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How Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is rebuilding both metaphorically and literally

The entrance to Charlotte's Main Library, which will close Oct. 29.
Jodie Valade
The entrance to Charlotte's Main Library, which closed Oct. 29, 2021.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is not only rebuilding metaphorically from the effects of COVID-19, it's also literally rebuilding. The library closed its main branch in uptown in October for demolition to make way for a brand-new facility that's slated to open in a few years. Joining WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to talk about the project is the library's CEO and Chief Librarian, Marcellus Turner.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Marcellus "MT" Turner
Courtesy Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
Marcellus "MT" Turner

Marcellus Turner: Thank you. I'm happy to be here with you.

Terry: And I do want to get to that rebuilding project in just a moment. But first, I want to ask about the pandemic. Libraries have long been a place for people to gather in person. How did the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library pivot to adapt over the past year and a half?

Turner: You know, it's really amazing how all libraries had to transition, and CML, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, did a phenomenal job doing so. We went virtual on access to all of our programs. We continued with our programs and engagement, but they were all on the screen like everyone else has been doing. And we also made our collections available through curbside service, and we also increased our efforts with access to electronic resources.

So we did what every other library did and we did what libraries have been doing for all their existence, which is adapting to the new changes in our society.

Terry: Is there something lost, though, as libraries shift more toward the digital?

Turner: You know, reading is what we're all about and the business that we're in. And we really want to be able to offer our customers a way to engage, to read whatever suits them best. There are many who like turning the page. I enjoy that, as well. But there are many who love electronic reading. And I think that the pandemic caused many people to expand outside of reading only print to electronic.

So in the end, we're still doing what we want to do, which is bringing great reading materials and educational and informational materials to our public. Is something lost by that? You lose the in-person serendipity of finding a book on the shelf. I think one of the beauties of coming in the library is walking the shelves, looking to see what's out on display, saying, "Oh, I was looking for this, but I never thought about picking up this cookbook and doing something with it." So that's lost.

And then for children, just the pure engagement of coming into storytime and being exposed to a new book and having someone read to you. You know, having someone read to you is a key component of learning to read. And so that is lost.

But you know what? Libraries are adapting and we're able to do it, and we're also pivoting to start returning to in-person services. So it might have been a blip for us, but we're going to get back in the swing of things.

Architect's drawing shows the design for the new Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, facing North Tryon Street.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library
A rendering of what the new Main Library will look like when it's completed in 2025.

Terry: Well, even as you do start to think about returning to in-person services, are there changes that were put in place during the pandemic that you plan to keep?

Turner: You know, we're assessing that right now. One of the things that I've tried ... as you know, I've been here a short period of time, I think it's just right at eight months right now. And one of the things that I've been talking with my colleagues here at CML about is one of the things that we may have to give up is returning to "normal" and returning to what I would call "familiar." We want people to know what it's like to come in the library. We want people to know what it's like to attend a program or event in person or to engage with our staff. But it might be a little different. There might be masks on. Storytime might be done outside. But familiar is what we want.

We want kids to benefit from the joy of having someone read to them. We want to benefit from having our customers use our technology, our computers and resources. But we may have to stipulate a few additional guideline and practices around the use them.

Terry: As I mentioned before, you are now running a library system with its main branch closed as you prepare to build a new facility. What additional challenges does that present for your organization as we're still in the midst of a pandemic?

Turner: I think there are two venues or avenues that we can take for that question. The first one is that the engagement that occurs in person when you're actually meeting with the people who are designing the building is a beauty that just can't be expressed through Zoom or virtual. So that's one of the things that's missing.

The second thing that's missing is what happens when you are coming in and picking up a vision and a design for a library system that was crafted and created well before I joined the organization. And trying as much as possible to adhere to what they originally intended and designed for us. So those are the two challenges.

The pandemic, that's not our biggest challenge, except that it does delay some of the work that we're trying to do. It puts a strain on resources, I think. Just like many home builders and everyone else, we're finding that our inventory is short, so we have to wait longer to order materials for the building. So that's how the pandemic is impacting us.

Terry: When the new uptown branch does open in 2025, what benefits will it have, will it bring to the community?

Turner: I think a couple of things. One, it brings a library back to the uptown area, and since 1903, we've been on this very spot. So I think that will be the first thing is that we will have library services continuing in the same place that it was originally intended when Andrew Carnegie gave us money to do so.

It brings back libraries to the uptown area. It brings reading materials that brings opportunities for engagement and partnerships. It brings access to collections and resources. And it brings back our staff. You know, the staff is the key to every library system and we are no different here at CML.

Terry: What's your No. 1 concern for the library as the pandemic drags on?

Turner: I think my concern for the library system itself, and especially for me, is that in the uptown area specifically, we are not having that engagement or that connection to our community to ensure that we're adapting to what they need or want to see. We're very fortunate that we have 20 locations and our other 19 locations are continually seeing customers return to the buildings, and so they're able to give us the pulse of what our public wants to see.

However, that's one of the things that we lose during the pandemic is that people may be being more intentional around their visits to us, and so that engagement that we want to just talk about and have is lacking.

The other thing is that that in-person programing is missing. It is absolutely amazing to be on a Zoom and have the opportunity to talk to an author. But I will tell you, it is so much more fulfilling, fun, engaging — everything that you can think of — when you're actually in the same room with that author. You can see their mannerisms better. They get a chance to connect with you more intentionally and you get a book signed by the author.

So we're missing all those types of things — that engagement that just brings smiles to our faces.

Terry: Well, thank you for taking the time. We really appreciate it.

Turner: Happy to do so.

Terry: Marcellus Turner is the CEO and chief librarian of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic. Support for rebuilding Charlotte is provided by Lowe's Home Improvement.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.