The land swap agreement would allow the Missoula Public Library to remain open while a new 121,000-square-foot, four-story facility is being built on the block directly to the east.

American public libraries stand next to democracy itself as one of this nation’s greatest social experiments. First established among various churches in the 1700s, our public libraries have come to represent the greatest single source of equal access to opportunity found in our great republic.

Libraries have always been filled with resources available for free to anyone. But today’s modern libraries are much different than those of days gone by. Think of today’s libraries not only as reading and research centers, but as community toolkits that provide individuals with the resources they need to grow.

For our children, libraries are the starting point for lifelong learning. For many, the library provides the first experience of magical transformation of written characters of language to stories, ideas and information – in a word, reading. The literacy habits libraries establish within the minds of children as young as toddlers are fundamental to human success.

For teens, adults and seniors, libraries are also places of discovery. They provide job-seekers with tools they need to gain employment, entrepreneurs with resources to start businesses, artists with cultural enrichment and space for collaborative expression, and the list goes on.

But here’s the truth in Missoula: Our own public library is almost half a century old and nowhere near able to meet the demands of a growing community.

Our library is stuffed floor to ceiling. Every inch of floor and shelf space is filled, with no room for as much as a single new book, computer or printer. This essential public resource lacks space to provide the fundamentals that characterize modern, up-to-date public libraries. With just 38 seats on the main floor, our library cannot even provide adequate seating for the 1,500 individuals who daily cross the building’s threshold.

As business leaders in this community, we see opportunity in the proposed bond to build an expanded, up-to date public library as an investment in Missoula’s future and prosperity. And the beauty of it is the library will be for everyone, not just the chosen few. This is a rare opportunity.

Our new library will serve people from all walks of life, including job seekers and employers, students, seniors, families and people who live on fixed incomes. Our new library will meet the needs of a growing community and changing society, providing everyone with access to computers and internet for work, school and communication. Our new library will be a one-stop-shop for Missoula children and adults to gain skills and improve their future opportunities. Our new library will have 21st century technology that many Missoula individuals cannot afford at home – free access to technology levels the playing field for each resident, rich or poor, young or old. Our new library will better meet community demand for expanded meeting space. And our new library will better serve those residents outside the city, by providing greater access to library services and collections via the six branch libraries throughout Missoula County.

We see expanding and updating our library as a sound investment to be made now. With interest rates at a historic low, our community can take advantage of reduced long-term costs and maximal long-term benefits. The bond will cost approximate $2.34 per month for a home valued at $200,000, cheaper than one latte. Billings and Bozeman recently bonded for and built new libraries, and they have experienced an increase in economic activity in the business districts surrounding their libraries.

What is more, the board of trustees negotiated a unique land exchange, where the new library will be built one block east of the existing facility, allowing the existing library to remain open while the new facility is under construction. But only if we act now.

We urge our fellow business people and all Missoula county residents to vote yes for our public library this fall.

Aimee McQuilkin owns Betty’s Divine and is the current president of the Missoula Downtown Association. Tom Boone is a retired attorney of counsel with Boone Karlberg PC.

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