Students learn how to take great product photographs using equipment provided by Etsy’s pilot Craft Entrepreneurship program held at the Chattanooga Public Library. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)
Students learn how to take great product photographs using equipment provided by Etsy’s pilot Craft Entrepreneurship program held at the Chattanooga Public Library. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)

It’s well known that public libraries are no longer just about the books — even e-books. Many community libraries are receiving 21st century digital-age makeovers: Numerous digital technologies, maker spaces to invite creation, even video production suites and 3-D printers now inhabit many libraries across the country.

But a report just released by the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries asks us again to reconsider how the library can serve communities in the 21st century. “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” aims to “capture the momentum and excitement of the innovations taking place in public libraries across the country, and the impact these are having on communities,” said the group’s director, Amy Garmer. The report asks: With all the new technology and layered networks, what can be done beyond current advancements?

The Dialogue on Public Libraries group is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Program and is made up of 34 library field leaders, business executives, government officials, education experts and community development visionaries. The group aims for more than just holding up great examples of libraries working well in the digital age.

“We want to provide a catalyst for new thinking about libraries as platforms for learning, creativity and innovation in their communities, and the creation of new networked forms of libraries,” Garmer said. If the report could spark engagement at the local, state and national levels to rethink how to use libraries and then constructively act on it, Garmer said, then the group’s goal will have been achieved.

The Chattanooga Public Library. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)
The Chattanooga Public Library. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)

Meeting Real-World Needs

Two cities in the state of Tennessee, Nashville and Chattanooga, were highlighted in the report for their bold reimagining of what a library could be, and how their communities have responded in overwhelmingly positive and successful ways to the changes.

When Corinne Hill got appointed executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library in 2012, the city had just received a harrowing report on the state of its library. “It was a really bad report,” Hill said. “The consultant came in and basically said the system was broken.” Because the library needed rebuilding from the ground up, she said, the board was open to doing something really different, and she saw an opportunity.

Visitors from New Zealand check out the Chattanooga Public Library's loom, in addition to the library's digital capabilities. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)
Visitors from New Zealand check out the Chattanooga Public Library’s loom, in addition to the library’s digital capabilities. (Courtesy of Mary Barnett)

At the same time, Chattanooga was undergoing a transformation. City leaders had recently provided the entire city with a one-gigabit-per-second Internet speed as a municipal utility, the first in the Western Hemisphere. Hill saw a great opportunity to leverage the brand-new “GigCity” to improve — and expand — the library.

“Having that kind of speed in a library is crazy-ridiculous-amazing,” Hill said. With the help of grants and the library’s operating budget, she invested in outfitting the downtown library with infrastructure to handle the highest-speed Internet, and then got to work on what they would offer.

The fourth floor of the library had historically been used as storage, but Hill decided to rip it all out and transform it into a space the community could use. “We emptied all of that [storage] out, and turned it into a raw space with all the appeal of a 1930s factory space, with concrete floors and everything that goes along with it,” she said. “It’s now a public space. If you’ve got an idea, you can develop it here.”

Currently, the fourth floor is home to several businesses, including a wedding-dress maker who uses the space to cut out patterns, and a writer in residence. One of Hill’s goals was not only to offer the high tech — like a popular 3-D printer available to the public — but the decidedly low tech, too. “We’ve got sewing classes, we’ve developed these popular programs about making stuff, which is a natural extension of the space,” she said. “And we’re now in the textile market! We brought in a loom and it’s really popular. We’re becoming where the community can come and make stuff. Yes, the gig is sexy, but this other stuff is very real, very much a maker movement.”

And very soon, the fourth floor will be adding the GigLab, “a separate but inclusive gig-connected space designed specifically for gigabit-related experimentation and learning,” according the website. That level of connectivity, according to Hill, will create new opportunities. “Our job then will be to help the community figure out what to do when you got a gig,” Hill said. “It’s like back in the days when electricity was new. Once you turn the lights on, what do you want to do next? What do you do with all that electricity? We’re doing the same thing.”


Nearly 700 kids and teens per day pour through the library’s second floor, which is dedicated to youth. Not only are kids enticed by the 3-D printer and video arcade, but they can also learn how to edit video using software provided by Mozilla, go to coding camp or lay down on the floor with a Chromebook and do research for a school project. Hill and her team have also joined with the online craft marketplace Etsy to help teens get their own Etsy stores off the ground. “When I was 14, I worked at a pizza place. Can you imagine if your first job can be your own shop?” Hill said.

While many parents and teachers worry that all the tech gadgets will draw students away from reading books, Hill said, she’s finding that reality is the opposite: So many students now associate technology with school that they find reading print books pure pleasure.

Much like the missions of Nashville’s Limitless Library and the Aspen Institute’s report, Hill said she hopes to transform the Chattanooga library “into a catalyst for lifelong learning, especially in the age that we live in.”

“Giving people access in a public space is a great use of tax dollars,” Hill said. “We’re not really expanding the role of libraries. It’s doing what we’ve always done, we’re just using different stuff. We are a place for the curious, for creativity, a place for learning, a place to experiment. It’s always been the mission of the library. We’re just using different tools.”

Beyond Mobile Libraries

In Nashville, Mayor Karl Dean had an idea to “break down the walls” between the public library and the public school libraries. Dean, who is also a member of the Dialogue on Libraries group, noticed that technology changed how students received information in every area of their lives, but school libraries struggled to keep up both in the quality and relevance of the materials they could offer.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (left) with a student at Dupont Tyler Middle School. The school participates in the Limitless Library program and recently had its library renovated through the program.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (left) with a student at Dupont Tyler Middle School. The school participates in the Limitless Library program and recently had its library renovated through the program.

So together with then-Library Director Donna Nicely, Dean created the Limitless Libraries program, a way for public school students to access the entire public library catalog without ever having to leave school. Students can check out any material the public library has to offer — including books, music and DVDs, but also iPads and e-readers — through their school library, and the public libraries deliver the materials directly to the schools every day.

Beginning as a pilot program in 2009 with just a handful of schools, Dean can proudly say that Limitless Libraries is now available in every Nashville public school. The effects on the students and the libraries have been staggering. “Out of 28,000 students who have registered [for the program],” said Dean, “15,000 have used the public library for the first time because of Limitless Libraries. And circulation at school libraries has increased by 79 percent.”

Limitless Libraries has also helped teachers, Dean notes, by giving students access to the millions of volumes in the public libraries, which means better access to quality materials for research papers and projects. And, above all, the program gives access to books and materials to many kids who can’t afford them on their own, or have difficulty getting to a library from home.

Dean said he is a “big believer” in libraries, and they are far from becoming irrelevant. “People need to have access to computers, digital books and DVDs,” Dean said. “Libraries are also gathering places for a number of reasons,” he said, which is why he’s building two new Nashville libraries, one as part of a community center inside an abandoned shopping mall. “They’re tremendously popular, every community wants one, and the demand isn’t going away,” he said. “They’ll play an even more important role in cities going forward.”

Garmer said Dean is a “visionary leader when it comes to connecting and supporting the public library in the community,” and a great example for the report. While schools are an obvious partner for libraries, she said, because they come out of different parts of the budget and are part of two different professional communities, their “silos” are difficult to break down. “When leaders step outside of the box and really reimagine what a library is capable of doing in the community,” she said, “the new partnerships and collaborations will start to flow naturally.”

Looking to the future, Dean has even more plans for the limitless nature of Nashville’s school libraries, investing in the physical places to make them “the coolest spaces in the school,” as well as upgrading their technology. “If what you want a city to be is filled with lifelong learners, and be a creative place, you have to have libraries,” Dean said. “Libraries are the best way to get that done.”

  • Eric Philips

    I think it is really a nice thing to create fun and interest these public libraries are providing kids with knowledge and entertainment. Thanks for the share.
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  • Sherry Dorrer

    As a library lover and supporter it is amazing to watch the transformation libraries are making with the 21st century. The tradition of them still exists while they continue to evolve with the demands of education and our world. As an educator I always look for ways to get students into the library and utilizing their many resources they have to offer, and if our libraries don’t keep up with the evolution of education I would not be able to keep my students interest in a library.

    Thanks for highlighting all it is 21st century public libraries have to offer!

  • thomas stanley

    Their is a librarian in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Advanced Technologies Academy that is the epitome of the “modern digital” librarian. He and his wife’s work with teachers to upgrade their classes to use these amazing resources needs to be recognized and emulated.

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  • Nancy Kiefer

    Thank-you for this illuminating article. I was inspired to to hear about all the possibilities!
    A few years back, school librarians in our association began talking about opening the doors and welcoming families in for a bigger variety of library activities. At the time we were wondering if e-books were going to ease out actual physical books. We felt open to this view at our school, and although it took some time, we were able to create a more welcoming space by rearranging tables and offering new cozy spots for families and kids to enjoy. The wonderful thing is that our patrons still love to come in and read actual books. As a Pre-K-5th grade Librarian, our library is a busy place anyway during the day because we have a full schedule of classes. Now, before school, families come in early to read together and checkout books and after school participation has become a hub of activity: In one corner, a small group of parents and their kids are having a mini book club, in another corner, families are working with their kids on finding books to read during a weekend trip, and our extended day homework club is busy searching and reading.
    Recently, I saw a library that offers an art/maker space—a special work table filled with wonderful and exotically colored papers, glue, and simple bookbinding tools. I am hoping to make it a reality here in our space sometime in the future.

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Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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