March 23, 2018

Up Close: Bright Lights, Gig City in Chattanooga | Library by Design

GIG DREAMS Chattanooga Public Library envisions combining its gigabit service and its “4th Floor” into a “collaborative, cocreative space for entrepreneurs, artists, scholars, children, cooks, clowns, and characters”

“When I came on board in March, I found myself in a gig city, but the library hadn’t kept up,” says Chattanooga Public Library (CPL) director Corinne Hill (a 2004 LJ Mover & Shaker). She approached Mark Kiehl, chief information officer for the City of Chattanooga, and said, “ ‘We need to be a gig library, because we’re in a gig city.’ He stepped up to the plate.”

By “gig city,” Hill is referring to an urban area with citywide gigabit-per-second Internet service. Chattanooga was one of the first in the nation to implement such a system, provided by the Electrical Power Board (EPB), a city agency, through a fiber-optic network.

For Chattanooga, having “the gig” means an opportunity to attract new business. The city is even sponsoring a competition in which entrepreneurs with winning ideas receive financial incentives to move to Chattanooga. Similarly, Hill, along with CPL’s new assistant director for technology and digital initiatives Nate Hill (no relation, except he is an LJ 2012 Mover & Shaker), hopes to turn the library into a creative hub that will include a competitive art and technology residency program, drawing cutting-edge talent to the library and its community.

The main library building was brought up to gig speed without any rewiring, which opens up major redesign and programming opportunities for the future. For CPL, using the gig to upload books, videos, and periodicals in a fraction of the time it used to take is just the ­beginning.

The cost of setting up CPL’s gig access, in the ballpark of $26,000, Corinne Hill says, was paid for by the city. The library, previously a city-county library with two IT staff, became a city department last year, and the city took sole responsibility for funding the library. “As a city department, we can receive Internet access through the city contract, which is half the monthly costs we were paying,” she says. “We used those cost savings to pay for [updating] our computer equipment as we moved to the gig.” She adds that the library’s IT staffers moved to the city’s IT department, further reducing costs.

In terms of future library redesign, transforming CPL into a completely “wireless, deskless” place is practically a given for Director Hill, who admits that “I’ve always had a problem with the reference and circulation desk.” She would like to see a place where “you bring your own device and even the librarians are wireless and deskless,” adding that she is drawn to the “Apple store concept,” with librarians roving the floor with the tools to help. Along with plans to overhaul the children’s area, she envisions an environment where patrons can author and publish material that would be uploaded directly to the library catalog, where library users could write and post reviews. Her strategy for bolstering equipment includes “emphasizing donations from vendors,” she says, adding that the library is currently in a trial period with two vendors that she hopes will bear fruit.


Dreaming bigger, intellectually and space-wise, Nate Hill has plans to take the concept of the maker space to an entirely new level. With Corinne Hill’s full support, Nate Hill aims to turn the library’s loftlike, 17,000 square foot fourth floor, which has been a storage area for 30 years, into “The 4th Floor,” a multi­use creative space that would be a “public media lab, an information commons, a gallery, a theater, a classroom, and a maker space,” he says. While this concept is still in the early planning stages, the gig’s wireless configuration allows Nate Hill to brainstorm possibilities for the space that would not have been feasible before.

He envisions the 4th Floor as a residency program similar to Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology center in New York, or San Francisco’s Gaffta (Gray Area Foundation for the Arts), a center for creative technology with a socially conscious element.

Referring to Eyebeam and Gaffta, he says, “I’m trying to find a way to do similar things to allow the community to come in and use the gig and then give something back.” Like other forward-thinking libraries, “we want to provide access to tools and leverage this so people can create and author.” He sees the 4th Floor as a “collaborative, cocreative space for entrepreneurs, artists, scholars, children, cooks, clowns, and characters.” 4th Floor residents would have an allotment of funds to buy books and other information resources they need during their stay, after which the library would keep the materials and circulate them.

Ideally, residents would have access to the 4th Floor 24-7, adds Nate Hill. Opening their work up to the library community, they would also host public programs about their work and exhibit it in a 4th Floor gallery space at the conclusion of their stay.

And how would the 4th Floor pay for itself? Again, partnerships and sponsorships. In Nate Hill’s plan, “We will break down content and media production into different types of activities, each of which we call a ‘module.’ Each module will be operated with a different community sponsor or partner,” he says. “Examples of modules might be audio remix and record, video remix and record, collaboration space, scanning, digital design, and others.”

As Director Hill sees it, the new “digital divide” is not between people who have access to technology and those who don’t but between those who have access to the gig and everyone else. These plans are helping to close the new gap.

Kiehl takes a more broadly historic view, using the city’s illustrious history of transportation as a metaphor. “The Chattanooga Railroad is where you moved stuff,” he says. “Now we’ve invented the road that can go anywhere, and you don’t have to follow the exits.”—Sarah Bayliss

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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