and quite frankly and electric plugs are a lot cheaper than a hardwire line.

Yeah, yeah. Well hopefully someday we’ll get that wireless electricity that they talk about.

And then I can’t wait for for that…

So that, as part of the, the gig city stuff that Chattanooga is, I think becoming nationally famous for, if not internationally, it’s, it’s so great that the whole city is engaged with that. I know you’re doing a lot of projects, like you have the, you recently announced the thing, the partnership with Mozilla, that you’re going to do a few programs with them. Can you talk about that a little bit? What programs you’re going to be doing with them?

I think the one, I, we have three that we’re working on with them and one is, I, they’re all pretty phenomenal, but the one that really gets me kind of, that I think is really cool is about music studio in our youths department. But, what the Mozilla part, and so it’s multiple parts, like everything else, right, nothing’s ever just a phase. So, the Mozilla part is that they’re going to build an app that, folks are going to build an app that, that allows you to kind of mix and mash your music, that you, that you you make, but you make it the meet, in the music studio that will be built on our second floor. So I think that’s pretty phenomenal, phenomenal and I love that we’re going to put it in the children’s department, in the youth department. I’m thinking the other one actually is, again we’re going to use the teens, the young folks to help us work through it, is a fabulous service that lets you cut, paste video the way you cut and paste an artwork document. So you can search by keywords through a video, so like every time Obama says you can search through that video and then you can cut and pull it and so you can, you can create your, a separate video mish mash. It’s so cool, right. I just think that’s so amazing. So those things, you know, those things are pretty, we’re pretty psyched about getting into that. And being able to, we’re put our heart, like, the gig we’ve got, I went after a wireless solution in our facilities because I have very old buildings and the idea of doing hard wire, you know, I don’t have access to that kind of money, no one has access to that kind of money any more, if they ever did. So I went after a wireless solution, but we, we have a hard, one hard wired gig line on our fourth floor, so things like, and we’re looking, we’re probably going to put another hard wire gig line on our second floor for the youth because it’s gives you a little bit more stability for stuff like music, that are, those files are just so huge, you know, the, you kind of, and it’s.

It’s a nice stable connection.

Right, it’s not that you can’t do it over the wireless, but it just, it’s just, it’s just more solid to do that, so, so we’ve got one, like I said, one hard wired gig on floor and we’re looking at putting in another one to manage that, so. It’s, so we’re, what we’re doing, we’re become a place where people who live in the community can experiment with what you can do with a gig because that’s the billion dollar question, you know. Now that you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it?

Right, well and that’s one of the things that you had, I think you’ve kind of fostered here in Chattanooga is that idea of experimentation, of just trying things out. Is that a big part of what you’ve wanted to bring here?

Absolutely. I think experimentation is really important in industry and I think if you look historically at companies like, like Bell, right, when the Bell, when Bell was a North American company, there was Bell Labs that, they created a little place, maybe not so little, but a place that was away from the corporate office, I think it was down in Florida, and they would and they would experiment, try to find new things and failed a lot, but when they succeeded it was amazing and you, I think every place, industry needs that kind of experience and so we’re, we’re doing that here with our fourth floor, like my staff will talk to you about it as a maker space, as an administrator I talk about it as a beta space. That’s where we test new services and we try new equipment and we see, you know, what, what’s going to go, what’s going to get traction, what is and what’s interesting to the public, what isn’t, how do we make it available easily, you know, what’s the process to make it available to the public. But, my mantra is fail fast, fail cheap. And so I’m basically running two shops, I’m running my very traditional library, come check out books and you come and use the computer and you come to classes and we have authors who speak. And then I have that separate beta space where we’re trying out what I think are really interesting things, where the community can try out interesting things and work through that iterative process of development design, so that failure is just part of getting to success and I think what we’re seeing, certainly in the last 12 to 14 months is a much stronger support, support or even interest, I mean we support them, I think there’s been an increased interest in the freelance work community of coming here and this being a place for them to start. You don’t have to do it in a coffee shop and so I’m not going to force you to buy a cup of coffee and a muffin to stay for a few hours and, but actually providing them with some tools that will help them start a business, whatever that happens to be.

Do you, do you find it hard to balance that of the traditional library services with the new stuff? Or is it, have you found, have you found, have you struck a pretty good balance at this point?

I think we’ve struck a pretty good balance, but I’m really comfortable with that, I’m really comfortable with organized chaos and I think many days that’s what it feels like, it’s, there’s, there’s a certain chaotic point to it. But I’m really comfortable with that and my leadership team is really comfortable with that and I think the, the staff is really starting to expect change rather than not, you know, not reluctantly accepting it, but to really, you know, it’s Wednesday, you know, nothing’s changed, I’ve been here since Monday and they’re really just starting to roll with it. They’re well yeah of course we’re not going to do it that way any more. But part of it is also improving our processes, part of that change is just making our jobs easier. You don’t have to work that hard and we’re really good at making ourselves work really hard and creating all these processes that you don’t need. So, that’s part of it as well, so it feels really natural to me.

And as, we talked a little bit before we started recording the interview about some of the staff members you’ve bought in like Nate Hill, Justin Hoenke, various people from various, and Meg, from various parts of the country, but you also had a great staff I think here, you talked about them before, that there’s a lot, a lot of the staff here was really good at embracing the change and doing the change. How do you foster that kind of environment of creativity and change and innovativeness and bringing the staff into the, into this big changes without sort of freaking them out I guess.

Oh, I never said I didn’t freak them out [laughs]. I’ve never said that they weren’t freaked out. It, this wasn’t easy, this wasn’t, and it was, I’m not saying it wasn’t easy for me, it wasn’t easy for the staff that is here. It was difficult for the people who came in because it’s like blending a family, right and that is, as anyone who has tried to blend a family knows, it’s not easy. So, it’s been trial and error, it’s been, there’s been a lot of trust, we’ve learned to really trust each other and we also, there’s also a lot of forgiveness as well. So, you know, it’s one of those things where the people who were here, who have really stepped up to the plate, have really embraced what’s going on are learning from the new folks who have come in and vice versa because you can’t, there is history that you don’t turn your back on and it’s happening at all levels. Like, when I look at the stuff that’s happened in our buildings, that wouldn’t have happened without the maintenance department, right. The stuff that’s happening in circulations, circulation, our people are now baristas. You know, you can’t drag them kicking and screaming to barista class, right? So it mean, they’ve embraced that. And it’s, and now I mean they’re, you know, they own it, they own that and I love that part of it, but it’s a part, so it’s, it’s lots of trust, lots of forgiveness and when mistakes happen and they do happen you’ve got to, you’ve got to fix the mistake, you’ve got to recognize what you’re doing wrong and you gotta move forward and I’m not real big on finding, find out who did that. I want to know who, I want to know who decided to do, I mean we just don’t work.

“Bring them to my office now!”

“My office now!” Right. We don’t, we just don’t work that way and I’m also, I trust the people who I put in charge and I let them lead and there’s lots of room for stars. Everybody can be a star. Everybody can get their name in the paper. I don’t say I’m the only person who can be interviewed by the press. I’m the only person who does this. It’s like no, that’s your area, you need to talk to them about it, I don’t know anything about that, go talk to them, that’s your project. So I let them, I let them lead which means that I have very consciously give up control. I very consciously give up control. I’ve been over-managed in my career and I never did well in that environment so when I came here I didn’t want to lead like that and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to work in a library that way. I wanted to create a library environment where I would have wanted to work my whole career. So, and it’s, but it’s, it’s so far, there’s nothing perfect about it, there really isn’t.

Well that’s, one of the things that I thought was impressive reading your, you won the Library Journal Librarian of the Year award, that was, it was really impressive reading that, reading over that again before I came up for this, that half of it is about your staff, which I think is really nice because it shows, I think, that you’re a good leader, that you’re willing to share the, the credit with the staff, that you are able to help, you fostered this and that made Chattanooga what it is, but the people below you, sort of using their skills and so I think that was good, that.

Yeah, you know, I wish that I were smart enough and brilliant enough and creative enough to have it all be mine, but I’m not. I’m just not and their ideas, you know a lot of times the ideas are results of all of us sitting around talking and it’s, somebody has an idea and then somebody, you know, says well I don’t know and then some. So a lot of it is a combination of all of our ideas, it’s like we’re making babies right, or just, you know, it’s not just one person’s idea and off they run, so we’re all up in the mix. In fact I just had a conversation this morning with my assistant, we had a prob, there was problem, we had, you know, we had somebody screwed up and so anyway she was like well so on and I said look, this, you know, there’s tonnes of blame to go around here let’s just move on and she just, everybody sat there running this by, let’s just not, make sure it doesn’t happen again, and let’s move on with our workday and, you know, cause we get, I don’t know about you, but, you know, we love to beat stuff to death and I just, we don’t have time for that, we don’t have time, it doesn’t mean that you get to do it again, but you don’t have time.

Yeah, just let it go and move on and fix it and move on, so.

Exactly, fix it and move on.

Well, a lot of the programs that you’re doing are sort of tech related, but you also, I think, it’s neat that you have the sewing machine and things like that as well and there’s new like storytime for babies and things like that. So there’s, there’s all kinds of programs, new programs going on. A lot of them are, do come out of the fourth floor cause you said like that’s sort of your beta space. Do you see those programs once you’ve kind of matured them a little as moving back out to the branches and has that happened already yet?

Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of the children’s stuff is not necessarily coming out of four, but is coming out of two with Justin and those guys, like baby bounce was Alei Burns who came to us from Dallas, she was doing that in Dallas. And it’s based on Every Child Ready To Read and getting these kids ready so that when they go to school they’re ready to learn and they’re ready to learn to read. And she was really good at it in Dallas and she’s really good at it here. So she’s pushing that out to the community. We’re actually using her site down at South Chatt which is a really small branch, it’s almost a retail space, less than 3,000 square feet. She’s trying a lot of stuff for us. Some services that, like she’s doing, you know, paperless registration and you only get a receipt if you ask for it and, you know, just really trying to maneuver that.

We’re getting ready to turn her branch into an Apple shop because I really would like for the whole system to be an Apple environment, but I need to be certain that the public can move from a PC environment to Apple. So we’re going to test it out in her, in her shop, like I said it’s small. I think it’s got a chance to go, but you need to work through those processes. So some of the programming does, and it all doesn’t have to be tech right? We just bought a loom. Yeah, the loom’s upstairs, I have no idea what they’re going to do with that, I just, you just, some things I just don’t need to know. You know, but then at the same time right next to it is an Arduino class, right. Which is really popular and there’s already, you know, we’re already getting pressure from the staff wanting the Arduino class out in the branches and Meg Backus who runs that program isn’t ready, she doesn’t feel it’s ready to go yet. And when, but she’s really good about when it’s ready to go, it really is ready to go cause how many times have the, you know, we’ve all been through the beta release that wasn’t ready to be released. So she’s still working through, through that because, you know, it’s one of those things that it looks really easy from the outside looking in, it’s not that easy to run that class. So, so she’s working through that, so, so have, yeah, so we’re testing here and then pushing out absolutely.

And do you still do some, I think I read that you team, that you teamed up with the University of Tennessee to do some computer classes. Do you still do that?

We haven’t done as much with them, with that, but you know we’re having conversations with them about is the catalog because, you know, we’re on Polaris, Polaris just moved to Innovative and UTC Library, their library director Teresa Letke is on my board and, you know, she’s getting ready to open up like this mega-million multi-million dollar facility and it’s gorgeous and Teresa’s so smart and so cool and so anyway she’s on an, she’s on a, they went to OCLC for their computer, or for their catalog, so we’re kind of talking with them about huh, why are we running all these separate systems, right? So, so we had an interesting conversation going on with her in that regard right now and I know Nate Hill works a lot with her IT team, they do, they do a lot of stuff together, so that sort of thing. But the computer classes, we actually hired smart people here. I hired, okay I totally stole from the Genius bar and just changed Genius to smart people, yeah, it was real creative. See there’s my, my, there’s my level of creativity right.

Librarian of the Year right there.

There you go, I got, I earned it, but, oh god, I got really cool people and so they’re pretty much doing the classes for us, super cool people.

Well, one of the things you did also recently is, you were in DC for a couple of things. You went to the ALA summit which, what was the name of it, The Future Of Libraries, do you remember what the title was? Libraries From Now On Imagining The Future, there you go, I knew it was future of libraries, that’s what you were talking about. What did, what did you take from that when you came back? What did you bring back, just sort of the big idea that you think you can start applying here?

I think the, well.

It was maybe different than what you had thought going into it, or is there anything different?

I, not so much different, but just really affirmation for me that we cannot continue to think about our business the way we always have. We just can’t. We won’t survive it. We, the business won’t survive, all right? And we, we have to think differently about, my big comment, my big thing when I came out of here, out of there was we need to be less missionary and more mercenary was my big thing. Because we, you know, we will do things that other organizations won’t touch and it’s like well somebody has to do it, we’ll do it, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Or it’s for the children, you know, that’s my personal favorite. And, you know, you just, you can’t, we, we just can’t do it all anymore and the funding’s drying up. If it’s not in your cities or your counties, then it’s in the foundations. The, you know, the grant money’s drying, and I mean we, we just can’t. I’m tired of talking about what I can’t do, I want to just talk about what I can do with what I have. And serve your communities as best you can. But, but that whole idea that we just have to think about this differently and, and that’s not going to be easy, that’s going to be, and I saw that in the room, I was like, whoa, we are so not there, we are not there, people are still dug in, people are still lamenting the loss of reference services in public libraries. I’m like oh you’re kidding me, I raised a white flag to Google years ago, you know. I can do other things, I can do other things really well for this community. I don’t need to provide a service that tells them how tall the Eiffel Tower is, they can get that on Google really well.

Do, do you think other people at the summit kind of got all that too? Or do you think there are still people that are struggling with it?

I think there are people still struggling with it, definitely. There are definitely people still struggling with it and, you know, the whole idea of, the President of the University of Houston was there. She’s amazing, right. And the whole thing with what’s happening with education, you know, if everybody, somebody asked me. I was at a, a program last night, somebody asked me what do you think is the next bubble that’s going to pop? I said education, that’s the next bubble that’s gonna pop and it’s, you know, I just, yeah, it’s really and at, I don’t know how much of that’s going to splatter onto to us.

I was going to say we don’t, we don’t want to be a part of that.

No, I don’t and like I said you know, like I’m, oh you know, we’re trying to get, we plan to give library cards to every child in Hamilton County Public Schools when they register for school this August. You know, yeah I want to be, I want to be in the game and I want to play with public schools, but I don’t want their mess on me, quite frankly. And, ‘cause I do think that bubble’s getting ready to burst. I don’t know how much longer they can sustain themselves, I really don’t.

So what, what do you think, as we try to navigate the future. What do you think is at the core of, like what’s the core idea of libraries that makes us still sort of be libraries and not just like. Why would you call us a library instead of a, you’re not sort of a community center, why would you call us a library instead of just a maker space?

I think cause we’re still all about information and we’re about learning and we’ve always been, right? So our mission hasn’t changed. It’s just how we deliver the mission and that’s how you survive, that’s called evolution, that’s how you evolve and you survive and we’ve done that for 3,000 years. So, you know, and we will continue to do it, so the fact that I’m delivering fiction materials via e-books hasn’t changed who I am. The fact that you can come in and learn on a loom doesn’t, I’m still a learning institution, I’m just letting you do things hands-on instead of handing you a book on looms, right. So I’m, I’m still, I’m still a learning institution. We will always be whatever our communities need to be and that’s not a community center. The fact that we are democratic civic space, huge, that’s huge. I did some, I was in, at the night, the Knight Foundation did some work on harnessing talent and one of the, that was in Miami just this week, right, and so one of the things that I heard, and these were design people, architecture and that, I was like one of two librarians there, right, about 80 people. Over and over and over again what we heard was what people need, especially with this freelance market that’s growing, they need a place to work and they need it to be free and they need that third space and so I’m just sitting there going hello, over here. Somebody, me next, me next, like it exists, it’s here and libraries are strategically place in our communities so we’re on bus routes, we are where the people are, right? It’s like, hello, we’re over here guys. So we will, I really think that our relevance will simply continue to grow as we move forward in what we’re moving into right now if we as organizations learn to work in a very disruptive environment, in a very turbulent environment that’s constantly changing. If we can’t figure out how to work in that kind of environment, then no, we’re not going to succeed.

And I always think we also have to do a good job because we, as we are, we do have this relevance but we need to make sure we can be the person that can raise her hand and say hello, over here, instead of just kind of sitting there and sitting back and going oh well I guess we’re, I guess we’re dead and.

A little bit more mercenary, a little bit more mercenary people, yeah. And I got, I got some blow back on that term, but I’m just like, I’m like old English major philosophy minor, right. I’m like I like words and I just love the missionary mercenary, I mean it’s got a nice ring to it.

The last thing I wanted to ask about was the other thing you were in DC for was you were speaking at the FCC. What did you have to say about and since you’ve been there then they came out with their other new guidelines for net neutrality and so sort of what are your thoughts about that? What did you speak at when you were there and then kind of what maybe some updated thoughts with some new information that’s come to light?

I was real, I was there to talk about how important it is for an anchor institution like a library to have access to high speed broadband because I have it and I’m one of the only, very few libraries that has it. So, how important it is and what a game changer it is and the innovation that we’ve been able to create in the community, the access to the community and how it improves, you know, take a, you know, it improves quality of life. I mean as far as I’m concerned it’s right up there with access to clean water, access to electricity, I think it’s basic, I think it’s a basic service that everyone should have access to because I’ve seen what a difference it can make. And I, you know, quite frankly if I hadn’t had this experience, I don’t know that I would feel as strongly about it. Like I know how frustrated I was when I was in Dallas and we were on T1 lines and then it wasn’t, yeah that wasn’t working and the solution was well just don’t let people watch video and, you know, it was just ridiculous and you know but that’s an IT guy’s solution, right? Just, oh don’t let them stream music or watch video, you got all the speed you need. And I knew how frustrating that was. So, coming here and realizing what a difference some speed can make was pretty incredible so it was my role to go in and talk about that and talk about how important, how important that is and also how important it is for them to modernize the e-rate because I’ve spent about $200,000 just in infrastructure changes, running the fiber to your door’s just not enough because it, then I needed a network, a stable network that can manage the speed which meant I needed to upgrade my switches, I need to upgrade my routers, I needed to upgrade my electric breakers, right, I mean so that’s not cheap, that’s, even with a wireless solution, it’s still expensive. And so the e-rate needs to be modernized to accommodate that, so we can get that infrastructure put in place and then of course buzzing all around it all was the net neutrality stuff which quite frankly I didn’t talk about other than, you know, I’m, I just really, you know, having the access that we have which is what they have in South Korea and Finland and, and Sweden, who are way ahead of what we’re doing in this country with regards to technology. You know my thing is that this and you know we act like we can, like we own the internet, no. The world’s going to move on without us, this is moving on, this is the internet’s that’s taking off and moving on. The fact that the way we design how we access it will only impact us, this isn’t a world decision, this is US decision and so in Chattanooga because we’re, we’re on a municipal network, I’m highly subsidized. I mean in my apartment I have a thousand square feet, I pay $50 a month for it and I have a hundred meg in my apartment, okay. So, I mean that’s crazy, right? But to me that’s like the most normal, natural thing in the world and so when I leave town I’m just horrified by how other people live, right. I mean it’s just like going to a third-world country, like you’re kidding me. What do you mean I have to buy my water? What do you mean this is all your, the speed on your internet? I mean it’s really, it, you adapt that quickly to having that kind of access. So that was the conversation. As you know the vote came out yesterday which now opens it up to public, public debate. I’ve also been involved with, are you familiar with Shelby? The group, they do schools, hospitals and libraries for broadband access and I’ve spoken at some of their conferences and they’re really keeping a really close eye on it, so is Urban Libraries Council. They’re keeping a really close eye on things. And actually ULC has hired a lobbyist to help us, help us with some of that. I wish they’d done it 10 years ago, but, you know, that’s just me. So it’s, I think it’s going to be an interesting conversation, I don’t know where it’s going to go, I hope that there’s an opportunity for them to overturn the laws in the states that don’t allow municipalities to develop their own networks.

I think that’s a shame. It’s still a lot of money, there’s no way around it, but, you know, I think it’s a critical decision. I mean if we don’t, if we don’t give people access to this, to, we’re not going to be able to compete, no way, right? So, there you go.

So to wrap up, are you generally optimistic about the future of libraries?

Oh, absolutely, totally, oh totally optimistic, absolutely. I think we, I’m watching some of the new library directors who are coming up who are just really amazing, who, who have, like I, my thing is you’ve gotta have the stomach for it right cause working through this kind of disruption and turbulence is, is not for the fair of heart, but I think we’ve got some really great talent coming through the pike and I do think we have it in us to do it, I just, we got to push us into it which is fine, but totally, absolutely I think we can do this. But it helps to worry about it cause it just keeps you alert, just like that, yes, it keeps you focused.

All right, Corinne, thank you so much for talking to me today.

Oh, it was a pleasure, thank you so much.



[Closing Music]

Have you started saying y’all yet?

[Justin] Oh I totally have, it’s a, it’s a great word because it’s just like you all just sounds so forced coming out, like.

Right I mean it’s like “you, plural”, I mean it’s just.

Yeah, plural. I mean I also say “yinze” because I’m from Pittsburgh, I like to mix them up, like keep people on their toes. Like the minute they think I’m going southern with “y’all” I’m like I throw in “yinze” and they’re like oh wait.

But I’ve totally, I fallen in love with the south, which is not something I thought I’d say. Coming here people sort of gave me like be careful, the south, it’s very different, so they, it was scary. But, you know, everybody’s really kind around here, the weather is great, I mean the community is great here in Chattanooga, the people that want to just change this city and change the world, they’re so many of them here and it’s so cool to be surrounded by that. And I get to sit on my front porch and drink beer and sweet tea all day, I love that.

That’s what the south’s all about, sitting on your front porch.

It is.

Sipping the drinks.