Libraries are a kind of paradise, to paraphrase a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. They are also community cornerstones, historically planted in the heart of any town.
In its 93-year-old home in downtown Kalispell, Flathead County’s main public library remains a vibrant patch of heaven, open to all and more popular than ever.
Last year over 300,000 people visited the library on First Avenue East. Visitors checked out more than 424,000 items, and this year’s total is up 10 percent over 2011 and 63 percent over five years ago.
Two weeks ago the facility underwent its latest transformation in response to the rising popularity. The result, unveiled Oct. 29, is a bright rejuvenation and noticeable rearrangement inside the classic two-story building.
The large checkout desk on the main floor has been removed and replaced with self-checkout stations. There’s now a new lounge area tucked in the corner alongside the popular section of DVDs and CDs. Staff now work from “perch stations” where they’re more available to help customers. The children’s section has been redecorated with colorful walls and shorter bookshelves, which creates a friendlier, more comfortable environment. With the relocation of the DVDs and CDs, the upstairs floor has more space for new furniture and reading areas.
“Most of the comments we’ve gotten from the public is, ‘How did you get more space?’” said Kim Crowley, director of the Flathead County Library System.
“But we didn’t. It’s the same building. There are little things you can do that are not terribly expensive.”
Change does not come easy for the largest library system in Northwest Montana. With facilities in Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Marion, the county libraries operate with a meager budget. On a nationwide average, states invest roughly $48 per person into libraries similar in size to the main Flathead County Library, according to the Public Library Survey, which analyzes statistics for over 9,000 institutions in the U.S. In Montana, the average per capita library funding is $23.80, but in Flathead County the revenue investment drops to $15.03 per person.
The latest renovation was made possible by a donation from the Flathead County Library Foundation and the Friends of the Flathead County Library. Twenty-five volunteers helped repaint the walls as part of Prudential’s Global Volunteer Day, when employees and community volunteers spend a day giving back to their community.
“We are lucky to have this energetic group of volunteers who are willing to donate their time,” Crowley said.
“We’re in a really old building and we wanted to make it more welcoming here and get staff out so they could be with customers,” she added.
There are plans for a potential new site for the main library but they remain in the early stages, according to Crowley. The library board continues to work on a facilities master plan that could be presented in the coming years. An assessment of the current site over 10 years ago found it was largely undersized for the valley’s population. The current site was originally built in 1919 as a post office. In 1969 the county library moved in and additions were made over the following decades to accommodate the community’s growing size.
Crowley said staff and board members continue to think of ways to overcome challenges and meet the increasing demand. Electronic books have become very popular along with movies and music, and staff is trying to increase those catalogs while also maintaining a quality selection of books.
“We do a lot with very little funding and we are always looking at new staffing models to keep up with the demand,” she said. “I think we have a great library system and we are constantly tweaking the way we provide services so that our users can have a great experience within the constraints of our meager budget.”
For more information about the Flathead County Library, including events and classes, visit flatheadcountylibrary.org, or call 758-5819.
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