As for the layout of the space, suffice it to say that it won’t resemble the libraries familiar to most of us. Computing will be wireless, freeing the kids to roam. When they need a break, they’ll have foosball tables, couches, refrigerators and microwaves. In addition to laptops and desktop computers, she’ll have interactive white boards. “You can write on the table and then swish it up on the wall. ‘Hawaii 5-0’ does that a lot,” Hill said.
Another challenge for the library has been Chattanooga’s homeless population, who’ve looked to the library as a daytime refuge from the elements. One of the first things she did after taking over as director in February was to clean up the front of the library. Hill had maintenance crews pressure-wash the stone, restore the fountain, and she shooed away the “people out front drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and yelling at you.”
Hill also established some basic rules about drinking and smoking in and around the library, and because the homeless community has its own hierarchy, word soon passed through the ranks that the library wasn’t such a soft spot anymore. Most have apparently gotten the message. But one afternoon recently, as Hill was walking into the library after lunch, she saw “a guy sleeping on the steps. I woke him up and told him he had to pick up his stuff and move on,” she said. Librarians like rules, she told me; even those dedicated to shaking the institution from its foundations.
Most of her colleagues have embraced her vision. Library manager Mary Jane Spehar sees her as someone bringing long needed changes to a moribund institution. “There’s been a need for change, and the board … has found somebody that will help us make the kind of library this society wants,” she said. Consensus on the need for change is perhaps not surprising, since many of the old guard have moved on—like the woman Hill worked with in Texas when the library began introducing computers in the early 1990s.
“I still remember working with a woman named Jess,” Hill recalled. “They were training everybody—‘This is a mouse.’ She was scheduled for her class, and she said, ‘I’m done.’ She just looked at our boss, and said, ‘I’m going over to the retirement office in the morning on my way in ... I can’t do this.’ She wasn’t the only one.”
But for those who stayed, such as Barbara Kreischer—the librarian responsible for stocking the library—the digital age is a delight. Sitting in her brightly lit office in the basement of the library, she enthused about the myriad options available to her and everyone using the library.
“What we concentrate on now is not so much having the material in the building, but on having access to the material,” she said.
These days patrons may borrow a hardcover copy or an audio book, or they can download it onto a Kindle. But most importantly, she said, echoing Hill’s avowedly democratic approach, “Our acquisitions have become much more patron-driven. There’s no longer this policy that we as librarians will review the journals, review the books, and that we’ll be the ones to decide whether or not they should be added to the collection. The idea is that when our patrons say, ‘This is what I want,’ we’re trying to make sure that’s what we have for them.”
Whether or not Corinne Hill will be able to fully realize her vision for the library is largely contingent on funding. But in the meantime she’s doing all she can to put the library back in the game, no small feat after several decades of benign neglect.
New Library Hours
Monday-Thursday: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Northgate & Eastgate
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sunday: 1-5 p.m.
Monday-Thursday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Closed Friday and Sunday