Charlotte's New Library - An Investment In What We Ought To Be

Nov 11, 2019

I was a library kid. I can still hear the squeak of the hardwood floors in the little library in my hometown in Georgia. I can still smell the faint must of the pages. I can still see the blue spines of the Hardy Boys books I devoured like potato chips. The library had all the books I wanted for free. It seemed like a miracle. It still seems that way.

The other night, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library officials unveiled the design for the new main library they’re going to build uptown. It looks spectacular. There’s an atrium where you can see up through all five stories. There’s a rooftop terrace. There’s a café and a plaza where people can gather even if they don’t want to check out a book.

It’s not going to be cheap – they’re going to tear down the current library and rebuild on the same spot. The building will cost about $100 million, and the library wants to raise another $35 million for technology and support. The library has already locked down about two-thirds of that money – Mecklenburg County has pledged $65 million and the Knight Foundation has promised $10 million, among others.

But this might be the point when some of you are wondering how much we need a new library at all. Amazon has any book you want. Google has the treasures of the libraries in the world put together. So these days, what’s a library for?

Well, first of all, it’s available to everyone. Not all of us have the money for stacks of books or home computers. As we’ve all heard by now, Charlotte is a hard place to move out of poverty. One gateway to a better life is the access to knowledge that a library provides.

Second, it’s a gathering space. Libraries across the country have figured out how to make themselves into a third place – not home, not work, but somewhere you want to go. Uptown Charlotte doesn’t have an obvious place to meet somebody, unless you count the Firebird statue. A new library in a beautiful space could be that place to meet.

And finally, a library is a symbol of what matters to us. It says that Charlotte strives to be a more literate and educated place. That has some practical benefits – most big companies looking for a place to land want just that sort of thing. But it’s also a message to ourselves, a statement of who and what we want to be – a place of learning and discovery.

The other night at Verse & Vino, the library’s big fundraiser, four authors got up to speak. They were from different parts of the country, but each one talked about how much their library meant to them growing up, how it shaped the lives they lead today. I’m glad our library is going to be modern and gorgeous. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be. Every library is magic.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.