The 4th Floor, Chattanooga

The 4th Floor, Chattanooga

The 4th Floor came into being in Autumn 2012, and accounts of its origins and initial plans can be accessed here. Early proponents began with a view to empowering young people, helping to overcome the digital divide, and seeking to offer young entrepreneurs a rationale for engaging with the public library service in the face of diminishing user interest. It nowadays serves as a public laboratory and educational facility co-located within the Downtown Chattanooga Public Library, focusing upon information, design, technology and the applied arts. After 18 months, the 12,000+ square foot space is open 5 days a week and hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events and meetings that work within this scope.

The 4th Floor has transformed the Chattanooga Public Library into an open, collaborative, co-creative, flexible, participatory system. Through the interaction with 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, a laser cutter, home grown electronic objects and a diverse mix of people at work, the space fosters an environment of learning by doing. A commitment to iterative design means the layout and collection of resources change all the time, in response to and in cooperation with the users. But, the overarching educational goal is for the process of making and hacking to engage users in the critical processes of problem-solving, enhancing their ability to improve themselves and their community.

A significant partner from the outset has been The Company Lab – an initiative launched in September 2010 that offers a creative business start-up and mentor-driven accelerator programme – Co.Starters and the Co.Lab Accelerator. However, staff from the 4th Floor have also worked hard to forge relationships to establish links with other local and national initiatives, including:

  • Open Chattanooga – which advocates grassroots access to local public data with a view to solving challenges identified by the community, such as insufficient affordable housing, and supports enthusiasts who can render it useful for other citizens;
  • Hackanooga – a series of community-led events, supported by Mozilla through its Gigabit Communities Fund, during which digitally aware, civic-minded designers and developers collaborate to exploit Chattanooga’s gigabit network for the public good (for example, to address education and workforce development needs); and
  • Gigabit Libraries – a US network that campaigns for fibre-connected libraries as natural and vital community technology hubs committed to global standards for free, open access to information.

While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to multimedia, the 4th Floor is designed to support the production, connection and sharing of knowledge in offering access to tools and instruction. In some respects, then, its ethos mirrors that of the Waiting Room in Colchester. However, there are currently no plans for an integrated library-hack-makerspace – i.e. where a standardised approach to knowledge curation, exchange and enterprise in the form of MakerBoxes or MakerKits for the 4th Floor is concerned. Instead, staff working at the 4th Floor encourage entrepreneurs to explore the potential to generate income for themselves from their creative efforts via established online platforms – for example, Etsy – or, else, signpost them to other business support agencies that operate in the area.

This is due, in part, to the comparatively healthy budget that benefits the public library service in the US as compared with the UK (although, it should be emphasised that Chattanooga Public Library’s success has greatly assisted regard and funding for the same at the local level). In short, interest in income generation, ‘library enterprises’ and/or joint venturing with creative industries proponents to improve the viability and sustainability of (in particular, community-led) libraries differs beyond the UK context.

Library leaders in Chattanooga are also concerned not to exacerbate the digital divide through the introduction of charges, and to establish new services that are in keeping with the established library ethos – a fundamental issue with which interested libraries operating in the UK will need to grapple in due course, as per Locality’s recent Enabling Enterprise in Libraries report. Nonetheless, they are exploring the value of electronic donation stations located proximate to key pieces of equipment – a recognition, perhaps, that libraries everywhere may yet need to approach investment in and funding for maintenance of the equipment and consumables that are needed for hacking and making on a different footing to the more traditional media they stock.

The types of creative businesses that currently use The 4th Floor include:

  • AIGA – the local chapter of the professional design association, meet, work and hold events on the 4th Floor. The AIGA partnered with the 4th Floor for a Creative Citizenship initiative, connecting designers with public issues for a get out the vote campaign, a candidate forum and an event featuring the lead design team from President Obama’s 2012 campaign.
  • Engage 3D – a non-profit startup building education programs and applications advocating technology-driven creation that got extended access to the 4th Floor.
  • C&R Press – a Chattanooga-based, non-profit independent publisher who wants to engage the community with books and the act of creating them.
  • Artists – e.g. Tim Hinck, a composer and intermedia artist who’s intent finds expression in the disciplines of sound, light, digital media, physical materials, movement and speech. Hinck’s Lucid Streaming composition and performance was incubated and presented on the 4th Floor during GIGTANK’s Demo Day last summer.

Notably, the 4th Floor has placed greater emphasis upon digital hacking and making or STEM skills development than the Waiting Room – both from the point of view of the equipment it houses and the types of activity it hosts. This is, in part, a function of library leaders’ aspirations for and community interest in the space. However, it also flows from the 4th Floor’s relationship with Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB).

EPB is Chattanooga’s municipal electric power distributor and fiber optic based communications provider. EPB owns and operates the largest network of its kind in the US; the fiber optic network is both the communications backbone for EPB’s smart electric power grid and the foundation for EPB’s advanced communications services. Active learning spaces featuring access to tools and specialised computing resources are being built in public libraries across the globe. The difference where the 4th Floor is concerned is that EPB’s gigabit network gives library users a competitive advantage. The gig network means the 4th Floor can provide its community with more knowledge and opportunities than anywhere else. As a result, the library has been able to:

  • Begin implementation of a next generation wireless network, with access points using the 802.11AC standard.
  • Offer public access to gigabit connectivity for application development.
  • Act as a public test space for social and civic entrepreneurs developing and deploying media-heavy, educational applications.
  • Experiment with and explore (with local, national, and international partners) emerging practices and trends like: the internet of things / connected appliances; citizen science and crowd-sourced data collection; open government data – serving data sets as library collections; and distributed manufacturing.
  • Shift the perception of what type of resource the public library can be in the digital information ecosystem.
  • Position the 4th Floor internationally as a ‘library of the future’ and, with that, attract a talented workforce to Chattanooga.

The nature of the space itself is also considered important, to the extent that the 4th Floor is considerably larger than the Waiting Room (and, with that, the vast majority of public branch libraries in the UK) and functions with children and young adults, rather than a broad spectrum of groups, borne firmly in mind. There is important learning here, then, for public libraries in the UK that may seek to engage different audiences and/or be housed within very different locations and buildings. That is, library-hack-makerspaces are unlikely to flow from a formulaic or standardised approach if they are to truly reflect the needs, interests and expectations of the communities they serve and, in doing so, galvanise consistent commitment from users to access and maintain them as the vibrant, functioning community-led spaces that otherwise characterise the hackspace and makerspace movement respectively.

Finally, in a short video interview made by the Carnegie UK Trust, Nate Hill acknowledges the challenges associated with referring to what might more readily be termed a library co-located with a hack-makerspace: ‘the library’. But, to the extent that the 4th Floor ‘brand’ stands distinct yet ‘beneath’ that of Chattanooga Public Library, its marketing and communications point to the space ‘belonging’ to the library, rather than a hack-makerspace that might more loosely be affiliated with the same. There is, nonetheless, an ongoing issue faced here – as in relation to the Waiting Room – where cultural ‘baggage’ about what is properly a library and what amounts to the evolution of a library is concerned.

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