By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Supporters of the Missoula Public Library gathered outside the aging facility on Wednesday to launch a committee dedicated to promoting and passing a $30 million bond this November to construct a new facility.
If approved by voters, supporters say, the new library would serve as a national model and operate with a number of local partners, including the Children’s Museum Missoula, SpectrUM Discovery Area, and Missoula Community Access Television.
“There is something about a community’s library that tells you everything you need to know about that community,” said Sheila Stearns, the state’s former commissioner of higher education. “Its vibrancy can tell you if this is a place that’s stuck in the past, or a place that’s really looking to the future.”
Wednesday’s gathering included several local state representatives, authors and retired University of Montana professors. It also included students and business owners, reflecting what advocates describe as a strong coalition heading into the fall campaign.
Scott Stearns, the bond committee’s chairman, said more than 300 people have already signed on to a letter of support urging passage of the bond. The coalition of support helped encourage Missoula County commissioners to place the measure on the November ballot.
“This is truly about the citizens’ effort to bring a new library to the people of Missoula,” said Stearns. “Our job in this campaign is to get a bond passed for this essential community resource.”
At more than 42 years old, the current facility was constructed at a time before computers when the county’s population was roughly 60,000 people. The advance of technology, the aging facility and the county’s growing population has rendered the library both structurally and functionally obsolete, supporters say.
Rita Henkel, chair of the library’s board of trustees, said the facility serves more than 1,500 people each day, making it Montana’s busiest public library. The reading floor has seating for just 38, the pipes leak and boilers routinely fail, she said.
“We have no room for books, the space for people is limited, and internet access is limited and under capacity,” Henkel said. “We also learned the library is about one-third the size it should be for a town of this size. We are the busiest library in the state.”
Hinkel said the library’s construction makes it impossible to add additional floors to create more space. The cost of renovations would likely exceed the cost of building new, they said.
Earlier this year, the library struck a deal with adjacent land owner Terry Payne to swap properties. Members of the library’s board of trustees, as well as the bond committee and the library’s fundraising arm, called it a unique opportunity to achieve a community vision.
The Missoula City Council has yet to approve the land exchange.
“The public has come up with a vision of what the new library should look like, and we’ve also entered into an agreement with the owner of the lot directly to the east of us,” Henkel said. “It allows us to remain downtown, which we found in our polling was important to our patrons. It also allows us to remain open during construction of the new facility.”
Elke Govertsen, founder and publisher of Mamalode, also placed her support behind the bond initiative. She credited public libraries for her own curiosity, education and entrepreneurial ambition.
“The library is where dreams become real,” she said. “A really smart friend of mine told me once that talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Missoula can change that paradigm with this library.”