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New Missoula Public Library eyes September opening as final details fall into place

Holly Truitt, right, speaks to children, parents, business leaders and fundraising leaders during a night tour of new Missoula Public Library in 2019. The library is eyeing a grand opening in September. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current file photo)

Two years after breaking ground on a new public library in downtown Missoula, work on the project is nearly finished, less a few odds and ends that must be wrapped up before the $37 million facility opens to the public.

Library Director Honore Bray said they had intended to vacate the old library by September, though issues related to the pandemic have delayed the timeline by several weeks.

“We had hoped to be out of the old building by Sept. 1, because the city has it leased out already,” Bray told Missoula County commissioners on Thursday. “But things are coming along slower than expected due to the pandemic issues.”

Among them, Bray said the Seattle-based glass company was forced to suspend operations for several weeks. And while it has since ramped back up, production is running behind.

Other precautions have also forced a change in plans, including the “community brigade” once planned to celebrate the move by carting items from the old library into the new one. The pandemic required a different approach, Bray said, and it also has brought changes to how library staff handle book returns.

“We had to quarantine our returns for three days,” she said. “Since then, information has come down from the CDC that we need to quarantine for four days, not three, because any paper that has a slick surface shows traces of the virus after three days.”

Bray said it wasn’t possible to quarantine books in the old building due to a lack of space. But now that the books and other materials have been moved into the new facility, returns are placed in quarantine at the old library for the required timeline.

“We’re able now to quarantine the items coming back on the old shelving because it’s empty at this point,” Bray said. “Staff is working between both buildings.”

The Missoula City Council in July approved a contract with a property manager to lease the old library once its empty. Under the agreement, Zillastate will manage all leases on a short-term basis.

A philanthropist donated the old library block to the city in 2019 as construction on the new library kicked off. The old library will eventually be redeveloped, though that will require a master planning process, which hasn’t begun.

Construction crews have worked year-round on the new $37 million library since breaking ground in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With an eye on a new facility, 57% of Missoula County voters in 2016 approved the $30 million library bond. The remaining $7 million was raised through a capital campaign and other fundraising efforts.

“We paid $37 million for it, but the amount of in-kind donations from all the subcontractors has been tremendous,” Bray said. “It’s unbelievable they’d do that much in-kind work. We had a small contingency on this project and we wanted it to end up being the building everybody wanted.”

The new facility will offer roughly 109,000 square feet of space across four floors, and nearly double the capacity of the book collection. It will also house a number of community partners including public access television, the spectrUM Discovery Area and the Missoula Children’s Museum.

Library backers developed the “under one roof” concept after visiting Sweden in 2015. Bray said the facility’s partners will move into the new library in the coming weeks.

“Until we can actually move items in and set them in place, we’re not going to physically move in,” Bray said. “The books are there because the shelving is in place. The rest of us will wait until we’re positive we’re not in the way. It’s going to be a couple of weeks.”

The new library reflects Missoula’s growth and marks the latest iteration of city libraries dating back to the 19th century. The Higgins brothers opened what’s believed to be Missoula’s first library in 1891 by offering a couple of books in reading rooms lodged in the Higgins block in downtown Missoula.

A new library opened in 1911 in the building that now houses the Missoula Art Museum. The facility served its purpose until 1967, when Librarian Evelyn Swant warned that “additional space is desperately needed.”

City residents approved an $850,000 bond in 1972 to build the current library on East Main Street. It too served its purpose over the years but as Missoula grew, it became too small and obsolete.

As in 1972, Missoula County residents approved a new library bond in 2016, though the costs of construction had grown. The new facility represents a $37 million community investment.

“We’re hoping we can open some time in September,” Bray said. “We all need to understand that we don’t want to push the end of this project because we want it done complete and properly. The community will be extremely proud of what it has given to Missoula.”