The history of a decades-long fight to get Southwest Orange County a public library


By Kylie Marsh

The South Branch (Project 203) is relevant to recount during this week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s celebration.

Carrboro will finally call itself home to Orange County Library’s South Branch at 203 South Greensboro Street, after a process of almost 30 years.

The building will hold the Orange County Library’s collections. It will also be home to Carrboro Recreation, Parks and Cultural Resources, WCOM Radio Station, and the Orange County Skills Development Center. Additionally, it will have multipurpose spaces, including one specifically for teens.

Nerys Levy, a member artist at FRANK Gallery in Carrboro and a founding member of Friends of the Southern Branch Library, has dedicated a third of her life to getting a freestanding library in Carrboro.

“People are so happy because they know how hard we have worked for this,” she said. “Everyone’s saying it’s going up quickly. Well, after 30 years, it better be!”

A long struggle intertwined with racial suppression

Since at least the 1940s, Carrboro held its collections in the Civic Club Building behind Town Hall at 108 Bim Street. Despite being called the Public Library, Carrboro’s history proves it was not open to everyone, according to Levy.

Carrboro was known as a sundown town – a town where local white supremacist vigilantes threatened violence against Black folks after dark.

“Whatever divisions there were in the past, we want those behind us and everyone to embrace this building as their own,” Levy said.

The long civic battle to get library services for the people of Southwest Orange County was sometimes tense, drawing attention to how historic this multi-use facility would be.

In 1988, Carrboro Mayor Ellie Kinnaird worked with the Friends of the Southern Branch (then Friends of the Library) to spearhead a campaign to get a freestanding library for Carrboro. In 1995, the collection was moved to McDougle Middle School, where it remained until 2016.

However, the Middle School location was hard to find and only accessible outside of regular school hours.

In 2000, Carrboro had an estimated population of 17,709, and North Carolina had 76 public libraries statewide. “It was the largest town in North Carolina without a freestanding library,” Levy said.

By the Great Recession of 2008, county-wide budget cuts sacrificed funding, reducing library hours and employees, creating conflict.

In April 2009, County staff proposed closing the Carrboro Branch altogether. After community opposition, the County Board of Commissioners decided to oppose the Carrboro Branch Library’s closure.

“There was a lot of anxiety over finances,” Levy said.

The decision to build

By 2010, the County came to the decision to build a free-standing library in Carrboro. However, this didn’t make for a smooth path to the 203 Project as it stands now.

The proposed site would be on Hillsborough Road, adjacent to Carrboro Elementary School and Carrboro United Methodist Church, which hosted a daycare center.

Concerns about the traffic pattern and safety for the young children frequenting the area sparked debate about the site. In addition, the Town and County worked to rezone the site to host the library, causing another bureaucratic headache. In August of 2011, the County ended up scrapping the Hillsborough Road location.

The debate over location continued until 2016 when talks turned toward joining the ArtsCenter with the Southern Branch of the library at the empty parking lot at 203 South Greensboro Street. The library at McDougle was closed during the beginning of the pandemic and will remain in storage until the finalization of the 203 Project.

The Southern Branch will be fully staffed, allowing them to meet the community’s needs — whether the public needs a notary, has questions about the collections, or just children’s programming.

Topping out at $41.17 million with Orange County pledging 55% and Carrboro pledging 45%, the project is a historic collaboration between the County and the Town.

The future

Levy said the library will have a seed library where community members can get seeds to grow food. But, she said, that’s not where the environmentally conscious aspects of this project end. The building will have vegetative roofing, waste reduction and energy efficiency features, resulting in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification. The parking lot will have 171 parking spaces and an additional five spaces for electric vehicles.

Many people who were Friends of the Library died before the groundbreaking of the 203 Project. “They put so much time, so much effort into trying to educate politicians and the public about the necessity [for a library] and a lot of people gave up. They thought they’d never get a library in Carrboro,” Levy said.

She hopes this project will pave the way to more equitable community centers in other parts of Orange County, which she said are still underserved. “This is just the beginning,” she said.

A former TLR correspondent from Durham, Kylie Marsh returns to writing for the paper, albeit from new digs in Charlotte. Her work has also appeared in QCity Metro. As a graduate of NYU, she writes about local issues of class, race and inequality. When not freelancing, Kylie is organizing for the rights of workers, women and the homeless in Charlotte. 

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1 Comment on "The history of a decades-long fight to get Southwest Orange County a public library"

  1. Eleanor Kinnaird | January 22, 2024 at 8:46 pm | Reply

    Yes, this has been a dream of mine since I first moved to Carrboro. My great thanks to Nerys Levy, who never gave up. I hope to take out the first book when it opens.

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