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Conceptual design of new library

The conceptual designs for the new Missoula County Public Library, which is contingent on voters approving a bond for up to $30 million, include a large fourth-floor terrace and meeting room. 

Another contentious campaign season is well underway, and as usual in a major election year, the candidates and issues vying for votes are adding a lot of noise to an already raucous summer.

Your quiet public library is the place to cut through the clamor and this year in particular, it’s an invaluable resource for Missoulians in more ways than one. It’s neutral territory from which to get good information about the people and initiatives appearing on this November’s ballot. And it’s the place to conduct on-the-ground research on one local ballot measure specifically: a proposal for a new Missoula Public Library.

Missoula voters ought to plan on paying at least one visit, and perhaps several visits, over the next few months to gauge the need for themselves. They’ll find that the busiest library in Montana is past due for replacement.

Of course, the biggest concern with making such a major replacement is cost. The bond measure to build a new library totals about $30 million, which breaks down to $2.34 per month per $200,000 in home value. That’s less than $30 a year.

Additionally, library supporters are busily raising at least another $5 million, and possibly as much as $8 million, in private donations to ensure the new building starts off on the best possible footing.

Taxpayers weary of adding yet another bond to their household expenses should be first in line when the library opens its doors tomorrow morning. They will find themselves among the estimated 1,500 people who use the library each day. They may also find the computer labs full and every seat occupied.

The current building counts 42,000 square feet – making it about one-third the size it should be to serve a population the size of Missoula’s. The bond measure would fund the construction of a building large enough to house a growing library, and make good use of every last bit of space in the meantime.

The library building will be dramatically enhanced as a community asset by housing three local nonprofits offering free public admission: the University of Montana spectrUM Discovery Area, Children’s Museum Missoula and Missoula Community Access Television.

And fear not, downtown devotees: the library will remain in downtown Missoula, very near its current location. A few weeks ago, Missoula’s city council members voted to accept a land swap that paves the way for the new library building to go up about one block east of the current site at 301 E. Main St. This means the library will remain open for business at its current location while the new building is being completed.

In addition to the limitations of its current size, the library is struggling with limitations brought on by age. The building that currently houses the library was meant to last for about 30 years: it is now more than 40 years old. Like many similarly sized buildings of that era, the boilers and plumbing are beginning to fail with regularity, and repairs become more difficult and expensive with each passing year. These days, boiler repairs alone are running about $10,000 per failure. That’s money that ought to be spent on obtaining the latest resources for library patrons.

The bond proposal is the result of more than five years of research and community discussion. Can Missoula afford to wait another five years?

After all, a library is so much more than books. It is music, movies, maps, photographs, historical documents, internet access – and reference librarians to offer guidance through the unlimited maze of materials. Missoula’s new library will be able to offer more access to the digital tools and technology so necessary to today’s students, job-seekers and news junkies.

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It’s the space where organizations like the Sierra Club can host a free public class on lightweight backpacking. Where tots can gather for Tiny Tales, where free meals are served to children during the summer months, where families can gather to watch family-friendly movies. It’s where students of all ages can practice arts and crafts, take computer classes and participate in community meetings.

And it provides access to this essential world of information without regard for one’s ability to pay. In this way, libraries play an essential role in a community, bringing people from all walks of life and with vastly different interests together while providing the least fortunate with the tools needed to improve their lives. A library says a lot about the community in which it’s located. What do we want our library to say about Missoula?

Bozeman answered that question when its residents came together to build a new library in 2006. Billings did the same more recently when it opened the doors to its new award-winning library in 2014.

And just a couple of months ago, nearly 300 residents of Missoula County answered that same question when they signed a letter asking Missoula County’s commissioners for the choice to vote on a general obligation bond to fund a new library. All three commissioners agreed to place the measure on the ballot, and earlier this month, a new citizens committee called Yes for Missoula Library marked its official launch with the goal of providing information to encourage votes for the bond.

Count us with the bibliophiles and library lovers, and count us among the many Missoulians who support the bond measure to build a new Missoula Public Library.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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