Shaping the 21st Century Public Library: Chattanooga’s Story

This post is authored by Nate Hill, Assistant Director of the Public Library of Chattanooga, TN. Nate will be a featured panelist at next week’s “Envisioning a Gigabit Future” event.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a short a break from work. I was sipping a cup of coffee in my office at the Chattanooga Public Library, scrolling through Twitter looking for something new and interesting to read, when I found a tweet from Bradley Holt of Code for BTV that stated boldly “we are in transition from the information age to the innovation age.” As a public librarian whose job is designing new services for people in Chattanooga, I took pause at this powerful turn of phrase. The library has always been a place for public access to information, so what does the library look like when it becomes a place for public access to innovation? Can we overlay the Innovation Library on top of the beloved Information Library, and allow the two to work in concert with one another?

The answer is yes, we can. This is exactly what we are doing in Chattanooga, and you can do it at your library too.

The rise of the internet as the primary conduit for knowledge exchange has changed public library services forever. In the Gig City, the public library has embraced this change by launching a new kind of library space called the 4th Floor. This library space is a flexible community platform for the production of culture; a constantly evolving arena for experimentation, innovation, and the sharing of knowledge. It is often referred to as a makerspace, because it offers public access to 12,000 sq ft of tools, technology, connectivity, and event space for the entire Chattanooga community. In fact, the 4th Floor is much, much more than a makerspace.

After two years of operation and experimentation, we’ve learned that certain genres of activities and initiatives on the 4th Floor tend to cluster together to form their own “labs”. The emergent labs are not defined by physical boundaries, but rather intersect, overlap, and affect one another with their activities. Experience has shown us that collocation of different labs actually strengthens the platform as a whole. Currently, with varying degrees of participation and interest, the 4th Floor supports four distinct labs: the Civic Lab, the Maker Lab, the Art Lab, and the most recent addition: our public GigLab. I’ll explain the GigLab in greater detail in order to illustrate the way any of these labs might work.

The GigLab, which opens November 8th, will offer access to enterprise-level gigabit-connected hardware as well as a variety of short-session and hands on courses regarding networking as a whole. With generous support from the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund, the library has engaged local partners Colab and The Enterprise Center to create this public access gigabit laboratory. Lab leader Jake Brown will be doing experiments with Commotion mesh networking, with projects like Mesh Networks for Libraries and a collaboration with community member Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox.  Education specialist James McNutt is at work developing lessons like Transmit, so visitors of all levels can understand electronic transmission without immediately jumping into the complexity of internet protocols.  Gigtank and Enterprise Center technologist-in-residence Andrew Rodgers is proposing a 4K streaming video project that links together local attractions. The best part of the GigLab project, and perhaps the most striking difference between Innovation Library services versus Information Library services, is this: we cannot anticipate what users of the tools and the facility will do. We are creating a platform for creativity, and the outcomes are unpredictable by design.

Any of the four active labs on the 4th Floor could be broken down in similar detail, describing staff, participants, and programs, each time including that element of unpredictability by design. The conceptual diagram of the 4th Floor Labs above is a pattern that can be followed by any library. These four different labs are reflective of passion projects from our community and staff, and while some of them may be relevant to national trends, not all of the projects associated with the labs are.

Ultimately, what is special about the library in Chattanooga isn’t any specific gigabit application, gadget, or any particular data set. It is the fact that all of these diverse, contemporary, and relevant resources are made available to any Chattanooga resident who possesses a library card.  In the Information Library, you used a library card to access books. In Chattanooga, your library card gives you access to the knowledge, resources, and people at the GigLab; the laser cutter, 3D printers, and other resources of the Maker Lab; the library-hosted open data platform and Open Chattanooga community via the Civic Lab; and the Zine Library or reservable loom via the Art Lab.

What else can you provide public access to in your library?

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