The beginning of a new year is often a time when people and organizations try to find ways to improve.
Despite being one of the largest and newest libraries in the region, the Billings Public Library isn’t immune to this process: During the recent annual retreat of the library board, members discussed ways in which the library could better serve its patrons in the new year and beyond.
“This is where we get to do a little dreaming,” Board Chairwoman Stella Fong said at the beginning of the meeting. “What kind of library does Billings need and want? What kind of library would you like to see?”
The meeting of the board kicked off a year-long strategic planning process in which the library will collect feedback from board members and patrons in order to decide how to best serve the community in the years to come. The process will end in December with the writing of a new strategic plan that will outline the library’s goals and objectives for fiscal years 2017-2020.
During the two-hour discussion, board members talked about a variety of changes they would like the library to make in the next few years. These included more senior outreach, collaboration with community programs such as Montana State University Billings’ Chicks in Science, a focus on literacy programs and more resources for homeschoolers.
One theme was repeated by nearly every member of the board: There needs to be a focus on developing community awareness of the library and its programs.
This assertion may seem strange when you consider that the library has more than 60,000 active cardholders. But board members emphasized that many potential patrons do not visit because of misinformation.
“I work with educated people and, whenever I bring up the library and its services, the only comment that I get is ‘I don’t have time to read, so why should I go there?’” Cheryle Fisher said. “The implication is that this is a housing for books only. We need to find a way to get beyond that perception somehow.”
But community awareness isn’t just necessary for those who have never visited the library before. Even regular library patrons need to be made more aware of all of the services the facility offers.
“The heart of the issue is publicity,” Bernard Rose said. “A lot of people don’t come to our events simply because they aren’t aware that they’re happening.”
Jennifer Quinn suggested that the best way to raise the awareness of adults is to reach out to their children.
“The way to get community awareness is to get kids in here and get them doing things,” Quinn said. “Once kids are interested in the library, they’re going to tell their parents. Adults can be kind of set in their ways and I don’t know if we can change their minds one way or the other. But we can mold the minds of the new up-and-coming generation and convince them that the library is a helpful and fun place to visit.”
Sue Bach suggested that another way to develop community awareness is to focus on developing “signature events” that would appeal to all ages.
“I think we could get the people who have never come to the library before to come if we had a big-name speaker that everybody recognized,” Bach said.
Friends of the Library President Corrina Graham Martin agreed with Bach, citing the positive response to the February 2014 visit by fantasy author Neil Gaiman as proof that an “author that is very encompassing to all age groups” could lure people to the library for the first time.
The board members also agreed that they’ll need to develop community awareness about the safety of the library. Many people still perceive the library as being unsafe because of all the transients and homeless people it attracts. Library Director Bill Cochran argued that this perception is completely false.
“I believe this is the safest building downtown,” Cochran said. “It’s safer than the police station. … As far as the people who come here, I don’t know who is or isn’t homeless, but I do know that everyone who comes here abides by our conduct code or is forced to leave. … Contrary to popular opinion, the library is an incredibly safe establishment.”
Of course, not all people avoid the library because of misconceptions. For some people, the function of the library has been replaced by the Internet and Google. After all, why would you go to the library to do research if you can access information on your own phone or computer?
“The thing I keep coming back to is that people can access so much information from where they are at home,” Quinn said. “Thus, the library needs to be a place where our patrons can get something they can’t experience anywhere else. We have to give people a reason to come here.”
While the majority of the board meeting focused on what the library should emphasize in the next few years, the latter section of the meeting focused on what it shouldn’t. Mainly, this involved two outdated plans for the creation of new library branches.
Nearly 10 years ago, the library was in the midst of a discussion with what is now known as MSU Billings’ City College campus. The two organizations planned to collaborate on a building project that would result in a West End branch of the city library on the campus’ soccer field.
However, the library eventually decided to focus on the expansion of the downtown building while MSU Billings moved onto other priorities as well. Currently, the college has a list of 10 priorities for future construction—and the West End library is no longer on the list.
Similarly, the library no longer has plans to use an old bookmobile as a permanent library campus in the Heights. Cochran asked the board to pass a motion that would remove both of these outdated expansion plans from the language of the library’s Capital Improvement Program. The motion passed unanimously.
“The old language made sense when it originated 10 or 12 years ago, but it no longer does,” Cochran said. “It has become uncoupled from reality. … Instead of looking at a predetermined, once-upon-a-time relationship with MSU Billings and a conceptual idea of a Heights branch, we should start over and look at where the library should have branches within the next 10 years.”
Thus, even though the board has moved past the decade-old expansion plans, this doesn’t mean that the creation of new library branches couldn’t happen sometime soon. In fact, Cochran asserted that new branches could play an important role in the library’s mission to provide books, information and other resources to the city of Billings.
“Just look in the private sector,” Cochran said. “Stores have branches. Banks have branches. People in the Heights don’t have to come downtown to deposit their money. Why should the library be any different? We need to do whatever we can to make sure that the people of Billings can access our services in a way that is most convenient for them.”