Inside Charlotte’s Reimagining of What a Library Is Supposed to Be

Charlotte library
January 2020 - Charlotte Magazine

EACH MORNING, a group waits for these doors to open. About 10 to 15 people, sometimes more, assemble on 6th Street in front of Main Library until a security guard opens the doors promptly at 9:00 a.m. The bags they carry—and how much they carry—offer insight into each life. 

A leather briefcase, just big enough for a laptop and notebooks. A purse that dangles from the crook of an elbow, a book peering from the top. Plastic Harris Teeter grocery bags, packed neatly with folded clothes. A faded duffel bag and large backpacks, bearing loads that test their zippers. Some bags come from home and carry just enough for a morning of work or reading. Most carry everything and are, for now, the closest thing to home itself. 

We talk a lot about lines and openings in Charlotte. Typically, the lines fill with people who enjoy the thrill of being first—first to ride the new light rail extension, first to score a Shake Shack burger. Within days, these lines shrink until daily openings go unnoticed. It’s different here. A library has stood on this land for 117 years, and people still anticipate its opening each morning. 

When the doors open, some people head left to the Job Help Center, perhaps to see the new postings on the bulletin board. Some head upstairs to claim a coveted seat near an electrical outlet to charge a phone or tablet. Some find tables in the quiet study area and settle in with a pile of books or lay their heads down for a nap. Others walk straight toward the bathrooms.

On Thursday mornings at 10:00 a.m., about a dozen people veer right into the Dalton Room. Inside, coffee brews, snacks await, and a table fills for Write Like You Mean It. The mood of this writing group is comfortable yet serious in purpose. Conversations and greetings blend accents from New York, Tennessee, India, and Eritrea. Under the table, by attendees’ feet, sit the bags they carried in: purses, backpacks, grocery bags, duffels. The type of bag (and whether the person spent the previous night sleeping on the street, in a shelter, or in a home) and the type of accent (and whether the person was born in this county or on another continent) is irrelevant. Diversity isn’t this group’s goal; creativity is. Yet somehow a diversity that eludes so much of our city simply happens here each Thursday morning. 

In spring 2021, this library will close. The building will be razed, and a new five-story, $100 million replacement will rise from this spot and open in early 2024, updating a building that was last renovated more than three decades ago. For three years, no line will form out front each morning, no coffee will brew in the Dalton Room on Thursdays. But the spirit of Write Like You Mean It—one of casual, close-knit community—inspires the vision of what this library may become. 

The mission for the new Main Library is ambitious. It won’t be merely a building for books, its leaders contend, but a public commons. It’ll be where people come to learn a new skill, find a new job, or meet a new friend. It’ll be where people gather, whether they want to read, take a class, find a job, or simply people-watch. It’ll attract uptown professionals on coffee breaks, homeless individuals who need daytime shelter, families in search of free weekend fun, and tourists out to explore. 

The idea feels unrealistic for our city, one that segments so neatly and allocates opportunities so unevenly. Can this concept become a reality? Can our city create one place that encourages all types of people to gather on equal footing, both the people who carry their clothes in grocery bags and those who tote their laptops in leather bags? Can we share common space, regardless of difference?

To be in the Dalton Room on a Thurs­day morning inspires idealism. This just might work.

Read entire story in Charlotte magazine.