(Re)Discovering the Library's Importance in our Community

Charles Thomas - (Re)Discovering the Library's Importance in our Community

As I wrap up the year, I reflect on how crisis has shaken us to our core.  It’s during times like these that real friends and trusted partners are revealed. What I have (re)discovered is that the Library has again stood with and for our community during what may be the most challenging year in my lifetime, providing essential resources, serving as a partner and offering ingenuity and support during a difficult time.

In the early days of the pandemic, the library closed its doors but didn’t shutter its services. Instead, it expanded them and increased offerings. The Library’s innovation department partnered with a consortium of local universities, schools and health organizations to produce PPEs for our healthcare workers to help keep them safe in the fight. The team accomplished this by taking the Library’s 3D printers to produce PPEs from their own homes.

While physical locations were closed and then re-opened with limited services, the Library moved all its programming online, expanded its digital programming to provide virtual story times and offered online job help services. It also expanded access to thousands of e-books and digital resources for Library cardholders.

This past fall when school started, the Library was again on the front lines. A recent image posted on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Instagram account illustrates this fact. The image shows a teacher and her students sitting on the sidewalk in front of the University City Regional Library. Why would a teacher set up class for her students outside of the library during a pandemic? They are using the Library’s free Wi-Fi. It’s hard for those of us blessed with multiple devices and internet access to imagine such a scenario for our children but COVID-19 has further revealed the divide in our community. The Library continues to be a bridge, providing access to information for all residents. 

The Library joined in efforts to close the digital divide and ensure more students and families had access to the internet and digital literacy by partnering with the County, neighborhood leaders and the Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance. In addition to providing Wi-Fi outside of its buildings, the Library used CARES Act funding from the County to provide 1,400 free computers to eligible households. This is an excellent example of how the Library works to improve lives and build a stronger community. The vital leadership role the Library plays throughout our area connects people to the resources they need.

I grew up a latchkey kid on Monroe Road across from East Mecklenburg High School and the Independence branch library, so I understand what it means to be without and to know what a vital resource our Library is. I recall relishing my hours perusing books, completing a research assignment or checking out the latest music. The Library was essential for my development and growth, and during this pandemic we’ve seen just how essential it is for the well-being of our community.

At the start of 2020, I checked out three books for my 11- and 13-year olds from the Mountain Island branch, including a book of home science experiments and books on how to build microcomputers. Little did I know that this would be my last time visiting a library branch in 2020. Within two weeks, the U.S. and world began to realize the significance of COVID-19 and within six weeks I was working from home and shortly thereafter my kids began schooling from home.

On week two of their remote learning, I remembered the experiment book I checked out at the Library. The kids were spending so much time on the computer that the book presented a perfect way to engage with them in the real world. Our first project was paper airplanes—old school and easy. We spent three hours outside with no devices, just laughing and telling stories of whose plane flew the furthest and giggling at the plane that landed on our neighbor’s roof. I thought, what an awesome time and wondered what was next. Then, I noticed the books were overdue. In the craziness of teleworking and homeschooling, I completely forgot to return our items. But when I checked my online Library account, I discovered I didn’t owe anything.  No fines were issued to any customers for overdue materials during the shutdown and subsequent early phases of re-opening. It was clearly an extension of the adaptability of their services.

Now as we look to plan for the next year, I sit down to take the Mecklenburg County Budget Survey and cast my vote for increased Library funding. The Library is at the top of my list of services worthy of additional investment because of its ability to adapt and provide essential services even in the most challenging of times. The Library was there when I was kid, it’s there for my children now and continues to be a resource for all. It is an organization I believe to be critical to the well-being of our Mecklenburg community. I encourage all of you to take the budget survey as well and request additional investment in our Library.

Click here to take the Mecklenburg County Budget Survey through December 23, 2020.

This blog is written by Charles Thomas, a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library card user and Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Board Trustee