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Planning for Parmly Billings Library’s second century is in the works, even before the celebration for its first 100 years is over.

In February, the Billings City Council approved a five-year capital-improvement plan that includes putting a $10-million bond issue for a new library before voters in November 2002.

Since 1969, the library has been in a building at 510 N. Broadway that was built as a hardware store in 1955. Public areas of the library are on the first and second floors with storage in the basement and meeting rooms on the third floor. Some city offices are on the fourth floor.

Although the building has been a good home for much of its stay, the library has outgrown the facility, said Bill Cochran, library director.

When the library moved into its present quarters 32 years ago, the main function of the library was to check books in and out.

“The building worked well for that,” Cochran said.

But the building hasn’t been able to keep pace with a growing population and new sources of information.

The building is well designed to hold book stacks, but not the number of people who come through each day.

“It’s grossly inadequate,” Cochran said.

The library has about 50,000 active card holders.

Last fiscal year, 341,788 people — about 1,000 each day — used the two floors main of the library. If the number of people coming to gatherings on the third floor is added, it totals 352,420.

The library’s Summer Reading Program alone has attracted more than 2,000 children this year.

Not only is the building heavily used, its two-level configuration makes it more difficult to move materials around and requires more staff and security.

The library has 284,382 items, a total that includes books was well as newer forms of information such as videos, tapes and compact discs. That number has remained fairly constant over the last decade because there is no more room to store them, Cochran said. As new items are received, others have to be weeded out.

Between 13,000 to 15,000 items are circulated from the library each week.

Materials circulated through the library’s Infomobile alone totals another 36,970 items each year, up 4.4 percent from last year.

A program that takes books to homebound senior citizens and those in retirement and nursing facilities circulates 37,283 items each year. Circulation for that program is up 22 percent over last year.

The library’s collection is undersized for the population it serves.

The statewide average in Montana for library items per capita is 3.13. Just to reach that average, the Billings library collection would have to increase its holdings to 380,000 items.

As a comparison, the Twin Cities library system in Minnesota has 12 items per capita.

Audio-visual items, such as videos and compact discs, now account for one-third of the library’s circulation.

Each new medium carried by the library requires its own shelving, which has cut into space for tables and chairs for patrons. For every new display case of books-on-tape or CDs, another reading table or two must be taken out.

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Although the library recently doubled the number of Internet terminals, there still is a waiting line to use them.

The library also is operating with a lean staff. Twenty years ago, it had 40 full-time staffers. Today, even after a 1994 5-mill property-tax increase for the library added four more employees, the library has only 28-1/2 full-time staff members.

The library’s heating and ventilation systems need to be replaced. The phone system and wiring for Internet connections also are inadequate.

An 1997 estimate of updating just utilities was $2 million.

The well-worn appearance of the library also could stand an update. The library should be a “proud statement of the spirit of the community,” Cochran said.

Although no longer well suited for the library, the building itself remains a substantial structure and could put to another good use if the library moves, Cochran said.

Before the election next year, a cost-benefit analysis will have to been done to see whether a new building should be constructed or the current building retrofitted.

The five-year plan also calls for another ballot measure in 2005 that would ask voters for $7 million for a city services campus in Billings Heights with a pool, branch library and police offices.

If the Heights campus is approved and works well, there may be a request for a similar site on the West End in the future.

Public libraries are a unique gift of the American people to the world, and the Billings library continues an important mission, Cochran said.

“There aren’t too many civil spaces in the community,” he said. “Libraries are civic space where everyone is equal and where the whole community can come together.”

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