Leadership change on tap at libraries

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ImagineIF Library Director Kim Crowley in her office with Connie Behe, who will soon be stepping into the directorship position. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Kim Crowley, the longtime library director who led the Flathead County Library System’s rebranding to ImagineIF Libraries four years ago, is retiring Aug. 3 and passing the baton to Assistant Library Director Connie Behe.

The transition will be seamless for library patrons. Behe has been on the library staff since 2009 and was the co-leader of the transition to ImagineIF, a move aimed at better reflecting the diversity of the library through innovative programming, community outreach and a visionary strategic plan.

“Kim has done a good job of getting us set up with the skills we need,” Behe said, adding that she’s been impressed with “how optimistic and passionate our whole team is.

“There’s no place I’d rather be,” Behe said.

Crowley, too, credits the staff with the success of the ImagineIF effort that earned the library the Library of the Year award from the Montana Library Association in 2015.

“I’m most proud of this staff,” Crowley said. “It’s an amazing group of people. These are my friends and family. They’re so talented and so creative. It’s an amazing place we’ve created and we’ve done it all together.”

Crowley has been the library director for nearly 15 years. “That’s a long time in a leadership position,” she added.

Long before Crowley got her master’s degree in library science, she ran the shore crew of a commercial fishery on Lake Michigan, where she learned a different set of skills.

“I’m really good with a knife,” she assures.

When it was “time for me to get a real job,” Crowley, at the suggestion of a friend, headed to graduate school to become a librarian. Crowley was the technology coordinator for the library in Fort Collins, Colorado, for 11 years and served as interim library director for a short time before relocating to the Flathead Valley.

There have been challenges along the way while leading the county library system. The Whitefish library’s decision to bow out of the county system several years ago was difficult, Crowley said.

“But in the end it worked out best for most parties,” she said. “Volunteers and staff in Whitefish wanted a traditional library,” while the other branch libraries were on track to embrace more interactive, exploratory library programming.

Funding has been an ongoing challenge, she said. While the national average for library funding is $45 per capita annually for libraries that serve the same population base as ImagineIF — about 100,000 people — ImagineIF makes do with $20 per capita, even less than most Montana peer libraries, which operate in the $25 to $26 per capita level of funding.

“However, we outperform statewide and nationally,” Crowley stressed.

There will be challenges, but big opportunities, too, as Behe steps into the director shoes. Bigfork is scheduled to get a new library within the next two years. The Kalispell library has long outgrown its quarters in the 1917 former federal building, owned by the Kalispell School District, at the corner of First Avenue and Third Street East.

Crowley said the library would like to purchase a piece of property along the railroad tracks that will become a pedestrian trail as the downtown Kalispell redevelopment plays out.

“There is a lot of support for it,” she said. “My hope is we can secure property within the next year.”

Behe relocated to the Flathead Valley after working as circulation manager at Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Vancouver, Washington. She grew up in the small coastal town of Manzanita, Oregon, and was enthralled with books from the get-go.

“I’ve always found refuge in reading and books, and ideas, and people,” she said.

Behe didn’t have access to a library as a small child, but once she discovered libraries as a resource, what resonated with her was the realization of how access to information can better people’s lives.

She and her husband Glen Holmes have two daughters, Rose, 6, and Hazel, 4, who are also big on books.

“We have books all over the house,” Behe said with a smile. “That’s the beauty of a shared resource” like library books.

The ImagineIF concept takes the libraries beyond books to offer experience-based programs to teach patrons new skills that have included everything from making home-cleaning products and chicken coops to simple hands-on construction projects.

Crowley pointed out that “this generation we’re raising will have different experiences” at the library than past generations.

Behe recalled the time the library staff and young patrons deep-froze Cheetos using dry ice as a science experiment.

“It’s a gateway” into learning about science, she said, adding that depending on the activity, people gravitate toward checking out the related library books.

“We want to tell the story that we’re a critical piece of education, that we’re part of a robust educational system,” Behe said.

In an effort to connect with others in the community, ImagineIF works with Flathead Valley Community College, Montana West Economic Development and Job Service Kalispell on events such as the Making Montana maker fair.

“I feel a sense of momentum and optimism,” Behe said.

Crowley said she’ll “be cheering on the sidelines” for the library staff as she heads into retirement. Beyond yoga and some traveling, there are no immediate plans, she said, except for spending the month of September in Michigan.

“I could be slinging fish,” she added.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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