UTC Lupton Library Dean Theresa LiedtkaUTC Lupton Library Dean Theresa Liedtka
“Had I been a librarian 20 or 30 years ago, I’d have been bored,” Theresa Liedtka said in a recent interview. “But now, change is a constant. We’re always looking for new ways to work with folks. It’s fun.”
While she’s talking, Liedtka, dean of UTC’s Lupton Library, sits on the lip of her chair in a way that suggests that she might at any moment leap up and rocket around the room. The most exciting change she’s dealing with at the moment, of course, is the 180,000-square-foot, five-story library being built on the campus at a cost of $48 million. An imposing edifice that’s already beginning to dominate the skyline, it will be the center of the university when it opens in the fall of 2013. Liedtka, the creative engine behind the project, sees it as an “intellectual hub for the university”—a gathering place, writing and teaching center, and multimedia lab where the only limitation will be students’ imaginations.
“It’s really going to re-shape our campus in a way that brings a focus to the academic and intellectual side,” she said. “We’ve done so many good things on this campus—The Arc [the new athletic center] and the pool—and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s get some new academic space.’”
Yet what’s most striking about the new library is how little space it will actually devote to the “intellectual and academic”—at least in the traditional sense of these words. Less than 10 percent of its 180,000 square feet will contain the standard stuff of libraries—books, periodicals and magazines. Whereas the current library was designed for books, Liedtka explained, the new one is “designed for people.” Rather than simply a storehouse of information languishing on endless rows of shelves, she sees the 21st-century library as a catalyst for creativity—“a vibrant, alive place.” She envisions it as a campus community hangout similar to UTC’s University Center, with a Starbucks on the third floor and spaces where loud voices and noisy enthusiasm are not hushed into submission.
Among the major innovations of the new library is what Liedtka calls Studio 305, a state-of-the-art multimedia lab on the third floor. Designed with today’s visually literate and digitally savvy generation in mind, “It’ll be a space where students can get together and go beyond working on Word, Excel or Power Point,” Liedtka said. “They’ll have the opportunity to really use technology in new and innovative ways. We’re going to have 3-D printers, every kind of scan/converter, a green screen room, and an audio booth where students can record themselves. We don’t offer any of that right now.” And adjacent to Studio 305 will be a new gig lab that draws on the hyper-speed, digital processing now available in the city.
For Liedtka, the project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-invent the library, a goal she shares with Corinne Hill, the new director of the Chattanooga Public Library (Liedtka served on the committee that hired Hill). Like Hill, Liedtka considers the traditional library outmoded. And also like Hill, she’s more than willing to shake up an institution that has seen very little change in over a century. The advent of digital technology has forced libraries across the country to adjust to rapid change as they renegotiate their role in the community.
Despite its radical redefinition of the concept of a library, the new UTC building will still look—and at least on one floor still feel—very much like a traditional campus library. After years of complaints from students about being unable to focus amid noisy computer keyboards, Liedtka—along with the 40-person committee assembled to provide input on the library’s design—included quiet spaces designed strictly for study. The top floor of the new library will be “a beautiful old space, much more traditional than the other spaces. Think New York Public Library Reading Room,” she said, smiling.
And, of course, bound books will still inhabit a central place in the new library. Despite the fact that UTC spends 80 percent of its library budget on online research materials, it buys 4,000 to 5,000 books each year, according to Liedtka. Students and faculty who served on the library input committee were adamant that they should have access to books in print. Students were happy accessing movies and journals digitally, but even the most digitally competent preferred print to screen when writing papers or studying for exams.
While the new library will offer plenty of bound books and shuttered, quiet spaces, much of it will feature wide-open spaces with laptops and PCs rather than classic library stacks.
“We’re going from 40 PCs on our first floor to 120,” Liedtka said. “On the second floor, we’re going from 10 group study rooms to 40. We’re building three practice presentation rooms where students can go into the room and record themselves whether they’re giving a speech or singing a song. And they’ll be able to send themselves the tape and assess their performance. We’re trying to create new learning spaces unlike anything we have now.”
The university has wanted to build a new library since the late 1980s. The current library, built in 1974, was designed for a student population of less than 5,000. Today, with enrollments at 10,000 and projected to grow to 15,000 within the next 10 years, the university clearly needs a structure that not only takes advantage of the digital revolution, but includes a climate-controlled area to house the its signature collection of over 7,500 rare books (including first editions of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and William Faulkner, as well as the first English dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson in the mid 18th century). In addition to rare books, the collection—currently stored in “every closet imaginable,” according to Liedtka—includes extensive materials on local and Civil War history. Chattanooga’s History Center has already requested storage in the new library for some of its most valuable materials.
In the end, a university is only as good as its library. With Liedtka, a charismatic figure with athletic grace and boundless energy, at the helm, UTC’s library not only has the potential to expand the boundaries of teaching and learning at UTC, but elevate its standing statewide.