The roots of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library can be traced to 1891 when, during a period of Charlotte history characterized by boom and civic pride, a group of prominent citizens organized the Charlotte Literary and Library Association. This subscription library operated in rooms above a bookstore on South Tryon Street for nine years, under the direction of Librarian Bessie Lacy Dewey.
In 1901, directors of the Association transferred control of the Library to the City School Commissioners, so that the general public and students would have access to the collection. The Library was then the Charlotte Public School Library, located in two rooms in City Hall at the corner of North Tryon and East Fifth Street. The arrangement lasted two years, with Librarian Sallie H. Adams in charge.
The Carnegie Era to the Great Depression (1901-1939)
In 1901, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to donate $25,000 for a library building, if the city would furnish a site and taxes to support operations. The tax was approved by vote of citizens on May 6, 1901. The building, with an imposing classical façade and a grand total of 2,526 books, was dedicated and opened to the public on July 2, 1903 in the 300 block of North Tryon Street. The Carnegie Library's 1903 charter also provided for the Brevard Street Library for Negroes, the first library of its kind in the state. It opened as an independent institution at the corner of Brevard and East 2nd Street in 1905, becoming a branch of the Charlotte Public Library in 1929, and continuing to operate until 1961. This branch was independent of the Carnegie Library and overseen by a separate board of prominent black citizens. Lydia Schencks was appointed librarian, and the city appropriated $400 for the first year of operation.
The first push for county-wide service came in 1918, under Head Librarian Anne Pierce. In 1919, the Library Board and the City and County Boards of Education established school libraries as public library branches. In 1929, a grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund established town branches in Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews and Pineville. However, progress was halted with the arrival of the Great Depression in 1931. Rosenwald funds were withdrawn, the operating budget was drastically cut and staff was reduced from 28 to 11. The Library began a slow and uneven recovery from the Depression during the administration of James E. Gourley. Through a pilot project funded by the North Carolina Library Commission, bookmobile service was established to serve the rural areas of the county.
In 1938, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that appropriating funds for the public libraries was unconstitutional without a vote of the people. A vote in 1939 to provide funding beyond the $2,500 approved in 1901 failed by a small margin. The Library was closed June 30, 1939 and remained closed until July 1, 1940, after voters approved the funding.
Growth and Development (1940-1970s)
Hoyt R. Galvin became director of the Library in November 1940, and was to remain for thirty years. The Business Information Service, established in 1940 on the suggestion of Library trustee James R. Bryant, has continued to serve Charlotte`s business community to this day. In 1942, an educational film service was initiated, and in 1947, record albums were first loaned. This evolved into the Library`s Film and Sound Division, one of the first of its type in the nation, and a model for other public libraries. In 1948, the Library began receiving a percentage of profits from Alcoholic Beverage Control stores in Mecklenburg County. With this income the Library purchased two bookmobiles to serve outlying areas, which operated until 1965.
In response to increased use by the public, and a critical need for additional space at the Main Library and the town branches, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County voters in 1952 approved a bond issue in the amount of $1.6 million for a new Main Library and nine branches. The Main Library, a modern building featuring translucent marble and glass, was built on the site of the razed Carnegie building. It was completed at a cost of $1.1 million and opened to the public on November 19, 1956 - the same year that the Library system was desegregated. Director Hoyt Galvin told the Charlotte News that, "as a public institution, the Main Library has been serving all citizens for some time." The Brevard Street Library continued to operate until December of 1961, when it was closed and demolished as part of the Brooklyn area urban redevelopment project.
Also in 1956, new buildings replaced rented facilities for the five town libraries, and four new branches were opened: East, West, North and South. In the next two decades, additional branches were established to keep pace with the rapid growth of the city and county: Mint Hill in 1958, Derita in 1960, Sharon in 1963, Northwest in 1964, Tryon Mall in 1968, Alexander Street in 1973, Independence in 1974 and Belmont Center in 1975.
Technology and Change (1970s-1989)
With the retirement of Hoyt Galvin in 1971, Arial Stephens became director. In 1979, the Library began converting book collection records to machine-readable formats, to automate the circulation system. Automated Library Information System (ALIS) was put into operation in the Main Library in the summer of 1980, and the branches were brought online over the next two years.
The 1980s brought rapid changes to the Library, under directors Ronald Kozlowski (1983-1985) and Robert E. Cannon (1986-2003), with Judith K. Sutton serving as acting director in transitional periods. In 1983, Mecklenburg County voters approved a $9.3 million bond package with funding for a major expansion of Main Library and the Matthews Library, and a new branch for the Hickory Grove area. Three branches opened that year: Scaleybark, West Boulevard and Carmel (incorporating the books from Pineville, which was closed). The Hickory Grove Library was opened in 1986 with an online public access catalog, which, for the first time, made it possible to view the holdings of the entire library system.
The new Main Library, which opened June 18, 1989, included a three-story addition to the completely remodeled 1956 building. Construction began in July of 1987, while the Main Library staff, along with a portion of the books, moved to temporary quarters at 425 South Tryon Street. The new Main Library, more than twice the size of the old facility, offered expanded services, additional meeting space and online access through a new $1.5 million computer system. It was designed by Middleton, McMillan Architects, of Charlotte, in association with Morris Architects and Aubry Architects, who incorporated design details, which allude to the 1903 Carnegie Library building.
Exploring New Ways to Deliver Services (1990-2008)
Additional bonds passed by voters resulted in regional libraries SouthPark (formerly Morrison), University City and Independence in 1996, followed by North and South County in 1997 and 1998. Additional new branches included West Boulevard Library and Learning Resource Center in 1996, Allegra Westbrooks (formerly Beatties Ford Road) in 1997 and Mint Hill in 1998. Also in the 1990s, the Library established the Novello Festival of Reading, bringing renowned authors to Charlotte for an annual festival of reading; and expanded its web presences to deliver more services online.
In 2000, the Novello Festival Press was established as the nation's only public library-sponsored literary publisher. The year 2001 saw the opening of a larger replacement branch in Matthews. In 2003, the Library celebrated its centennial as a Carnegie Free Library, and opened two new branches in joint use facilities: Freedom Regional (shared with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Phillip O. Berry Academy), and Sugar Creek (shared with JobLink and Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department). Both were replacing smaller facilities. Also in 2003, the Library opened the Checkit Outlet, a small retail-style branch in Uptown Charlotte.
During this decade, Main Library also continued to evolve in service to the public. It housed an art gallery (Gallery L, 2001-2009), a college and career center (ThinkCOLLEGE, 2001-2009), and a high-tech computer lab (Virtual Village, 2001-2009).
In 2004, Library trustees selected Charles M. Brown to become library director, and the new Steele Creek Library opened, replacing a smaller branch. In 2005, the Mountain Island Library opened, replacing the smaller Coulwood Library. Also in 2005, thanks to a bond passed in 1999, the Library opened ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center, a one-of-a-kind facility for children ages 0-18, which also houses the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. On August 31 of that year, after a century in the same location, the Main Library’s children’s department packed up and moved to its new home in ImaginOn. This change paved the way for new adult services at Main Library, including a nonprofit resource center (Foundation Center, 2006-present).
In 2006, the Library embarked upon its first significant organizational redesign in nearly 20 years, with the goal of becoming America’s best public library in service to its community. The resulting organizational structure grouped library functions into four areas: Community Engagement; Organizational Resources; Research, Innovation & Strategy; and Library Experiences. In 2007, the Library introduced a self-service checkout option for patrons. In 2008, the Myers Park Library was renovated.
Coping With an an Economic Recession (2009-2011)
In 2009, the Library officially changed its name from the “Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County” to the shorter “Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.” It was in this year that the national economic recession was deeply impacting communities across the country. Tax revenues in Mecklenburg County began shrinking, and funding for the Library was reduced for the first time in many years.
At the same time, demands for library services were reaching an all-time high. In 2009, South County Regional Library became the first branch to achieve over one million checkouts in a single year. Plans began for the creation of a Job Help Center at Main Library as a way to help community members affected by job loss, and the expansion of Allegra Westbrooks Regional Library - Beatties Ford Road began in November 2009 to meet growing community need on the west side. In January 2010, the new Job Help Center opened, followed shortly by the opening of a new Hickory Grove Library in February 2010, replacing a much smaller storefront location.
By Spring 2010, it became clear that the economic downturn would be long-lasting, and that dwindling County revenues would deeply impact the Library. Significant budget reductions would follow, resulting in employee layoffs, the closure of four library branches (Belmont Center, Carmel, Checkit Outlet and Freedom Regional Library, which was replaced by the renovated Allegra Westbrooks Regional Library in Summer 2011), reduced hours and services at all remaining locations, and the consolidation of several support functions with Mecklenburg County.
During this challenging period, the Library also saw unprecedented support from the community, including an outpouring of donations, volunteerism and advocacy. It was clear that Mecklenburg County citizens valued libraries and wanted to ensure their continued preservation.
Collaborating to Find Solutions (2011-2021)
The impact of the recession and cuts in library service on the community was devastating. But, it was from this challenging time that the Library, County and community leaders found new ways to collaborate to meet the mutual goal of providing Mecklenburg County residents with the resources they needed to be successful.
In Fall 2010, the Library Board of Trustees and Board of County Commissioners appointed and launched a citizen task force, called the Future of the Library Task Force, to study the Library's situation. Comprised of experts in business, law, education and finance, along with community leaders, this 17-person task force was charged with providing recommendations to ensure a sustainable future for the Library. In 2011, Library Director Charles Brown announced plans to leave the system, and Vick Phillips joined the Library as Interim CEO. Following Brown’s departure, David Singleton was appointed Interim Library Director.
In Spring 2011, the Future of the Library Task Force provided its recommendations, totaling 39, which fell into four broad categories: funding, system, services and structure. Among the outcomes was a solution that showed that with additional funding, the Library could dramatically improve its services to a level that could support the County’s significant needs. Library leaders worked diligently to quickly implement the Task Force recommendations, and Mecklenburg County provided additional funding in Fiscal Years 2012, 2013 and 2014 to extend hours at the libraries and improve resources. These changes provided a strong footing for the coming years.
It was during this period of renewed planning and collaboration that the Library won a national award for its new strategic approach to programming (2012 Top Innovator Award, Urban Libraries Council) and international recognition for the collaboration with Mecklenburg County (2011 Axiell Symposium in London).
In 2012, the Library Board decided to maintain an executive structure of CEO and Director of Libraries because that structure had served the Library well the preceding year. The Library’s CEO is responsible for overall direction, success and sustainability of the organization, with an eye on enterprise functions including governance, finance, technology and operations, marketing and communications, and the Library Foundation, along with the very important relationship with Mecklenburg County. The Director of Libraries focuses on day-to-day leadership and oversight of the libraries and library operations, and represents the Library at state and national industry settings. The Board selected Lee Keesler to succeed Vick Phillips as Library CEO when the latter departed on schedule in July 2012, and appointed David Singleton Library Director. On June 1, 2020, Caitlin Moen became the Library's new Chief Customer Officer/Library Director and on April 1, 2021, the Library proudly welcomed Marcellus "MT" Turner, previously of the Seattle Public Library, as CEO and Chief Librarian.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Today
Today the Library’s 20 locations include a Main Library, an innovative library for children and teens called ImaginOn and a network of branch libraries throughout Mecklenburg County. Throughout the system, the Library provides free and open access to its physical and electronic collections and information, as well as to its services for people of all ages, from toddlers to teens to adults.
The Library touches millions of lives every year. Visit Library by the Numbers to learn just how many.