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A bit like the Island of Misfit Toys from "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," Parmly Billings Library's basement is where neglected works of fiction — castaways, rarities and ones that aren't popular anymore — often wind up.

The Basement of Misfit Books, perhaps?

Called the Montana Last Copy Fiction Depository, it houses nearly 70,000 fiction volumes, some of which are more than 100 years old, from libraries around Montana and other northwestern states.

"The reason they came here is because nobody's reading them," library director Bill Cochran said. "Or they'd send it over when it got down to where there was only one book left in the system."

Until the late 1990s, the library took the books as a safety measure to ensure that, even if a book had fallen out of print or popularity, a copy was available somewhere.

The collection takes up about three-quarters of the 21,000-square-foot basement, sharing space with mechanical rooms, storage and the library's bookmobile and senior outreach offices.

Books of all shapes and sizes sit lined up from Z to A (it's backward for sorting and weeding-out purposes) in the basement's muted light.

It's the kind of place where a book junkie could spend hours getting lost. A peek at the shelves reveals a wide scope of fiction works, both once-popular and obscure.

Looking for a 1955 printing of Virginia S. Eifert's "The Buffalo Trace," a fiction tale of the adventures of Abraham Lincoln's grandfather and Daniel Boone? It's here.

A 1902 edition of "Elizabeth and Her German Garden" by Elizabeth von Arnim? That's here, too. Or perhaps 1970s and 1980s prints of the serialized Trixie Belden mysteries by Kathryn Kenny? Those are in the depository.

All of the books are available for checkout, but the basement isn't accessible to the public. Cochran said most of the checkouts happen when somebody's looking for a specific title or author.

"Old, less well-known mysteries, romance and sci-fi — kind of genre fiction — is the biggest," he said. "Or minor authors or the minor works of more famous authors."

All of the titles are available in the library's catalog system and through an inter-library loan program. A librarian retrieves the books upon request.

The depository was established in 1974 as the Pooled Resources Collection under then-director Robert Cookingham. Over the years, it operated using federal and Western Library Network grants from Washington state along with Montana State Library funds.

In 1998, the state library evaluated the depository and decided to cease funding. They felt it was a valuable resource but that the depository wasn't living up to its original mission of guaranteeing "the local or regional availability of titles that for reasons of age, specialty or marginal quality are not widely held."

Instead, the collection had swelled to 80,000 volumes, far more than the recommended 25,000 to 30,000. Part of the reason for the jump was that libraries weren't just sending last copies; they were unloading books.

"There's all kinds of stuff down there that has no basis for the original criteria," Cochran said. "It's just like anybody's basement or attic. It fills up."

As efforts to build a brand new library move forward, the depository probably won't be included in the plans. The latest designs from Phoenix architect Will Bruder don't even have a basement.

Cochran said that, while nothing is finalized, there are a few reasons behind that decision. First, with libraries moving toward digital records and access to collections across the globe, the need for a last-copy depository is diminishing.

"There are fewer times that people are trying to find a very esoteric subject or a specific edition with us," Cochran said.

Second, the books aren't checked out often. According to library records, 446 of the basement books were checked out in March, just a fraction of a percentage of the 69,599 in the collection. About 12.6 percent of the library's fiction collection on the second floor circulated during the same time.

Cochran said that each year books in the general fiction collection are checked out an average of four times while those in the depository are checked out 0.04 times.

If voters approve a bond issue to build the new library, many of the books could remain in circulation. Cochran said he'd like to contact other libraries in the state and ask if they'd be willing to take on a small portion of the collection, especially books that are rare or the only copy in the state.

"There are a number of people, I'm sure, that would be fans of that," he said. "For several decades it filled a kind of special need and that need isn't there as much anymore."

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Contact Zach Benoit at zbenoit@billingsgazette.com or 657-1357.

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