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August 9, 2012

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“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.

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August 9, 2012

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