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West End library plan depends on city, MSU-B
West End library plan depends on city, MSU-B

An idea hatched over a cup of coffee could result in better library service for Billings' West End several years from now.

During a January conversation between Parmly Billings Director Bill Cochran and John Cech, dean of the Montana State University-Billings College of Technology, an idea emerged for a joint city-university library to be built on the College of Technology campus at 3803 Central Ave. near Shiloh Road.

After several more discussions, including a preliminary presentation to a work session of the Billings City Council, a plan for a new West End library is taking shape.

Under the plan, still in its earliest stages, the city and MSU-B would split the cost of building a $9-million, 50,000-square-foot library on the College of Technology campus.

The building would be separate from the college's current building and would be built on land now owned by the college. The new library would probably be placed south of the current COT building and would front on Central Avenue.

The library also would operate as a branch of Parmly Billings Library in downtown Billings and would be open to the public, as all MSU-B libraries are.

Supporters say such a library is needed for several reasons, including:

- Parmly Billings Library is struggling to keep up with the demands of a growing city.

Even though the number of staff members hasn't increased much in recent years, the number of items circulated has increased from about 300,000 per year 12 years ago to about 850,000 this year.

- The current 970-square-foot College of Technology library is inadequate to serve its 620 students. The college may have 2,000 students in four years, Cech said, and, as enrollment grows, a bigger library will be needed.

The current COT library has only four computers for students. Only 12 students can study in the library at a time.

"We're in desperate need for more study space," said Jane Howell, director of the MSU-B Library.

The current COT library is open 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday.

The proposed library would be open many more hours, including evenings and weekends to serve students attending night and Saturday classes.

The new library also is expected to have a children's area and public meeting rooms for classes and programs, enabling it to become a community center for the West End, Howell said.

The Parmly Billings Library Board and staff support the idea of a branch library at the COT, Cochran said.

Even before Parmly Billings Library moved to its present quarters at 510 N. Broadway in the 1960s, the library board discussed the possibility of four or five branch libraries some day, Cochran said.

For a few years, the library did have a branch facility in Evergreen shopping center.

The library's Infomobile visits the West End every two weeks, but can offer only limited service with a small number of books and materials. Working parents have a difficult time using the Infomobile, which follows a weekday, daytime schedule.

To find out more

Plan organizers for a proposed city-university library welcome public comment, says John Cech, dean of the Montana State University-Billings College of Technology.

To comment and for information, call Cech at 656-4445 ext. 127, e-mail at: jcech@cot.msubillings.edu or Jane Howell, director of the Montana State University-Billings Library, at 657-2320, e-mail at: JLHowell@msubillings.edu.

Opening a branch library wouldn't reduce services offered at Parmly Billings downtown and would relieve some of the pressure on its overworked staff, Cochran said.

A branch library in the Heights, possibly in connection with a branch COT campus, could be another joint city-MSU-B project in the future, Cochran and Cech said.

The idea of a joint library venture isn't new.

Roundup and Winnett are two Montana towns with combined public school-community libraries, Cochran said.

Cech has visited several community colleges in other parts of the country that share libraries with local governments.

One example is a branch facility of a downtown Irving, Texas, library built at the edge of town at Northlake Community College.

"It's worked beautifully," Cech said.

MSU-B might tap into private and federal grants and donations to pay for its share of the library cost.

Considering how strapped state finances are, it would be difficult to expect the state to come up with the money for the total cost of a new college library in the next few years, Howell said. The state has been more receptive to projects that are at least partially funded through private or federal sources.

The city would go to the voters for all or part of its $4.5-million share. That amount would be included in a bond issue of between $3 million and $8 million to be used for the renovation of the downtown city library; that measure is scheduled to come before city voters in November 2005.

That bond issue is part of the city's Capital Improvement Plan.

Money raised through the Parmly Billings Library Foundation, the Friends of Library and federal grants could lower the amount that the city has to ask from voters for the new branch library, Cochran said.

Would voters approve a bond issue in 2005 after they defeated a $12 million bond issue for a new downtown library last fall?

The 45 percent support that the 2002 bond issue drew was a strong showing considering that the country was in its third year of a bad economy and a teacher's strike and a war in Iraq both loomed on the horizon, Cochran said.

Joint ventures like that for the College of Technology library are a good value for scarce public dollars during tough hard economic times, and such projects are expected to have broad public appeal, supporters say.

"It's a way to share expenses and operate in the most efficient way possible," Howell said.

The library is from three to five years away from being built.

City and MSU-B facility managers will be discussing the proposed library this summer and fall. A community survey on the library will be prepared later this year. A formal proposal to the city council might be made in April 2004.

Mary Pickett can be reached at 657-1262 or at mpickett@billingsgazette.com.

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