As a parent, the Kalispell ImagineIF Library is an activity cornerstone for my two young boys, a lifeline on rainy days, a social and cultural nexus. Judging by the large crowds of families and school field trips regularly found there, I’m clearly not alone.
Indeed, the library is much more than a place to check out books, although it is that, too. It is a family-oriented community center, diligently nurtured by a dedicated staff, foundation and board led by former director Kim Crowley and new director Connie Behe. ImagineIF’s other facilities in Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Marion play similar roles.
My family frequents the Kalispell library’s free-play zone and attends a number of its organized children’s activities, including its “Books and Babies” and “Storytime” sessions. Additionally, in conducting research for my job, I have spent hours perusing the library’s expansive collection of microfiche newspaper archives dating back more than a century. And, yes, I have checked out books there.
Thanks to its forward-thinking leadership, the library has incorporated an array of digital materials, hands-on educational resources, skill-building opportunities and outreach projects with an emphasis on experiential learning. While the delivery method may differ from your grandparents’ library, Behe says the fundamental mission remains identical: providing equal access to information, bolstering an informed citizenry and fostering a productive democracy.
All of that is to say ImagineIF is a foundational institution in our community, which brings us to the recent news that the Flathead County Commission no longer intends to include libraries in its capital-improvement plan because it doesn’t want to own the facilities.
That doesn’t mean the Kalispell library or others in Flathead County communities are changing in any noticeable way. The county will continue paying for operations. But it does mean critical facility upgrade plans now face uncertainty. The libraries lease their current locations through good-faith relationships, and the specter of owners selling the properties looms. Furthermore, the Kalispell library in particular is bursting at the seams.
Behe, the library director, says Kalispell is the lone city of the “Big Eight” in Montana to not have a library owned by the city or county.
The county had previously included in its capital-improvement plan $1.6 million for a Bigfork library project in fiscal year 2021 and $1.5 million in fiscal year 2023 for a Kalispell land purchase to build a new facility. In fiscal year 2024, the county had a $4.4 million request for the Columbia Falls library and $17 million for the new Kalispell library. None of that money was dedicated, however.
ImagineIF hopes to build a new library along the forthcoming trail system that will replace the railroad tracks, a project that is expected to redevelop that often blighted corridor. One developer is reportedly seeking to build a $10-million-plus mixed-use project based on the library’s presence as an anchor tenant. Now that investment and others could be in jeopardy.
In 2014, the previously named Flathead County Library System launched a rebranding project called ImagineIF Libraries. The following year the Montana Library Association named it library of the year.
The rebranding was much more than a name change and new look; it ushered in an innovative lineup of interactive programming and put forth an expansive community vision. Its cultural footprint has grown steadily in step with that vision, and it will continue doing so. But it needs room to grow.