Kids learning video game design, a showcase of local entrepreneurs pitching their ideas, scores of Chattanoogans developing Web and mobile apps—all unfolding in a library?
The 4th Floor at The Public Library downtown, to be precise.
Once home to 30-plus years of city storage, the top level of the downtown government building is evolving into one of the city’s most dynamic spaces with plans to morph into a place for the community defined by the community.
“There are not secret drawings,” said Corinne Hill, director of The Public Library. “We have no preconceived notion of what this is going to be, other than what the community wants and how the community wants to use it.”
Learning to love the concert
Nate Hill, assistant director for technology at The Public Library, has a history of facilitating experimental programs at libraries and was convinced to relocate from California to Chattanooga, in large part thanks to The 4th Floor.
In previous posts, which include the San Jose Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library, he had made do with rooms almost akin to closets in size. At Chattanooga’s library, Nate now has 14,000 square feet to play with.
At the core of The 4th Floor, as Nate explained, is the idea of public libraries moving away from being an avenue to media and toward a place to access tools. A quick survey of what those on the first floor are doing reveals that every single computer is in use while the stacks of books and shelves of magazines are getting less play.
“Part of the idea is we need to diversify what public computing is, so it's not just this bank of computers that are windows to the Internet,” Nate said. “We need to offer more tools for creativity rather than just for consumption.”
The vision for The 4th Floor is that of a digital lab, an event space and a meeting place with moveable furniture, iMacs, 3-D printers, recording studios, a giant projection whiteboard wall and unbelievably fast wireless connection.
In a sense, the project will continue The Public Library’s original mission—"to excite the community about the many resources and experiences they’ll discover in books and beyond"—by showing the Chattanooga community the possibilities beyond the technology.
But first, Nate and his colleagues are busy with details. The loads of chairs, shelves, pieces of shelves, desks, TVs, VCRs, and endless piles of other odds and ends had to be moved out. The Public Library held an auction—making a total of approximately $1,500—to clear out the floor. Hidden in the clutter were a few priceless discoveries, like a poster from 1961 for an American Library Association Project and annals of text records from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.
The floors have been mopped and waxed. The walls are equipped with a marker board material for projection and whiteboard work, along with a yellow ladder on wheels to allow visitors to utilize the full 16 feet of the walls.
Looking forward, The 4th Floor could see the installation of a bathroom and kitchen facilities and permanent staff members.
Part of the challenge of the uniquely large space is the brutalist architecture that sets the entire building apart from the other downtown edifices. The giant cast concrete elements that define the building’s structure can be inflexible—and a sour point of contention for other cities’ brutalist buildings, as is the case with Boston’s City Hall—but Nate noted that The Public Library again has an advantage in this area.
“Each floor is basically one big, wide-open room, which is flexibility at its best. We’re looking to what we can do with each floor,” Nate said. “The 4th Floor is a laboratory where we can prototype what we’re going to do with every floor.”
The design element
Thanks to an initial partnership with AIGA Chattanooga, the local chapter of the national professional design association that has grown into a steady relationship, The 4th Floor has played host to a wide swath of collaborative events, including CO. LAB’s Will This Float?, the Digital Public Library of America’s Appfest, and a screening of “Indie Game: The Movie” and workshop with local game designer Shaun Inman, among others.
Smaller events have also made use of the space: Staff from the Lupton Library at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga held a brainstorming conference of sorts on internal organization.
The process for using The 4th Floor, which is currently open to the public by appointment, is still informal. Members of the community can propose an event or program, and Hill considers if it matches the space’s mission.
As The 4th Floor’s blog states, the space is envisioned as “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology and the applied arts.”
“The community continues to blow my mind with the fun ideas that people bring of stuff they want to do,” Nate said. “What you’ll notice is that The [Public] Library isn't throwing them as much as the community comes forward and throws them. I really think that's the model for the future—understanding that libraries have this history of all of the internal expertise. It has been very top-down. This is more of a recognition that knowledge is all across the community, that through conversation we're able to share that knowledge.”
The same democratic process is applied to the practical way in which an organization or group wants to use the space. For its Will This Float? event, CO. LAB turned the white walls blue and purple with lighting and projections.
Allie O’Connell, project manager at CO. LAB, said the space proved to be an ideal locale for the annual showcase of local entrepreneurs, which has continued to outgrow previously used locations. Providing a blank canvas, the huge ceilings and moveable walls allowed the organization to artfully set a by-day office feel and a by-night party feel.
In keeping with the event’s theme, the evening gathering featured projections of live goldfish.
“We’re always looking for a space to be a creative and collaborative space, so it was a good fit,” O’Connell said. “Any time we can utilize The 4th Floor, we want to.”
Every time a group comes into the space, Nate records how it arranges The 4th Floor. It’s an effort to keep track of how the floor can be used—of what works well and what needs work—so that with each event, the space moves a step closer to being fully functional.
On the whole, however, each event is a method of reaching more and more Chattanoogans. Many of the events draw people who have never been to The Public Library and put the idea in their minds that it is a place that is relevant to them.
“With every event, we create a little more public awareness of it being here because the library has not been on people's radar for the past 15 years,” Nate said. “We've got a lot to do in order to just change the perception and make people aware of our presence.”
Up next for The 4th Floor are this Wednesday’s We Helped Obama Win event with Daniel Ryan and Josh Higgins of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and this weekend’s event lineup for the Creative Citizenship Program.
In addition, the do-it-yourself-style project will continue to evolve as the Chattanooga community sees fit to use it.
“It’s a civic space, a democratic space—that's what libraries do now,” Corinne said. “We act as anchors in our communities.”
Updated @ 8:46 a.m. on 1/22/13 for clarity.