Missoula library campaign

Scott Stearns speaks to a crowd of folks gathered in the garden area of Missoula Public Library on Wednesday as a community group kicks off a campaign to pass an estimated $30 million bond issue on the November ballot. Stearns is the chairman of the "Vote YES for our library" campaign. 


There aren't many places where a Missoula resident can craft a resume, read a daily newspaper, get air for a bike tire and pick up the paperwork for a U.S. Passport.

"This is a one-stop shop for so many in the Missoula community," said attorney Scott Stearns outside of the Missoula Public Library on Wednesday.

Stearns, who chairs the Friends of the Library, was one of the leaders who kicked off a community committee-led effort to help pass a public library bond.

The bond measure will be around $30 million for voters to decide in November. Meanwhile, the library foundation wants to raise an additional $5 million to $8 million to complete the project. 

On Wednesday, leaders continued to stress the arguments for a new library, proposed to be built to the east of the existing structure, which was built in 1974. At that time, Missoula leaders said the library would last 30 years. Today, 42 years later, the boiler has repeatedly failed, costing thousands for each repair.

"We spent $10,000 each time and it's still cold in there in winter," said Rita Henkel, chairwoman of the Missoula Public Library Board of Trustees. 

The structure cannot have additions to it. The mechanical and electrical systems already are at their maximum capacity, she said. The only option now is to either live with the current library or build something new.

"We cannot renovate or add on," Henkel said.

And almost as if on cue, the "Web on Wheels" bookmobile snaked its way through the parking lot, careful to avoid the lot crammed full of vehicles. A few moments later, a second wave of young children made their way toward the entrance, being unsuccessfully shushed by careful teachers.


According to statistics provided at the kickoff, Missoula's library is just one-third the size it should be. 

"We're the state's busiest library, serving on average 1,500 people per day and yet on the main floor we have just 38 places for patrons to sit," Henkel said. "For every book we add to our collection, another book must be taken off the shelves."

The group said the largest hurdle will be to educate the community about the initiative.

"The library is more than just books," said Stearns. "Folks may not use it every day, but when they need it, they really need it."

He gave the example of getting the documents for a passport. For others, it's creating and sending a resume. The library serves as a community resource and a center to find information.

Graduating Hellgate High senior Max Firehammer, who is down to his last 48 hours of high school, highlighted a group of fiction writers who gather every week to share work, critique and give feedback.

"This group helped me keep writing because I had to have something to show to them every Friday at 3:30 when we met," Firehammer said.

It was the work he did with the group that ultimately helped create his future. A short story that he developed with the aid of his fellow authors was good enough to get him a scholarship to study writing at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, this fall. 

Missoula leaders also called for a new library that will serve the community for the next century, noting the successful new libraries built in Bozeman and Billings recently. 

"You can tell something about a community by its library," said Sheila Stearns, former Montana Commissioner of Higher Education who began her career as a librarian at Whittier Elementary in Missoula. "It is one of those essential pillars of a community."

The estimated $30 million bond would mean approximately $2.34 per month on a home valued at $200,000 -- or just a little more than $28 yearly. 

The new library would also house three non-profit groups which would rent space -- the University of Montana’s SpectrUM Discovery Area, the Children’s Museum Missoula, and Missoula Community Access TV, or MCAT. This would allow the groups to share programs and exhibits for free admission. SpectrUM and the Children's Museum have to charge to pay for rent in their current homes downtown.

Plans for a new building are still being honed, but the "dreams" of the group are for a four-story library of approximately 120,000 square feet. The current library is 42,000 square feet.

If the bond measure and private fundraising are successful, the new library would be constructed while the current one a block to the west at 301 E. Main St. remains open. 

"I grew up in this library," said Elke Govertsen, publisher of Mamalode, a mom-oriented magazine, website and event production company. "I learned how to ask questions and I learned how to dream here.

"This library is where I come whenever I have a new dream." 

--Reporter Kim Briggeman contributed to this story.

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