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Charlotte's New Chief Librarian Explains Why He Couldn't Pass On This Opportunity

Seattle Public Library
Marcellus Turner

Making Charlotte’s libraries more accessible, especially to low-income communities, is a priority for the library system’s new CEO. Marcellus Turner will take over the reins as CEO April 1. For almost 10 years, Turner was Chief Librarian for Seattle’s library system. Last year, it won a national Public Library of the Year award.

In Charlotte, Turner will oversee construction of the new main library and Blueprint 2025, a plan to upgrade the library system and make it more accessible and diverse. He’ll lead a smaller system — 20 libraries versus 27 in Seattle — and his budget will be one-third of Seattle’s $90 million budget. Turner explains why he decided to come to Charlotte.

Marcellus "MT" Turner: I've always recognized that Charlotte Mecklenburg is one of the leading library systems in the country. It has wonderful opportunity. It's in a beautiful city and has great support. And so all of those things together make for an opportunity that I think many would have looked at.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Can you give me some specifics of what you find attractive about the Charlotte system?

Turner: They have a wonderful staff, and as we all know, staff are the backbone of any organization. So that is the first thing that I notice. They have a wonderful collection, which matters greatly to me as a reader, but also as the chief librarian to ensure that we are giving the people what they want. We have some wonderful programs and services. I admire their flexibility in shifting to a virtual format in light of the pandemic. And they also have some wonderful opportunities coming along. They're going to build a new central library, a new main library, and all of those combined help make this a wonderful opportunity.

Glenn: Now, Charlotte has what's called a "blueprint" for the library. What do you think about the blueprint? What's your impression?

Turner: So, I'm still studying that and getting to know it. I look forward to April 1 when I have a chance to dig deeper into it and understanding everything behind it. But it is what I believe to be the result of the work of the staff and the community coming together to understand what the needs are. And that matters most if we're able to meet the needs of that community. I think we'll be fine.

Glenn: And looking ahead to after the pandemic and reaching out to the Charlotte community, I'm sure you've had some time to think about how you would like to approach that. Can you tell us some of your thoughts?

Turner: Sure. If the pandemic allows and we're all hopeful that it will, we'll have opportunities to actually get out in the community. You might recognize, though, that one of my first goals is to get out and meet the staff and see all of our facilities and locations. So that's first and foremost.

But in terms of engagement with the public going forward post-pandemic, I certainly would like opportunities to get out and meet them in their own environment. Meaning going out into the communities where they are, as opposed to hoping they will come to us, and just really sit and talk and make sure that I understand and have a chance to hear from them what I hope for in their library system.

Glenn: But how do you plan to reach out to more, especially communities of color, low-end communities? What are your thoughts in getting more people access to the library? A lot of people because of (a lack of) transportation ... Do you have thoughts on taking the library to them? Or making hours? Or more branches? What are your thoughts?

Turner: I think one of the ways that we'llhelp with that — and certainly I recognize the challenges that that presents — but making yourself available, I think, that's the most important thing. Helping them understand that I am here. There are ways to do many things, pop-ups and that type of thing. But people want something on a permanent basis. And so that is what we would be looking for. How can we make a library a permanent part of their lives and their work?

Glenn: And you have hot spots, that's something that I've read about that you guys have used there. Is that something you would like to do it on a larger scale?

Turner: If we are not doing hot spots, I would certainly like to see us do that. It is a wonderful opportunity to provide internet access to members of the community who do not have it.

Glenn: What about programs that in terms of racial justice, in terms of issues of inequality, how do you think the library can fit into that? And to be a part of that discussion of how Charlotte is trying to rebuild?

Turner: Libraries everywhere were presented with that issue this past year during the George Floyd killing and other similar incidents. And we've all ... all libraries have stepped into that space trying to create venues and try to make collections and materials and resources available so that people have information to understand, to research, to get their own personal interpretation of what is happening.

You look for opportunities to bring programs there. You also work with city officials and leaders to approach the subject. But certainly libraries are vehicles for informational access, for people's better understanding and own self-education. And I would certainly recognize that Charlotte would step into that space.

Marcellus "MT" Turner takes over as Chief Librarian and CEO of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library on April 1.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.