Missoula opens ‘transformational’ $38M library

Architect said concept in Montana is the future of libraries

By: - July 24, 2021 10:34 am

Roughly a decade ago, the Missoula Public Library Foundation’s Karl Olson made a passing remark to Honore Bray, the library director. At the time, it looked like the library’s plan to expand would not be possible in its existing building.

“It just might be worth asking a few other organizations if they want to share that (new) footprint and then make it convenient for the community to have this one-stop cultural experience and resources,” Olson said.

So Olson and Bray started walking from the downtown library to other organizations, and sharing their idea of collaboration. This month, the regional library celebrates its new $38 million building, and with it, an expansive vision for the ways libraries serve their communities.

Under its roof is the Families First Learning Lab, which has a mission to strengthen families through education, connection and play; the University of Montana Living Lab, an interactive research program; the spectrUM Discovery Area, a hands-on science center of UM; and MCAT, the Missoula Community Access Television. In other words, people don’t just share books there, they share ideas, materials, space, creativity, even sunlight and filtered air. They share a place that enlightens individuals and builds social cohesion.

Traci Engel Lesneski, head of architecture firm MSR Design, said people often ask her to describe the future of libraries; based in Minneapolis, MSR has designed libraries across the country, and it worked with A&E Design of Missoula on the Garden City building. Lesneski presented during the library’s grand opening, and she said she points to the library in downtown Missoula, just a block away from its old space, as what’s ahead.

Quick Facts

Cost: $38M (including $30M bond; $6.25M capital campaign; library reserves)

Square footage: 109,000*

Groundbreaking: 2018

Construction: Dick Anderson Construction

Architecture: MSR Design of Minneapolis; A&E Design of Missoula

A first: The Missoula Public Library was the first library to pull in National Institutes of Health support for programming.

A cool factoid: The man who designed the piano in the movie “Big” designed a DNA helix for children to climb on in the library. It will be installed this summer.

Source: The Missoula Public Library; (corrected bond amount); *The Missoulian

“Here is where your library is really transformational in a very leading way,” Lesneski said. “And I hope you all appreciate how special it is that the library has brought together these partners under one roof as a resource to the entire region and beyond. It is really a very special thing. It is not done often. I think it’s the future.”


A sense of western Montana infuses the design of the library, and the building was constructed to reflect an alpine climb. Ergonomic stone-shaped seats on the ground floor form the river bottom, and the pink geometry in the carpet one floor up hint at the bitterroot flowers in a meadow. The top floor opens to an outdoor patio with views of Mount Sentinel and the skyline.

The library paid top dollar for chairs that will last, but in exchange, it left some structural pillars unfinished, Olson said: “To keep costs down, you have to have a balance.” The building and big windows were angled and placed to keep the light bill low and help warm the space. Solar panels will be installed on the roof down the road. 

One key ingredient in setting the vision for the library was the Missoula team’s visit to Sweden, Olson said. The library is modeled after Scandinavian culture houses, and it offers a vinyl listening station, demonstration kitchen, free garden seeds, a way to check out laptops to use in any one of its many reading nooks (not just in one hot, smelly room), a sewing machine, a printer that can print topo maps on waterproof paper, conference rooms, a birding kit with binoculars, a cake pan in the form of Scooby Doo (and other shapes), and, of course, books.

“Everybody defines libraries differently, and everybody’s definition is right,” Lesneski said. “And it’s a big lift. It’s a big lift for libraries to be able to respond and offer everything people need to thrive.”

Brooklyn textile worker and image maker Aaron Cobbett is the artist in residence at the Missoula Public Library. (Provided by the Missoula Public Library.)

Art hangs on the walls by artists who worked in Montana, and the space currently hosts Open Air Artist Aaron Cobbett, a textile worker and image maker: “His body of photographic work blurs and questions boundaries of identity, presaging today’s discussions of race, gender and sexuality in the Queer Art Movement.”

Behind its soft, cool and open public face, the library also offers the latest book handling technology based on baggage handling equipment, Olson said. “We call it the book robot.” It scans books, sorts them and drops them onto the right cart, a key piece of equipment for a library of its size, Olson said.


The new library sits at 455 E. Main, just one block away from its old address, 301 E. Main, but that wasn’t always a given.

Olson said the library faced pressure to move out of downtown, where more space was available for parking, but library leaders were intentional about keeping the service in a central location. Downtown, people can use public transit, and density is high.

“Looking towards the future, density is actually good because we’re sharing resources rather than spreading them out,” Olson said.

Originally, the library planned to open in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic complicated construction and pushed the timeline in a “delayed and jumbled and arduous process.” In January, the library started offering curbside service, and Becky Mosbacher, a board trustee, has a hunch she was the first person to check out real books from the circulation library. 

On an early tour for members of the board, Mosbacher said she was shown where the holds would be, and sure enough, some of the books she’d requested were sitting there.

“I grabbed mine and said, ‘Can I get these checked out’?”

Library trustee Becky Mosbacher checked out the first books. (Provided by Mosbacher.)

In a photo where she’s wearing a hardhat, orange safety vest, and face mask, she holds “Mexican Gothic,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Three Things about Elsie,” by Joanna Cannon, and “Where reasons end,” by Yiyun Li. She said Yiyun Li’s book was “fabulous.”

“That was the first book that was actually circulated in person in the library,” Mosbacher said. 

In 2014, the Billings Public Library opened its new space supported in part by a $16 million voter-approved bond, and assistant library director Hannah Stewart-Freeman said Billings, too, is focused on not just books but reaching its entire community. The library offers a bookmobile, growing online resources, a tiny mobile library that’s a tricycle with a wooden structure to carry books, and it goes to the children’s hospital and Strawberry Festival. A book locker allows patrons who might be night workers to swipe their cards after hours to pick up their books.

“We really do provide not only materials and books but space, information, opportunity, encouragement,” Stewart-Freeman said.

Seven years ago, the Missoula library sent flowers for Billings’ grand opening, and this year, Billings reciprocated with a bouquet to the Garden City.

“We’re so proud and happy for Missoula for what they’re doing over there,” Stewart-Freeman said. “What they’re doing is important, and it will make a difference.”


MSR has built small libraries in rural places and large ones in metropolitan areas, and everywhere, Lesneski said people ask why the library even matters anymore. Don’t people just get answers on the internet now?

“My answer is always the same. It’s about community and social cohesion,” she said.

At a library, she said, everyone is welcome, no matter their age or walk of life. Lesneski said she references the World Happiness Report, with data from the Gallup World Poll and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and shows every year that citizens who are the most happy and fulfilled are the ones who have strong social connections.

That cohesion develops through repeated human interactions and joint participation in shared projects, she said. Those activities happen in a library, where people have their ideas challenged and can access resources and develop skills to lift each other up and grow.

“There are so many people that don’t have access to technologies that are ubiquitous now,” she said. “They don’t have the means or ability to access that, and that makes the divide bigger and bigger between who can play and who can’t.”

When she looks in her crystal ball, Lesneski said she believes the colocation concept is one that will explode. In Missoula, it’s already paying off for MCAT, Missoula’s community media resource.

MCAT is located inside the Missoula Public Library (Provided by the Missoula library.)

MCAT used to be housed in a dark and hidden corner of downtown in the old Missoulian building, and it’s now on the main floor of the library near the multimedia materials. Joel Baird, general manager, said MCAT used to recruit children to its camps by “banging a really loud drum,” but now, it’s also connecting with retired people walking through the library.

“Our foot traffic has gone up 500 percent,” even in an uncertain time, he said.

MCAT is using the library checkout system to check out its cameras and lights, and MCAT staff are checking out iPads, hotspots, even a telescope. “We can issue library cards too. We’ve learned the circulation system well enough to do that.”

During the grand opening, he said people flocked to the gaming area, and MCAT is going to help the library with it. After the pandemic relents, the gaming area will be fully open, he said, and MCAT will check out controllers, even foot activated technology for people who can’t use their hands.

Every week, the four new partners meet to talk about how to better serve the public, and how to develop programs and create exhibits around themes, such as space travel, Baird said: “We should be unleashing some of that brilliance in the fall. We’ll see what form it’s going to take.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.