Companies that build prisons have a very simple formula to determine how many cells they’ll need in the future: They simply look at the number of children in the third grade not reading at grade level. When Corinne Hill, the new executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library heard that statistic, she decided that libraries had to change the way they serve the public.
Before Hill—who has worked for libraries for more than 20 years—moved to Chattanooga she’d been the interim director of the Dallas Public Library for 18 months. Dallas clearly had no idea who they had in Hill. A petite blonde, Hill gives the impression of a quiet, retiring personality, but spend five minutes in her company, and it’s plain that she isn’t someone prone to sit and wait. She wants the world and wants it now. Yesterday, if possible. Communicating an intense sense of urgency, she talked almost non-stop for over an hour about her vision for the library. And no wonder. Since the 1980s public libraries, including Chattanooga’s library, have allowed the world to pass them by. People instead to preferred to pay for books at Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon—and more recently the online—the way previous generations made use of the library. Hill is determined to get them back, starting with children.
One of the projects that most excites her is the new library planned for East Brainerd. She’s helping design it, and her ideas are a taste of the what she has in mind for the downtown library’s massive four floors, which each measure 218,000 square feet. The children’s section in the planned library is designed with real children in mind. Gone is the cliched grey-bunned, tut-tutting prim librarian bossing her young charges, hushing them into submission and forcing them to read what she thinks is appropriate. Hill envisions the children’s library as a romper room where they can sit within the stacks in comfortable little nooks and curl up with a book. “The children are allowed to climb on the shelves because that’s what they want to do anyway,” she said, smiling at the notion that a library should impose quietude and discipline.
But even before they can read she wants to introduce them to a program called “Baby Bounce.” Hill bristles at the notion that stores like Barnes & Noble think they can wrest the care and intellectual feeding of pre-schoolers away from librarians trained for a task that requires more than the ability to lead the children in a few games. The little ones are encouraged to look at the library as a place to play, while the librarians ensure first that they’re learning essential motor skills, and later the literacy essential for success. “We’re raising a generation of children who are ready to learn,” she said.
As Hill sees it, literacy no longer means simply the ability to read words on a page. It means understanding technology, money and pictures. She wants to help children develop a successful relationship with the real world, while inspiring them to delve into their own imaginations.
One of the challenges for any librarian is engaging teenagers. So far, Hill and her staff have been successful in bringing young children back to the library. But teenagers, she said, reject “anything with a structure—they’re too cool for it.” Nevertheless, her goal is to create a “safe place” for teenagers where they “don’t feel they’re being supervised, but are.” With that in mind she envisions turning the fourth floor of the main library into a “creative incubator,” designed to fire the imaginations of middle- and high-school students by using the light-speed computing power developed by EPB. She sees a space where “they can build things, make music, make movies—where they can develop and make things that are their own.”