A new chapter for this Charlotte librarian


June 28, 2024

After 35 years, librarian Sheila Bumgarner plans to retire at the end of July. With her goes an incomparable source on Charlotte and Mecklenburg history. But don’t fret — Bumgarner leaves behind a well-organized archive of local stories.

by Sharon Smith

Sheila Bumgarner says if anyone could have designed a job for her, this was it. She loves history and loves helping people. She’s incredibly organized and enjoys research. Working as a librarian has been her calling.

“I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve loved most every day I’ve been at work,” Bumgarner says. 

Her own story with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library began Sept. 1, 1988. Fresh out of graduate school with a master’s degree in American History, Bumgarner joined the staff of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the Main Library uptown. Throughout her career, she’s provided information and countless photographs for magazines, newspapers, television shows, documentaries, local governments and regular people curious about their roots.

As a young adult, she wanted to be an historic preservation consultant, a career that required lots of research time in local libraries. Often, Bumgarner found herself helping people who didn’t know their way around a library’s card catalog system or its treasure trove of historic records.

“One day, I helped this one woman who never knew her father, but I knew where the materials were,” Bumgarner recalls, sharing how she tracked him down in the Census. “Then I found the cemetery where he was buried, and she went there to visit him,” she says, pausing for a second with a nod. “And I said, I think I’m gonna go to library school. And that’s the story!”

Bumgarner says that story got her the job in Charlotte. 

Her duties have been many, from archivist to reference librarian. Along the way, she curated nearly 200 exhibits on a range of subjects, from movies made in Charlotte to the history of Camp Greene as a World War I bootcamp. About 25 years ago, an exhibit at SouthPark Mall explained how Sharon Township became known as SouthPark, which was a relatively new community name back then. 

Bumgarner is pictured at the opening of a new computer lab at the Main Library. Bumgarner curated an exhibit at SouthPark Mall about 25 years ago, documenting the area’s transition from Sharon Township to SouthPark. Photographs courtesy the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

In May, Bumgarner helped organize a panel discussion with four retired Charlotte Observer reporters, which was attended by more than 125 people. You can hear the pride in Bumgarner’s voice as she talks about the success of that night in bringing people of all ages together for a lively discussion about journalism, newsroom energy and big Charlotte stories.

For reporters and writers, Bumgarner is a go-to resource. From experience, I know she’s hard to stump — always ready to offer background or inspiration for a story.

For historians, she’s a godsend. “If you’ve ever seen a Charlotte history photo in a magazine or museum or even in the newly expanding Charlotte Douglas Airport, you probably have Shelia Bumgarner to thank,” says community historian Tom Hanchett. “Nobody has a more complete mastery of the visual resources that make the past come alive,” he adds.

“I have an excellent memory,” Bumgarner admits about her ability to cull and retain information. She rarely forgets conversations or photographs.

That trait served Bumgarner well on her last major library project, Dearest Jeanie / Dearest Jack, a compilation of transcribed courtship letters from the mid-1800s between Jane Renwick Smedberg and John “Jack” Wilkes. They left their wealthy New York circles behind to settle in Charlotte and eventually became prominent local leaders in business and philanthropy.

Bumgarner describes the Wilkes as a modern couple for their time. “They relied on one another for support and love because they were from New York and they were trying to fit in here.” Their letters share a part of Charlotte history that newspapers of the day didn’t capture.

The 327-page digital document, edited by Bumgarner and librarian John O’Connor, includes deeply researched footnotes with historical context. It’s the perfect career bookend for a librarian who finds history so compelling she must share it.  

“It has been a privilege wearing all of my hats with the library these many years and serving the people of Mecklenburg County. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have found work that I love and to be able to do it for so many years.”

As for what’s next, true to the nudge she felt many years ago, Bumgarner hints that she will still help people and our local museums. “Oh, I can be a good volunteer,” she says with a knowing smile.

No doubt, there will be a line of people eager to sign her up.  SP

Featured image of Sheila Bumgarner by Richard Israel


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