April 19, 2018

Corinne Hill: LJ’s 2014 Librarian of the Year

ljx140101webLOY1bWe knew Corinne Hill was destined to be a star back in 2004, when she was named an LJ Mover & Shaker. She had been a librarian for only eight years. A decade later, as executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library (CPL), she is the 2014 LJ Librarian of the Year, an award sponsored by Baker & Taylor. Hill’s career has climaxed in Chattanooga, where she has transformed what consultants June Garcia and Susan Kent called the “ugly, irrelevant, and mismanaged” public libraries of Hamilton County, TN, into the new and vibrant CPL. “She has fostered a culture of change and innovation that has affected nearly every aspect of the library,” says an August report in the Chattanooga Times/Free Press.

Prominent among her tools of transformation is the Gig Library Project. Chattanooga is the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer one-gigabit-per-second fiber Internet service to all of its residents and businesses, which is driving a culture of technological innovation. “A gig city has to have a gig library,” Hill says. Under her leadership, CPL is one of the first libraries in the United States to offer free gig access to its residents. In addition to providing faster downloads of ebooks and other materials, the library’s gig access opens up partnering potential for the library and can help make it the “creative hub for the community,” Hill told LJ in 2012. “We are looking to create incubator space…. We want to try to address the needs of entrepreneurs,” Hill said.

A turnaround specialist

The city paid Garcia and Kent $50,000 to go over every aspect of the central library and its four branches. They found that everything from CPL governance and organizational structure to facilities, collections, and technology needed repair and improvement. A key problem was the complex sharing of library governance by Hamilton County and the City of Chattanooga. “This didn’t happen overnight. It’s an indictment of us as a community that we allowed things to get like this,” said controversial mayor Ron Littlefield, whose term ended in mid-April 2013. Littlefield was instrumental in making CPL a city agency.

“The consultant report didn’t frighten me; it had the opposite effect,” says Hill. “It told me what I would have to do.” CPL began searching for a new director in 2011, when Hill was still interim director of the foundering Dallas Public Library (DPL).

“They were ready to close the place. They kept saying no one comes here, no one uses it. Why are we paying all this money?” says Hill about attitudes toward CPL. (CPL gets about $5.7 million from the city and another $300,000 in other funds. That makes support about $34 per capita.) Instead of giving up, Mayor Littlefield appointed a community group comprised of “really smart people who were actually behind the redevelopment of downtown Chattanooga,” according to Hill.

“They did their homework. When I came [to be] interviewed, I asked the board what they wanted a library director to do. ‘We have no idea,’ they said. ‘We just know we need someone here who knows what they are doing and will get this library going. We want people to talk about the library the way they talk about the aquarium, the way they talk about the downtown revival,’ the board told me. They really wanted CPL to be top-notch. Who could resist that?” Hill says, with enthusiasm. “That did it for me!” Hill began as CPL executive director (ED) in March 2012.

The transformation begins

The new ED began to fix up CPL immediately. “I had the building power-washed right away,” Hill says. “You get that grime off, and it’s amazing what you find underneath,” she told a local reporter. She had gardeners fix up the landscaping and brought “long-forgotten” art and designer furniture out of storage. She got the maintenance staff to restart the flow of water over a sculpture of bronze books in a fountain at the building’s entrance.

Once the look of the place was brightened and new, Hill moved on to rebuilding and reenergizing the library staff. The new CPL ED recruited young librarians, known innovators from all over the United States whose new ideas and projects had already made them library celebrities.

Nate Hill (no relation to the ED) came from San José, CA, to take over as assistant director for technology and digital initiatives in July 2012. Teen librarian Justin Hoenke was hired in November 2012 from the public library in Portland, ME. Youth service manager Alei Burns, who worked with Hill in Dallas, came to CPL in April. Systems administrator Meg Backus was wooed away from the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, NY, in September.

GREAT CHEMISTRY Executive Director Corinne Hill believes in recruiting library leaders and getting out of their way.  On Chattanooga’s 4th Floor (l.–r.): Alei Burns, South Chattanooga Library branch manager; Nel Reid, administrative  assistant; Lee Hope, youth services coordinator; Meg Backus, systems administrator; Corinne Hill; Nate Hill, assistant  director of technology and digital initiatives; Karen Brown, executive assistant; Justin Hoenke, teen librarian; Eva Johnston,  assistant director; Mary Jane Spehar, manager of branches; and Eileen Johnson, fiscal analyst.  Photo ©2014 Dan Reynolds Photography

GREAT CHEMISTRY Executive Director Corinne Hill believes in recruiting library leaders and getting out of their way.
On Chattanooga’s 4th Floor (l.–r.): Alei Burns, South Chattanooga Library branch manager; Nel Reid, administrative
assistant; Lee Hope, youth services coordinator; Meg Backus, systems administrator; Corinne Hill; Nate Hill, assistant
director of technology and digital initiatives; Karen Brown, executive assistant; Justin Hoenke, teen librarian; Eva Johnston,
assistant director; Mary Jane Spehar, manager of branches; and Eileen Johnson, fiscal analyst.
Photo ©2014 Dan Reynolds Photography

The new cadre was turned loose to transform CPL, bringing video games, programming tutorials, 3-D printing, rock music, and a new, up-to-date rendition of programs and services to citizens of all ages—an innovative, ever-changing package to awaken a library long ready for a new life. Most important, they brought the creativity to execute their ideas and inspiration. In less than two years, they have reinvented CPL.

One example is CPL’s 4th Floor, 14,000 square feet that for years was used to store archives, decorative art, and extra furniture. Under the direction of Nate Hill, who had been web librarian at the San José Public Library, it is now a creative, exciting laboratory and Maker space, full of cutting-edge equipment, including a high-resolution flatbed scanner and a 3-D printer, plus CPL’s gigabit Internet service.

In interviews on TV, former mayor Littlefield mentions the revival of CPL’s 4th Floor to show how Chattanooga is bringing new technology experts to city agencies.

Youth services manager Burns was a children’s librarian and assistant manager of a Dallas branch. Driven by her belief that libraries must reach out to children as early as possible, she is currently engaged in converting a moribund CPL branch into a special library for kids. “I would sign kids up in utero for summer reading if they would let me; they’re never too young,” Burns told a local reporter. She has already created CPL’s new Baby Bounce program for infants.

Hoenke moved CPL’s teen center to the second floor and converted it to a learning center and playground for adolescents, full of computers, video games, consoles, and manga.

Despite their differing responsibilities and specialties, the new team members work as a unit to reinvent CPL. “I think the chemistry we have is absolutely essential to the change that we’ve brought to this place,” Nate Hill says. “If the chemistry was wrong, it wouldn’t work this way.”

“Get out of their way!”

“I found out about Nate Hill through June Garcia. We’re having a blast. He and I are paired really well together,” says the ED, discussing the way she recruited new CPL leaders.

“Each time I found a candidate or kind of person I wanted, my human resources guy would say, ‘We have no money for advertising these jobs.’ I would tell him we didn’t need it, because we have Twitter and Facebook.”

“Honestly, I simply wanted to manage a library the way I had always wished I had been managed,” says Hill, with a laugh, when asked to describe her management style. “Coming up in this field, you get so tired of hearing ‘No,’ or ‘Let me tell you why that is not going to work,’ or ‘We tried that years ago; it didn’t work.’ ”

The new ED clearly believes that the best way to manage and lead is to hire smart people and get out of their way. “Giving the staff autonomy and freedom is the only way you can do it. If you micromanage, you will get nowhere fast.”

“It is great to seek and find really smart people, and I inherited really smart people at CPL, too. I’ve got a fine mix here,” Hill explains proudly. “Many of the staff were really frustrated and were happy to see change arrive. They were expecting and worried that everything would shut down.”

HIGH ENERGY Corinne Hill hits the library’s coffee shop with staffers (l.–r.) Justin Hoenke, Alei Burns, and Nate Hill (as always, no relation). Photo ©2014 Dan Reynolds Photography

HIGH ENERGY Corinne Hill hits the library’s coffee shop with staffers (l.–r.) Justin Hoenke, Alei Burns, and Nate Hill (as always, no relation). Photo ©2014 Dan Reynolds Photography

“I’m just completing two years and the staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions. There was a big fear factor. They worried about what would happen if they made wrong decisions, but we all make wrong decisions once in a while,” Hill continues.

By getting as much of the usual bureaucracy out of the way as possible, the CPL team has been able to act fast on new proposals and quickly gather data on the public reaction.

“I don’t want to have meetings and talk about change,” Hill asserts. “I want to do it now. You can do that here in Chattanooga.”

“You are able to do a lot more if you give up control. I didn’t want to come here and work the way I’ve worked in other libraries,” she says. “I didn’t want that structured, bureaucratic environment where you couldn’t make anything happen…. I wanted to create an environment where people could do really exciting things for the community, really give back to the community. I think we’re making great strides [toward] that.”

And it’s not just the local community she’s giving back to but the librarianship community as well. Hill’s experimental approach, together with the library’s lithe size and structure, allows Chattanooga to serve as an incubator for library programming and service models as well as for entrepreneurs, and Hill and her team share their experiences liberally online and at conferences.

Leaving Texas

Hill was simultaneously working on rebuilding challenged libraries and giving back to the larger profession before she even started at CPL. Hill was interim director DPL, with its 30 service points and population of more than 1.1 million, from June 2010 until she left for Tennessee. The situation in Dallas had deteriorated. City support for the library there was declining fast. Looking for solutions, Hill worked on a project entitled “Grand Challenges” in collaboration with R. David Lankes from the iSchool at Syracuse University, NY, and Andrew Dillon (Univ. of Texas), Mary Stansbury (Univ. of Denver), and Tula Giannini (Pratt Inst.). The project focused on developing greater innovation and collegiality in the profession and its first symposium was held at DPL in April 2011.

That same month, Hill worked on “The Big Think.” With key members of the iSchools at the University of North Texas and Syracuse along with Polaris Library Systems, Gale Cengage Learning, and community leaders, participants prepared a DPL plan for the 21st century.

“We were trying to find a way to function after a 26 percent budget cut. It really meant rebuilding the library. Unfortunately, the library ended up with a 46 percent cut, making it impossible to get back to where we once were,” says Hill. She probably could have stayed on to direct DPL and would have been an innovative fighter for that library. “I thought we had the potential to set a new pace. There is still an opportunity there,” she says, adding, “Don’t ever give up a good crisis.”

“Dull branches” transformed

From June 2008 until she was named DPL interim director, Hill was assistant director of resources in Dallas and before that served as a branch manager from May 1995, when she earned her MS from the University of North Texas, Denton, until she left for a six-year stint as manager of collection management at the Denton Public Library. According to the Times/Free Press at both Denton and Dallas, Hill “turned dull, little-used branches into vibrant community centers.” She built collections in world languages and in gay and lesbian literature to meet the needs of underserved local populations in both cities.

“I got my experience in library back offices in Denton. I was also in public services. But I really got involved in acquisitions, vendor contracts, and more,” says Hill.

In the branches in Denton and Dallas, Hill also built dynamic hot collections of books and other materials that energized users. Those lessons were carried on to Chattanooga.

“There is no reason why a library should not be as attractive as any good store, with a collection that looks fresh…,” Hill told the Chattanooga paper.

“Centralized collection development is the only way to do it and then let the community get involved. Here, if users are looking for a book or an item and can’t find it in the library, we will buy it for them. We don’t bother with any review or evaluation, we just buy it. It can be something to watch or listen to. We only require that the item be new. We aren’t going to look for old stuff. We also make sure that we buy enough copies so people aren’t waiting a long time to borrow them,” Hill says with pride.

The change continues

Part of reinventing CPL is discovering unused assets like the art and old furniture. “We were [recently] discussing a partnership with a performance group that works with kids in writing their own plays that adults [perform] later. When we talked about the auditorium lighting, a man who has worked with the program for four years said, ‘You know, there is the sound room.’ We were shocked. ‘What sound room?’ we asked. It turned out there is an unused projection room above the auditorium. Now we’re all excited about refitting that space for the uses of that group and others,” Hill says. “We wondered why no one ever mentioned that space.”

“I’m proudest of the way the community talks about the library. They call our staff the librarian rock stars, and they posted the Times/FreePress article on bulletin boards all over town. Chattanooga is a great place. Whatever you want to do you can get support for it here,” says Hill.

CPL is transformed and transforming, and Hill and her new team have attracted hordes to CPL and in the process have built massive community support. She finally manages the way she always wanted to be managed. It is true leadership.

This article was published in Library Journal's January 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. theresa liedtka says:

    Congratulations Corinne!

  2. Dallas’ loss is Chattanooga’s gain! Yay, Corinne!!

  3. C. Beatty says:


  4. Very inspiring, Corinne! The future of libraries is bright thanks to leaders like you.

  5. Neal Wyatt says:

    What a fantastic choice!

  6. Dave Trudeau says:

    WOW — what an inspiring story! Corinne and the Chattanooga Public Library staff — you rock!

  7. Congratulation Corinne! You make us all proud.

  8. Jannik Mulvad says:

    Congratulation Corinne! So noce to spend time with you at Next Libray conference 2013 i Aarhus Denmark. See you at Next Library 2014 i Chicago?

  9. The main library in downtown Chattanooga is a ghost. I can’t show my little one any of the books that inspired me – they’ve all been liquidated. Now, if she wants to play video games, make a cheap button to pin on her shirt or listen to her own voice echo – she’s all set. On the upside, my friends and I have made out like bandits at the “Friends of the Library” book liquidation sales. My fiancee found a signed first edition by one of his favorites. I’ve found a number of new books by Charles De Lint donated by the local Club Lib. Mixed blessing really, but it’s not really a space I’d call a library anymore. More like a recreation center with book sections.