The new Billings public library: A community decision

NEW LIBRARY in Billings, MT. Image provided by Candi Millar.

NEW LIBRARY in Billings, MT. Image provided by Candi Millar.

by Candi Millar, AICP, Billings, Montana

When the Planning and Community Services Department for the City of Billings and Yellowstone County in Montana suffered serious financial difficulties during the 2009 recession, the department contracted out planning services to other departments to generate revenue. Among these projects that the Planning Division prepared was the Facility Site Location Plan for the library. Department Director Candi Millar, AICP, organized  and facilitated the library plans that played a critical  role in the creation of the new Billings Public Library. She describes the process in this article.

IDENTIFYING THE NEED, ENVISIONING THE FUTURE

I visited the Parmly Billings Library just about every work day for 13 years. Not because I am a reading fanatic, but because my office was on the fourth floor of the same building. As I passed the offices of Library Administration, a bumper sticker displayed at the counter proclaims “A great community deserves a great library.” This seemed like a specious statement as I looked around at 40-year-old carpet, sagging bookshelves and decrepit furniture. Billings is a great community but the library was old, outdated and unappealing. Regardless of the building condition, the library served over 353,000 visitors annually and supported the highest circulation in the state: 979,928 items circulated annually.

The library thrived because staff carefully crafted their services to meet the needs of the community. The service profile was developed through decades of iterative strategic planning. The City-County Planning Division assisted in the development of the latest strategic plan in 2009. From this plan emerged a vision for a new service array and a new facility to accommodate the changing information needs of the patrons.

The planning process was modeled after the process described in The New Planning for Results.1 This process utilized a Planning Committee and citizen focus groups to examine current community conditions, identify community needs and envision future service options. Sound familiar? The planning process mirrored a similar procedure recognizable to community planners as comprehensive planning – only at a finer grain.

From an extensive list of community needs and desires, the committee selected only those a library could address, and developed preliminary library service responses, facility types, and location preferences. The library staff then used its expertise to match potential programs, services and delivery modes with the desired items. The Library Board monitored the planning process on a monthly basis and provided direction for each phase of the process.

A library service response is defined as “what a library does for, or offers to, the public in an effort to meet specific community needs.”

The planning process described in The New Planning for Results begins with considering the community as a whole, as opposed to immediately focusing on library needs. The process involved a visioning exercise and needs assessment that eventually refined the needs of the community to a list of 18 library service responses.

From the list of library service responses, the Planning Committee and library staff independently chose six priority responses. Happily and coincidentally, each group chose the same six service responses based on the community and library needs assessments:

  1. Connect to the Online World: Public Internet Access
  2. Know Your Community: Community Resources and Services
  3. Learn to Read and Write: Adult, Teen, and Family Literacy
  4. Satisfy Curiosity: Lifelong Learning
  5. Stimulate Imagination: Reading, Viewing and Listening for Pleasure
  6. Visit a Comfortable Place: Physical and Virtual Spaces

With the priority service responses selected, library Administration was able to develop a mission statement, goals, and objectives for the library’s future. Finally, staff assigned activities for the library to meet public goals and objectives.

Parmly Billings Library Mission Statement: Parmly Billings Library provides access to the world of social and cultural ideas by offering a wide variety of materials in multiple formats, information and programs. The Library ignites a passion for reading, lifelong learning, intellectual pursuits, and community involvement to improve and maintain quality of life for patrons of all ages.

FINDING A COMFORTABLE PLACE

All but one of the service responses required modification of, or enhancement to, existing library services. The one service response that actually dealt with physical surroundings led library Administration to conclude that a Comfortable Place could not be adequately created in the existing building. Within a year of adopting the Strategic Plan, the library once again contracted with the Planning Division to facilitate the selection of a new main library location.

Another steering committee, this time composed of design professionals, attorneys, realtors, and engineers met monthly to develop evaluation criteria for site selection. Results from the earlier Strategic Plan narrowed the site to the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. Potential sites were also evaluated for size, accessibility, and proximity to other facilities. A statistically-valid survey was conducted to gauge public preference for the library location and to understand the context of visits to the library: Were they combined with other errands? What mode of transportation was used? What on-site amenities are desirable?2

The existing site has several advantages that many potential sites lacked, such as being located on a bus route, near the hospitals and the downtown core, fronting a two-way street, and ample surface parking. The value of these attributes became overwhelmingly obvious as over 50 possible sites were evaluated and eliminated as options. As an added bonus, the city owned a number of parcels surrounding the existing building that could be reconfigured and used to negotiate land swaps with adjacent landowners. After nine months of evaluation, the preferred location for the new library was only slightly different from the existing library.

In the journey to create a new public library, planning and public input proved valuable in determining service needs, location and design. Planning also proved its worth in fundraising. The previous effort to obtain voter approval for a new library bond in 2002 was close but unsuccessful. Due to difficulty in advancing a vision for the new library, the public was not inclined to financially support an unknown quantity. Lesson learned: provide the public with a tangible example of what taxpayer’s money will buy. Creating this surety requires all the aforementioned planning efforts as well as a conceptual design. The design would be used as part of the marketing effort for the bond campaign and, therefore, must precede the election. Finding funding to complete the design was the responsibility of the Parmly Billings Library Foundation and Board of Trustees.

Demolish. Old makes way for the new. Photo by Candi Millar, AICP.

Demolish. Old makes way for the new. Photo by Candi Millar, AICP.

During a survey conducted to judge the non-tax funding capacity for a new library, an anonymous donor emerged willing to contribute $2 million towards the building design. The initial donation opened the head gates for further contributions and an additional $3 million was raised from other private sources. Another lesson learned: solicit financial support in advance of the bond election to demonstrate private commitment and offset the costs to the taxpayers.
On the day of the Library Bond election, Nov. 8, 2011, the Library Foundation along with the Library and City Administration, held a commitment for $5 million in donations, a location for the facility, and a building design created by the nationally-acclaimed architectural firm, Will Bruder + Partners. The 2009 Library Strategic Plan, the 2010 Facility Location Plan, the 2011 fundraising and design efforts paid off magnificently. On Nov. 9, 2011, the City of Billings awoke to the promise of a new $18.3 million public library.

The official groundbreaking was held on a hot day in June 2012 when 300 people touched fingertip to fingertip to outline the future foundation of the new library. At the reception preceding the groundbreaking, Will Bruder, the project’s principal architect, took attendants on an imaginary tour of the new building. Over the course of a year and a half, the vision took shape rising as a magnificent wedge of architectural innovation covering half a city block.
I no longer have to pass through the library each day on my way to work because the Planning and Community Services Department had to move as the old library was decommissioned. After 18 months of construction, the Billings Public Library opened to the public on January 6, 2014, and I was one of the first through its doors. How indescribably proud I was to see the components of the Library Strategic Plan, facilitated by the Planning Division, incorporated into the interior design.

So many elements of the new Billings Public Library in Montana defy the traditional idea of a library and are so well incorporated into this energy efficient and sustainable structure. Photo by Candi Millar, AICP.

So many elements of the new Billings Public Library in Montana defy the traditional idea of a library and are so well incorporated into this energy efficient and sustainable structure. Photo by Candi Millar, AICP.

I remember how I silently questioned the need for a coffee shop, an indoor water feature, a craft area and an outdoor children’s garden, yet here they were as envisioned. The new features integrated into the open and light-filled design addressed all the service responses identified in the Strategic Plan including a teen area, complete with a sound and video editing studio; a children’s storytelling room where small children sit around the reader perched in a crazy red chair beneath a towering skylight; and small and large, but richly equipped, meeting spaces capable of handling the most intimate reading club or a significant community event. So many more elements that defy the traditional idea of a library are so well incorporated into this energy efficient and sustainable structure.

As Bill Cochran, the library director for 22 years, said, “I couldn’t be more excited, I couldn’t be happier or more honored to be the person who gets to stand here and celebrate with you, the community’s decision to build the library.” I couldn’t agree more; it was a community decision, it was also a community vision and a community plan - and a very satisfying outcome for a community planner.


Candi Millar, AICP, has been with the City of Billings and Yellowstone County, Montana since November 2000 and the Director of Planning and Community Services Department since January 2006. She is the President-Elect of the Western Planning Resources Board.


Endnotes

  1. Nelson, Sandra, The New Planning for Results, A Streamlined Approach, 2001, American Library Association, Chicago and London.
  2. “City-Wide Survey to Determine Site Evaluation Criteria for a Downtown Public Library, Survey Report,” August 11, 2012, Library Consulting, P.A.

Published in the October/November 2014 Issue

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