Chattanooga Library – A Fresh Approach

I was completely inspired when I met Corinne Hill, Director at Chattanooga Public Library, in August 2014 at the Exeter Libraries Constant Evolution event.

So I was super excited at the chance to hear Corinne talk again at the SCL Digital Leaders Pilot, accompanied this time by her wingman, Deputy Director, Nate Hill.

The 4th Floor of Chattanooga library has been converted into a community workspace and innovation hub which includes:

  • Art Lab with a writer in residence and zines
  • Maker Lab with 3D Printer, loom and arduino night
  • Gig Lab with networking classes (public participation), 4K streaming and public projects
  • Civic Lab with mesh networking, map time and data portal

Whilst this development is pretty awesome, it is the leadership in Chattanooga that I believe we can learn from.

Both Corinne and Nate are open and generous. Here are some of the things discussed on the SCL Digital Leaders Pilot, but also take a look at my previous blog:  Innovation – through the eyes of a mercenary librarian

“Best collaborators in town”

It was clear that Nate had really gone outside of the library building to reach out to local groups and to work with the community to grow what they wanted. They set out to be ‘the best collaborators in town’.

The type of events they concentrated on initially were small business pitch nights with business accelerators, 3D maker day with business accelerator, events with hobbyists and University students.

They also highlighted the importance of solid strategic partners as a key to turning around the storytelling and reputation of their organisation.

Staff as community figures – Open, accessible and “exposed”

Corinne talked about the library team base being ‘exposed’ in the public space on 4th floor – this includes the web developer and LMS team. Everyone who works in this space are now community figures. They participate with the community and they all go out to events.

As the Director, Corinne had to rethink what librarians are allowed to – not questioning whether the events they attended are ‘relevant’.  This empowered staff to take on a community organising role , which in turn reached different audiences by being involved in a variety of community groups and events.

Attitude – Recruit the right people and then trust them

Corinne places the right attitude high of her attributes list when recruiting, saying “you have to fit in to the workplace culture”. Other skills and attributes that are key for the role of ‘smart person’ include:

  • a natural interest in technology
  • excellent customer service skills
  • need to be curious enough to learn as technology to changes
  • set an example for how other people could use the space.

To recruit the right people they initially changed the job advert and retained the job description, but they have subsequently changed the job description now they know it works.

Hiring the right people is crucial, but then letting them try new things was equally as important. Corinne talked about how people learn by doing and as a learning and knowledge institution, it is critical to allow individuals and the team to have freedom to experiment .

Corinne and Nate want their organisation to keep the constant pace of innovation, where there is always something changing. To achieve this they encourage ‘passion projects’ to empower staff to do what they are good at. New staff help to drive projects forward and keeps innovation fresh so they are building in a sustainability to the cycle innovation.

Innovate – and then keep innovating!

So in an environment where they strive to keep innovating, where they are always asking “what’s next”, where they need to keep the wow – they inevitably have some new projects:

They recently relaunched one of their small branch libraries, which serves a low socioeconomic neighbourhood. In a bid to focus on the people who are really using the service they decided to turn it into a youth library, which resulted in a circulation increase of 40%.

Partnership with parks and recreation centres – librarians with youth focus – programmes in parks. People can learn anywhere within the community. Pushing services out to people and neighbourhoods that need them.

Appreciate a good crisis

Corinne is extremely pragmatic when it comes to hard times. She talks about appreciating a good crisis to enable you to rethink business model. The question she poses “What are you going to do with the money you have?”

They also suggest that people want to help you when you’re successful, so do something that is successful, demonstrate that  success effectively and build community support  – this will win over the politicians.

Chattanooga Library now has an ‘Innovation district’ being developed around it. Nate talked about the massive opportunities this will bring.

Find out more: When I first met Corinnne : Innovation – through the eyes of a mercenary librarianMaking it on the 4th Floor

Sharing the knowledge gained from the SCL Digital Leaders Pilot (facilitated by Ben Lee and Ethan Ohs from Shared Intelligence) with colleagues  – ideas, examples and inspiration.

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