It was an ordinary Wednesday in February until it quickly became an extraordinary one. Tony Edmundson remembers it well. He and his staff at the public library in Columbia Falls noticed a surge of visitors as soon as the doors opened at 10 a.m. Some were families enjoying the popular preschool story time program. Others were teenagers gathering to hang out, or adults using computers to fill out job resumes or leisurely read. Until the doors closed at 7 p.m., the swell of people never subsided.
“I was there all day, and all day the staff kept thinking, ‘Is it as busy as it seems?’” Edmundson recalled.
The library in downtown Columbia Falls was indeed busier than usual — the electronic door counter tallied a whopping 600 people that day, the most for a single day on record.
It was an uncommon mark but not altogether surprising. In the last few years, as Flathead County’s library system has undergone an ambitious rebranding effort and staff members have engaged their communities more than ever with innovative educational programs, visitor traffic has experienced a noticeable uptick.
The trend is particularly evident in Columbia Falls, where the public library on Sixth Street West has become a bustling community gathering spot that averages nearly 400 people on Wednesdays and slightly fewer during the rest of the week.
“We’re seeing a steady increase in foot traffic in the library all day long,” said Edmundson, the manager of the Columbia Falls ImagineIf library branch.
The site underwent a significant renovation in the fall of 2015 to evolve from its traditional library layout. Pickup stations were redesigned and self-checkout areas were established, which freed up staff members to engage with visitors and lead programs, such as the preschool story time or most recently a seed library.
The library has teamed up with the Good Seed Co. to create a seed library that is open to the public. The goal is to offer anyone, regardless if they have a library card, the resources they need to grow their own food. The library offers seeds, informative flyers, books and workshops. After someone’s harvest, they are asked to continue the cycle and return a few seeds for others.
“This brings the community together and promotes food sustainability and self-sufficiency,” Edmundson said. “People like to do that in Columbia Falls.”
As part of the renovation, the library also created designated areas for certain age groups as a way to nurture spaces that are comfortable and welcoming.
This new style of library may seem different than the traditional model, but the core mission remains the same, Edmundson said.
“We’re still a library,” he said. “We’re just finding new ways to engage (visitors) and teach them at the same time.”
This includes playful activities and programs for kids and families that incorporate learning, or working with adults to help them with new technology and information literacy.
The success isn’t going unnoticed. In late March, Edmundson received the 2017 Outstanding Support Staff of the Year Award from the Montana Library Association. Edmundson joined the Kalispell library nearly 12 years ago, starting as a book-shelver and growing into an assistant role before becoming manager in Columbia Falls.
“Tony is a critical part of our team, and our library system is unquestionably better because of him,” said Sean Anderson, senior librarian for collection management and branch services at ImagineIf Libraries. “He is a powerful advocate for the resources we offer our community and acts as a connecting point for all staff, regardless of position.”
For more information about ImagineIf Libraries, visit http://imagineiflibraries.org.