University City Regional Library celebrates 30 years
On the eve of major change, we take a past, present, and future look at the longstanding community anchor
Cameron Smith was just 8 years old when he and his grandmother started visiting the University City Regional Library. “Before it opened, the closest library was the North Park branch or the old Hickory Grove branch near Aggie’s restaurant,” said Smith, who grew up in University City.
Decades later, he still recalls the fine details. “The branch was very busy, and I distinctly remember the color scheme was a burgundy-teal design,” he said. “There was one big checkout desk in the center that took up a large portion of the front entrance and there were often large lines of people waiting to check out.”
It was the mid-1990s, before digital, self-checkout technology.
Programs by Japanese origami expert Jonathan Baxter and other special events in the amphitheater on the side of the library also stand out in Smith’s mind.
And he remembers the birds. “Birds used to live in the branch—finches,” he said, “and later, when I was working at the branch, I remember the finches would get out of their cages a few times and it was difficult to find them and have a technician get them back in the cage.”
Smith is just one of countless community members with a strong connection to the University City Regional branch, which celebrates 30 years this month and, last fall, received county approval for a $39.6 million overhaul. The project includes a branch move to a future location at Waters Edge at University Place along J.W. Clay Boulevard.
Today, Smith manages the Cornelius branch, but it was the University City branch that set him on his course. By age 10, he began volunteering there with his grandmother. “She was an avid reader and thought that the library would be a great place to volunteer,” he said.
He enjoyed it so much that, at age 16, he was hired part-time and worked weekly through the end of high school and into his undergraduate studies at UNC Charlotte. “The branch was definitely instrumental in piquing my interest in libraries as a professional path,” he said.
Community rallies around the project
The University City Regional Library opened on February 14, 1993 at 301 East W.T. Harris Boulevard. The project was so important to the community that members raised $15,000 to purchase books.
Just 6 years later, to accommodate rapid community growth, the library closed for five months to expand the facility to make it 60 percent larger, at nearly 25,000 square feet.
Today, the branch is one of the most visited libraries in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, the largest outside of the Main branch and ImaginOn uptown.
It’s also an anchor for the University City community. Services and programs range from children’s storytime to the longstanding Teen Anime club to English classes for non-native speakers, and more.
Roughly 500 children attend the branch’s programs each month. “Library staff are excited to help foster a love of books and reading in children,” says Debra Sharp, current library manager at the University City Regional branch. “During the pandemic, teens met virtually and said they did not know what they would do without Anime Club—it is a great way for teens to learn how to communicate and work with one another.”
For 20 years, the Lifelong Learners Book Club has also met at the branch. ”Conversations at a book club help us learn about each other and have a deeper understanding of the experiences of others,” Sharp said. “Social engagement is so important as we come back from the isolation and loneliness that many experienced during the pandemic.”
Job and health fairs connect people, too, and AARP offers free tax preparation. “We actively recruit additional sources of community support,” says Sharp. “We are more than just a place to read books.”
Looking to the future
On January 26, the library hosted a public event at the University City Regional branch to gather information about what the community expects from the planned development.
“This was my first true community engagement with the public about one of our libraries,” said Marcellus Turner, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Librarian of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. “It was really exciting for me and I was really pleased to see the number of people who came out in support of it and were just truly engaged with the library.”
Though the investment specifics are still in the works, a few things are of key focus. For one, the new facility will be located roughly one mile from the current branch, with close access to the LYNX Blue Line JW Clay Blvd Station.
Updated spaces will include children’s and teen program areas, a large community room and flexible meeting spaces, comfortable individual and group-size reading and study spaces, plus new and ample technology, according to Turner.
As with anything, library leadership knows that change can be challenging. “We just ask that the community give us grace and space,” Turner said. The new branch is scheduled to open in spring 2025.
For Smith, the location’s close proximity to the lake and shops, plus greater walkability are exciting. “I’m also very excited that it will become the largest regional library in Mecklenburg County,” he said. “That says a lot about the growth and future of University City.”