Marcellus “MT” Turner, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s new CEO and chief librarian, looks to reframe the future of the library beyond walls.
by Michael J. Solender
Like many librarians, Marcellus “MT” Turner loves a good backstory. Since joining Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in April as chief executive officer and chief librarian, he’s been taking in his new environs with a close study of his surroundings.
Sculptor Ray Kaskey’s four statues at Independence Square uptown caught Turner’s attention early on, and he made it his mission to learn the background surrounding one of Charlotte’s most prominent public artworks. “I find them so interesting,” Turner says, referring to the installation at the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets. “I want to discover what they are all about. I ask a lot of questions because I love backstories more than ‘front’ story.”
Turner’s explorative nature will serve him well as he takes the reins of the 118-year-old library system. He succeeds Lee Keesler, a Charlotte native who retired after nine years as CEO. Turner oversees 430 staff members serving 20 branches. The system saw
2.5 million visitors during the fiscal year ending in June 2020. In that time, more than 5.6 million items were borrowed, and more than 400,000 people participated in the library’s 22,000 programs.
Turner has more than 30 years of library experience, most recently as the executive director and chief librarian at The Seattle Public Library. The Mississippi native is an internationally recognized speaker with a master’s degree in library science from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s from Mississippi University for Women.
He’s poised to take on several important initiatives, including activating the Blueprint 2025 Vision Plan, a 10-year project launched in 2015; advancing the library’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion; and supporting the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s fundraising efforts while working with county leaders, architects and builders to complete a new $100 million, 115,000-square-foot Main Library.
In addition, the library last month launched a fine-free initiative, eliminating late and overdue fines and removing all outstanding account balances for late materials. The move restores access to library resources for more than 150,000 county residents
SouthPark met with Turner to discuss the future of libraries, social consciousness and connecting with the community.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What attracted you to the opportunity in Charlotte?
One thing I heard [in the interview process] was this desire to resume Charlotte’s presence as a national leader in libraries. That’s not to say that we weren’t [a leader] — just as libraries changed and morphed, and as times changed and morphed, libraries chose different directions and different areas of focus. One of the things that I’m interested in is the future of libraries. I led [work in this area] in Seattle. The future of libraries is big in my heart, and Charlotte is a good place for that.
How does Charlotte benefit from our library system being a national leader?
One area is in building stronger collections. This community is becoming more diverse, and we need to represent those interests. We have a very educated population, as evidenced by the universities and colleges here. And that ups our game a little bit in the arena. We have a strong North Carolina research collection, and I would love to see that go even further. Historical collections oftentimes represent the printed word, and we’re moving into digital space. I would hate for us to lose those opportunities to connect with our community.
Another area [where we can lead] is building a workforce that supports our needs. We don’t need just librarians working for us. We need reporters. There are kids who walk into a library every day and say, “I want to write on [a specific topic].” What happens if we have a reporter on staff that can write a two pager on this topic, so that we just have it in our collection? As librarians, our job is to help you find information, but we don’t create information. And we know people who can help us create the information so that we can answer the public when they come in.
What impact will the new Main Library have on the rest of the system, and how will community members who rarely visit uptown benefit?
We want people to know that a branch library that serves their neighborhood can be equally strong as the new uptown library, but they are always welcome to visit Main. It’s easy to get caught up in your routine and your neighborhood, but we want them to say, “I don’t have to go there to use it, but I have friends in town, and I want them to see this new library.” That’s what happened in Seattle when it became one of the top 25 libraries in the world to visit.
Talk about programming and how you see the future of libraries.
The resilience about programming during the pandemic was amazing because [the model had been] libraries waited on people to come to us. Now, libraries are having to take programs out the door. We need to think of how much more we can do when we’re not limited by the walls. We struggle with some of the same things that libraries everywhere struggle with, which is we staff the building and not the program. There are times when people say, “I can’t make it to that program because I’ve got to work the desk.” Should a desk mandate that?
Another challenge is making our libraries familiar after the pandemic. People want us to return to normal. My goal is that any kid has an opportunity to come to story time, and it may look different or feel different, but they know what it’s like to be sitting in a circle and be read to.
The future of the library is [looking at how] disruptors are going to impact our work. What is AI (artificial intelligence) going to do that makes us have to work differently? My job is to ensure that libraries are in the future.
I have one job: To ensure that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library plays a difference in the lives of our users. It can be finding a job, accessing a computer or getting a book for a child. We have people with varied interests. We shouldn’t be able to offend any sensibility because a person has a curiosity.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and Mama’s Boy, a memoir by Dustin Lance Black. It’s interesting, because [Black’s] mother was a paraplegic, and he was a gay kid growing up in the South and ponders “How does this happen?” More backstory! SP