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.”
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.
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