Honor the legacy of Kalispell’s library tradition

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In 1897 local residents organized the Kalispell Public Library, which a few years later was reorganized as the Free Library. Then, in 1900, Kalispell banker J. Harrington Edwards approached New York philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to discuss funding for the construction of a new library building. Carnegie agreed to donate $10,000 for the construction of a library in Kalispell, and in 1904 it opened with much fanfare as residents flocked to the library that boasted a collection of 4,500 volumes.

When the Carnegie library came on the scene in the early 20th century it revolutionized the traditional structure and organization of libraries and the community free library became a center for education and community activity everywhere one was built.

Carnegie helped fund the construction of 1,679 libraries across America. This particular incarnation of his philanthropy was based in his own humble beginnings as a messenger for a telegraph company where he was introduced to Col. James Anderson of Allegheny, who opened his personal library to the young workers every Saturday. Carnegie determined that if ever he should become wealthy, that he would make similar opportunities available to poor workers just as Col. Anderson had done.

Carnegie became successful and wealthy. When he sold the Carnegie Steel Company in 1902 his personal share of the sale was about $250 million. He retired and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, making good on his boyhood promise to create opportunities for the poor to be educated. One way he did that was through the creation of the Carnegie libraries.

Carnegie believed that a library was the best investment in a community because it gave people an opportunity to improve themselves.

Our library system has truly carried on in the spirit of Andrew Carnegie and his gift to our community. With the increase in holdings through the years and the consolidation with the county library system in 1969, the library outgrew the facility (which now houses the Hockaday Museum of Art) and moved to a larger structure. The library boasts a tremendous collection of books, magazines, newspapers, audio and video recordings.

The library system recently went through a rebranding to become the Imagine If Libraries. There has been some consternation in the community voiced in the newspaper about this change.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the model Carnegie used in propagating libraries across the country was a 20th century model better suited to meeting the needs of workers during the Industrial Revolution. Since our local library was established, our society has changed dramatically and the pace of change is quickening. The needs of our community in 2014 are not anything like the needs of our community in 1904.

Books that once were only affordable to the wealthy now are available to the masses because of decreased printing costs and the advent of the e-reader and other technological devices that make reading affordable and convenient. You can borrow a book from our library without ever setting foot in the building because of this technology.

So as the library considers how to remain relevant in this new age, it must embrace a new model for the 21st century that meets the needs of our community for a gathering place, a source for free education, a connection to the technical world, a place to seek jobs and gain new skills, and an opportunity to engage youth and connect them to books and learning in a way that relates to them and can help put them on a path to success.

We’ve learned much since our library was established, especially about child development. Kids learn best through experiential learning. If we wish to support their development and help them attain the education that is key to their individual success as well as that of our community, we must engage them in a way that resonates with them.

So, sometimes, if you visit the library it might be a little loud on the main floor in the children’s area. You might see kids playing, making a craft, singing songs and reading out loud. If that happens to you, take note, those are our kids — they are acquiring new abilities, improving their motor skills, and developing a love of reading. That “noise” is the sound of learning and positive youth development.

We have three young children and already have seen how the new model is benefitting our family as we visit on a weekly basis for story time, check out dozens of books, learn to categorize in the market and take advantage of special opportunities like the recently offered wet-felting class. But the library staff are working tirelessly not just to help set our youth on a path to success, but also to provide opportunities for people of all ages through skill-building sessions, e-reader classes and even by providing space for local artists to exhibit their work and for the community to see that art.

Let’s honor Carnegie’s gift, which has been wisely stewarded by our community, and take advantage of more than a century of research and advancement of the human race and put it to work on behalf of our community. It seems to us that is what the library leadership is striving to do and rather than tearing them down, let’s give them our support. Let’s take advantage of all the library has to offer. We might just learn something new and perhaps have a little fun at the same time.

Lastly, because of how the library benefits our family, we plan to support the library by participating in the Loud at the Library fundraiser on March 20. We encourage you to show your support for the library by buying a ticket, too. We hope to see you there!

The Sievers family are residents of Kalispell.

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