As the Billings Public Library serves more and more new customers, librarians have detected new and sometimes unforeseen problems from people who they say are among the newest library card carriers.

“There is a whole group of people who want to be here in the new building, but don’t have much experience being here,” library director Bill Cochran said Wednesday. “Kids see more tempting play areas than they did at the old library.”

Behavior problems have become so prevalent recently that last week the library’s board of directors approved a revised customer behavior policy that includes: “Parents or chaperones of children who violate this policy will receive the same warnings and penalties as the children.”

Problems are occurring throughout the $20-million library, which opened in January.

A number of children left unattended in the First Five Years section of the children’s section get bored when they can’t figure out how the interactive display works, and resort to playing hide-and-seek or “using the red bench there as a racetrack,” as children’s librarian Cindy Patterson put it. The First Five Years portion of the children’s section is specifically designed for parents and young children to enjoy together, she said, “but it’s not being used the way it was designed to be used,” she said.

A few children — and even some adults — have ventured into the reflecting pool, some to pocket the coins placed in the water. Cochran said there’s a plan to construct a rail around the pool.

Children tend to self-monitor behavior at the reflecting pool, Patterson said.

“They’ll tell each other, ‘You can’t take that (coin). It’s somebody’s wish,’” she said.

The Story Tower, which was not designed to remain open to the public when it’s not in use for story-telling sessions, has had to remain closed following the first week of the library opening in January.

A few children used the relative privacy of the Story Tower to pile up pillows and jump into them, or start pillow fights. The large red chair inside the Story Tower was damaged by the rowdiness.

Nowadays, she said, library tours for children and the people who watch them begin at the Story Tower, where camp counselors and others who will be in the library often during the summer months are shown the unique feature — there are only two in the nation, the other being at the Agave Library in Phoenix — and where “we let them know what we expect” out of them and the children they’ll be supervising, Patterson said.

“You try to correct people as gently as possible,” Patterson said. But one day recently she was told “I’d ruined somebody’s library experience by asking them not to run and jump” in the children’s section.

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Cochran said that all three staffers who work in the children’s section of the library “have talked about incidents where they’ve been under a lot of stress. It’s not kids,” for the most part, he added. “It’s the adults.”

Designs on a quality and safe space

The very design of the library, with its improved sight lines, its openness and airiness, its enhanced lighting and even the storage shelves placed near the door for homeless and other people to store their oversized gear, is a response to what people said they wanted in a new library, Cochran said. People have said they appreciate the gear being stored on shelves rather than on the floor, Cochran said.

“What that’s done is that people aren’t identifying homeless people as homeless, because they blend in” without all their gear to carry around, Patterson said. “I have seen people having conversations with people I’m sure they had no idea are homeless. They look like every other person.”

Cochran said most library users don’t typically encounter homeless people unless it’s on a sidewalk or at the library.

“The perception is out there that there’s a correlation between libraries and what people call the homeless,” he said. “They are entitled to be here, unless their conduct takes them away from here. If they are low-income, or their appearance is such, it doesn’t necessarily mean their conduct is bad. For years we have separated appearance from conduct. We are all entitled as citizens to be in the library.”

Library staffers have attended workshops to deal with people with mental illnesses, including one from a Great Falls reference librarian with a mental illness. For most of the day, two security guards are on duty. Security cameras are spread throughout the library.

“We have really tried from the very first days (of designing and constructing the new library) to make it a welcoming environment for everybody, with the difference being a strong focus on safety,” Cochran said.

Children’s safety in the library is, of course, a paramount concern. There’s only one way into the children’s section, in part so that staff can make sure that adults who are present are there because they’re with children.

Unlike many other libraries, the Billings Public Library allows children 10 and younger to use the library without having their parent or chaperone by their side, but that’s a policy that may be revisited, Cochran said, “as soon as we learn what the new normal will be like,” perhaps a year or so from now.

“We will be watching to see how all the new families that signed up for cards are getting used to the library and are more in tune to what the conduct should be,” Cochran said. “We are so happy to have so many more people in the library, and we are all getting to know each other.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.