Library usage was already high in Bozeman, but it really took off after a new public library opened there in 2006.
In 2005, just under 46 percent of the library’s service population of 47,805 people held library cards. That rose to 47 percent in 2006, shot up to almost 54 percent in 2007 and stood at 60 percent last year.
In Billings, by contrast, only 39 percent of the Parmly Billings Library’s service population of over 123,000 held library cards in 2010, according to the Montana State Library.
Circulation also rose dramatically after Bozeman’s new library opened, climbing from just under 500,000 in 2005 to 672,000 last year. In Billings, with a much larger service population, circulation rose from 854,000 to 944,000 in the same period.
Alan Kesselheim, a 25-year volunteer for the Bozeman library board, foundation and Friends group, said the library also has become the city’s civic focal point.
“It’s become this building that people take their out-of-town relatives to and that everybody’s really proud of,” he said.
The process of actually building the library was “very convoluted,” Kesselheim said. Voters passed a $4 million bond issue that was used to purchase and clean up what had been a Superfund site on the east end of Bozeman’s Main Street. That was in 2001.
Library supporters spent the next three years raising the rest of the money from individuals, foundations and businesses. By then, the price tag had risen to $17 million, which meant another year of fundraising before ground was finally broken in 2005.
“If we had known how hard it was going to be, I don’t know if any of us would have signed up,” Kesselheim said.
One interesting development was that the information technology revolution was really taking off as plans for the library were being laid. People wondered if there was a future for a building mostly devoted to books.
It still has lots of books, but it also has computer stations, large-print books for the vision impaired, community outreach and adult programming, speakers, art displays, technology classes, book clubs, computers labs and a coffee shop.
“Far from dying off in a whisper ... I think the role and purpose of a library has really proliferated,” Kesselheim said.
The experience of improving the library was much different in Lawrence, Kan., which is about the same size as Billings and where voters passed an $18 million library bond issue last year.
Library board chairwoman Deborah Thompson said the library expansion and renovation will cost $19 million; the foundation has pledged to raise $1 million of that.
The expanded library will have 67,000 square feet, 1,000 more than the square footage in Billings’ proposed new library. In Lawrence, the old library, built in 1972, will be renovated and an addition built on. A large part of the project is a $4 million parking garage, necessary because parking is scarce in the heart of a historic downtown, Thompson said.
As in the proposal for Billings, which includes an enclosed courtyard outside a community meeting room in the new library, Lawrence’s library will have a plaza between the parking garage and the library, to be used for concerts and other events.
Echoing a theme mentioned by Kesselheim and supporters of a new Billings library, Thompson said that in Lawrence, “the library is the living room of the community. It is the gathering place.”