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Building a sustainable industry

Connecting with the community

How the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library realigned its priorities and restored $2 million in funding with help from its friends, neighbors and funders

Jennifer Pearson /

For the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML), like so many libraries, the past two years have not been easy. This award-winning library saw its budget shrink 39 percent, from $34.6 to $21.7 million from fiscal 2009 to 2011, a devastating blow that required closing four libraries, reducing library hours by 50 percent and shedding about a third of the library workforce.

From budget cuts come opportunities

In the midst of this crisis, though, a new partnership was forged by library staff, a group of library stakeholders and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BOCC ) to deal with the funding challenges facing the library. They formed a 17-member, citizen-led, task force to examine the library’s programs and operations and to make recommendations for a stable funding platform for the future. By May 2011, The Future of the Library Task Force had helped the library bring back about $2 million in lost funding in time for fiscal 2012.

“The information the task force gathered and the evidence it provided in its report were critical to demonstrating the economic and cultural value of our libraries,” says Library Director David W. Singleton. “And the deeper, more collaborative working relationship it built with our community and our county officials made them strategic partners in defining our future. We are grateful for its work.”

What did the task force do?

The task force was charged with determining a sustainable future for the library. It brought together community leaders with diverse backgrounds and opinions. The chair was Dr. James Woodward, Chancellor Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, among the most respected citizens in Charlotte.

One of its first undertakings was compiling peer reviews of other libraries to see if CML was overfunded or overbuilt in comparison. Libraries compare themselves to one another all the time, but task force members took the novel approach of using the Chamber of Commerce to help them pick peer cities. Why? By comparing itself to libraries in other cities that Charlotte was competing with for new businesses gave community leaders a comparison that mattered to them.

The studies found that CML was neither overfunded nor overbuilt—it was in the middle of the pack compared with 13 peer communities. The study also found that CML received the second greatest decrease in local funding at 39 percent. The task force posited that this disproportionate funding decrease occurred because the goals of the library were not aligned with the goals of Mecklenburg County. It was this thesis that drove the task force and the library to undertake an alignment of priorities.

The task force posited that this dispropotionate funding decrease occurred because the goals of the library were not aligned with the goals of Mecklenburg County. It was this thesis that drove the task force and the library to undertake an alignment of priorities.

Results and impacts

Task force recommendations were both fiscal and operational and included suggestions for establishing a stronger working relationship between CML and county commissioners.

  • The county benchmarking/scorecard process will be refined annually to reflect library and county goals. The results of the library benchmarking will become part of the library board’s annual evaluation of the library director.
  • The library’s annual operating plan and strategic direction for service development and capital improvements will include input and feedback from the county manager.
  • A county representative will serve on the library board as a nonvoting member, and the library director will participate in county department meetings.

Sixty-nine new staff and 22 additional weekly service hours were made possible this year at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library thanks to the efforts of The Future of the Library Task Force.

A future based on partnership and mutual goals

CML is working on the recommendations of the library task force as well as its own strategies for strengthening its position as a central entity in the community. The following major initiatives are part of its strategy of ensuring that the library is in synch with the priorities of the community:

  • Early childhood literacy and lifelong educational success. CML is working to become the entity that is responsible for school readiness for kindergarteners. CML also wants to be the hub for educational success at any level along the lifelong learning continuum.

  • Workforce development. As Charlotte continues to recover from the economic recession, the library has become the place where people go to help them find employment, retrain for new job skills and complete online job applications.

  • Future of the main library research. At the recommendation of the task force, the library is working with another citizen committee to evaluate the best way to utilize space at the main library to fit the changing needs of the community.

In less than two years, CML has gone from reeling from the drastic cut in funding to a much stronger position in the fabric of the Charlotte Mecklenburg community. By being unafraid to seek out and accept ideas from their funding partners and their community, its leaders are securing the future of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library for the coming generation.

“The task force united our community and provided a path paved with strategy and vision,” says David. “We are poised for continued success, thanks to staff and volunteers, and we look forward to providing Charlotte Mecklenburg residents with invaluable resources that empower them at every step in their lives.”

About the Author

  • Jennifer Pearson

    Jennifer Pearson

    Jennifer is Senior Manager of Advocacy Programs for OCLC. She works with other OCLC staff and members to advance OCLC's advocacy work.