Marvelous Missoula

Part of the charming center of this pretty college town, Missoula Public Library (MPL) is next to Kiwanis Park and easily accessible from the lovely path that follows the rushing Clark Fork River.  One way streets flank the two story building so they have front and back entrances, both with neon “OPEN” signs and bike racks.  Conveniently, they provide drive-up book returns, but you can also drop books at K-Mart, Barnes & Noble, one of the four branches in area schools, or at the Swan Valley log cabin location 1.5 hours away (and you can use your card to check out items at a number of other Montana libraries including Flathead County.)

Before entering from the large parking lot in back, pause to read the five quotes about libraries from famous people on the overhanging panels.  Once inside, the lower lobby has free books and magazines, information on the Montana State Fair and other local events, and a community bulletin board with a blown up calendar listing library programs.

As I went up the stairs to the top floor I noticed steps coming up from a small foyer by the front door that has easels promoting classes and the Civitella Espresso Bar downstairs (for yummy sandwiches and coffee – and there’s a link to its page from the “Services” link on the MPL website, which is a great way to ensure the cafe’s profitability) and a view of this beautiful hanging quilt.

In the upstairs lobby, a sign welcomes you in two languages (the facility has lots of very visible overhanging signs in Spanish and English – e.g. “Escritorio de referencia” at the Info Desk) and there’s a display case with sneakers advertising the three and eight kilometer fun run/walks sponsored by the Friends of Missoula Public Library – Book’n It for the Library.  Access for all is provided via an elevator and something I’d never seen before, a lift for larger wheelchairs (see picture below).

Just inside next to Entertainment Central, where maroon and gray metal shelves hold the media, mobile cases create an attractive and flexible browsing center for new fiction, staff picks, popular mysteries…

Customers pick up their own holds and most use the self check stations.  Perhaps due to the length of the drive that some of the 109,000 plus residents in MPL’s service area face (this is a HUGE state), there’s a generous four week loan period for most titles (some specially marked things just go out for 14 days) and you can borrow unlimited items.  Free homebound delivery is available for those who physically can’t come in and people just wanting to save gas and time can pay $3/package to have items delivered.

I chatted with a couple of very friendly and helpful staffers by the Reference Area.  Annie, the Circulation Supervisor, told me she loves the variety of work and how their virtual library has grown (it has streaming video, a downloadable audio and music service, and ebooks).  Cara in Reference said she really loves getting research questions about Missoula and Montana as she learns so many fascinating things – they have lots of great resources for local history, especially the staff.  When I mentioned how impressed I was with all the innovations they employ, they told me that MPL is a state leader and Director Honore Bray, who encourages them to try out new ideas, is a large part of that.  They also mentioned that a great group works on the website so it has everything you could possibly need.

They’re right – the website offers “Staff Picks and Readers’ Choice” as well as a “Montana Reads” section covering state authors, awards and One Book Montana entries.  It’s got a long list of library apps including BookMyne and HomeworkMT2Go, their free tutoring service, and they combine their databases with some excellent free resources to make complete online guides by subject.  There’s a Twitter account, a very active blog, two facebook pages (including one for teens), Flickr and YouTube sites, and one that I’d never heard of – Pinterest – an eboard community where you can post and comment on things you’d like to share.

Honestly, MPL has so many interesting features that it’s a bit difficult to know what to include here.  Of course they’ve got the usual resources that I love to see in libraries – PACS in the stacks, mini shopping carts, changing tables in both the men’s and women’s rooms, graphic novels and manga for all ages, chat with a librarian as well as test proctoring services, wifi, a newsletter, user displays,  an extensive selection of Book Chat Bags, three meeting rooms patrons can reserve, views of the surrounding mountains… – but there are a number of unique services too.

They are a US Passport Acceptance Facility.  They have print on demand USGS Topo Maps of MT and ID (so helpful for adventurers in the Mountain West).  They circulate DVD players, and near a model of the Liberty Bell hang multicolored travel packages for each state.  Three of the five study rooms are equipped with fully loaded desktop computers with scanners.  There’s a permanent technology petting zoo used for classes or demonstrations or patrons can fiddle around with them on their own.  Extra shelves for genre paperbacks hang off the ends of the stacks – rolling stools stored underneath are at hand, but won’t be tripped over.

The programs really grabbed my attention too.  I love Scrabble, and was delighted that I could go to my favorite movie, The Princess Bride, on my birthday, but there’s also a Socrates Café,  Wii Wednesdays, Global Lens (films from Rwanda, Morocco, Argentina…), a Know Montana series (Beer History was the July topic), Montana ghost stories and the Caledonian Dancers.  There are monthly book clubs, World Wide Cinema, Cheap Date Movie Nights, matinees, a Spanish Conversation group and even a Summer Party.

And MPL thinks outside its box – the bookmobile means the library is present at area events like the farmer’s market and they hold activities at local parks, both great ways to attract non users.

MPL’s main area decor is spiffy yet eclectic.  It takes up an entire block so it’s spacious, with room for all sorts of services.

There are lots of wood rocking chairs, study carrels and plants.  Beneath a colored light sculpture, overstuffed leather chairs surrounding a glass topped table with book stack legs create a funky modern area anchored by four tall, space saving, periodical turnstiles.

Nearby, the grandeur of the Audra Browman Research Room where the Montana and genealogy collections are housed provides an interesting architectural contrast.  Here, old fashioned globe chandeliers shine on model sailing ships preserved in glass atop the cases of historical tomes.  Then just outside, modernity returns with windowed offices and a Copy Center near a Reader’s Corner that markets resources and clubs for book lovers.

And then there’s the Children’s Area.  At the entrance, huge trunks support a long fairytale cottage roof where trolls and wishniks have built their homes.  Beneath, a short wavy shelf serves as a bench near a large case of kids’ magazines and a beguiling gnome treehouse.  Once inside you move from fairy tale to present day with a table of four search and two game computers for kids up to twelve.

It was so busy that it was hard to take photos, but I loved the hanging patchwork quilts, colorful dragon rug, big plush toys and homey furniture in its cozy reading room.  And the Arabian Nights effect of cutouts painted with stars on a dark blue background is visually arresting.

The Dream Big READ! SRP was in progress – kids get coupons for local eateries and have summer activities, plus at the Thursday movies everyone gets treats.  Besides the usual programs, kids can go to Lego Club, The Whizpops! (a party with dancing and live music), or see Jim the Science Guy and Raptors of the Rockies.

Lots of large windows give the library great light, openness, and a connection to the beautiful Missoula landscape.  Internal windows used as walls provide excellent line of sight – the ones in the young adult area that look onto Children’s are frequently decorated with literary and seasonal paintings by YA volunteers (volunteers donate thousands of hours to MPL every year).

The Young Adult area has four display shelves built into its entrance, plus eight internet computers for patrons from 13-19.  A cool blue neon YA sign, natty purple guitar man and cushy seating by tables modeled from gigantic atlases claim the space for adolescents.

Ongoing YA programs include two writing groups for middle and high school students and summer programs featured a zombie makeup session and a zombie movie night  (must be the SRP teen theme this year).

I asked Dana about the case of fascinatingly sculpted books just outside.  He teaches a class on altered books attended by customers from age six to eighty and pointed out lots more on the surrounding shelves.

I got a chance to meet one of the main reasons for all this enticing stuff.  Library Director Honore Bray was just great and so modest.  She credits others for most of the ideas, including the group of six staff she took to Richmond Public Library in BC, Canada to mine for ideas for the new building and thanks the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for their WOW (Web on Wheels) bus.  With eight internet stations, a reference librarian and a library assistant, it enables them to bring tech classes and help with downloading ebooks all over their vast service area.

And that’s just the upstairs!  Downstairs, another neon sign welcomes you to Web Alley, where Ira assists users with the twenty adult internet computers (and MPL has eight portable laptops for use within the building) amid posters advertising a very wide range of free computer help.  Classes on facebook, buying a computer, filling out online job applications, the auto repair database for DIYers and even cloud computing are offered along with the usual fare.  Out in the hall, solid wooden benches and these tall quartets of wooden, upholstery backed chairs with hinged tables let any queuers wait for a computer in comfort.

Congratulations MPL staff, board, volunteers and patrons – I think you’ve hit upon the perfect model for a vibrant public library!

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5 Responses to Marvelous Missoula

  1. Dave Rice says:

    Great article Justine!

  2. Cindy Salo says:

    I want to visit a library with you sometime–I miss a lot when I go by myself! I’ve visited-and loved-the Missoula Library, but I’ve always been passing through and in a hurry. My trips consist of grabbing a cuppa joe and plopping down in the nearest chair to bang out some emails before hitting the road again. I’ll have to make more time next trip.

  3. jshaffner says:

    That’d be great. Let me know if you’re ever in CO (anywhere east of Vail would be easy to get to for me) or in Cheyenne – I’ve always wanted to see that library. Also, we’re heading back east for a road trip soon so if you plan to be anywhere in the northern part of the US this fall…

  4. Rita says:

    Fantastic article, and great pictures! I am proud to say that I used to be a part of all this, and nice to see that so many things I helped out with are still going strong. Missoula has a great library, and now even more people know!

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