Parmly Billings Library - A Review

On Monday I attended the opening of the brand-new $22 Million Parmly Billings Library. Since I am now a happy homeowner and therefore partially paying for this facility, I thought I should take the time to go check it out.

You can click here to see some photos.

I will admit at the outset that my threshold for being impressed is set very high. There are a number of obstacles inherent to the idea of a downtown library becoming a destination spot for me. Top of that list is the fact that it is, well, downtown. I loathe driving around looking for parking. I hate paying for parking. But that's what "downtown" means in Billings, Montana. There are ultimate plans for tearing down the old library and replacing it with a parking garage, and that is something very much needed. 

Indeed, I had to drive around looking for parking. There is a small lot just across the street that says, "Library Parking." Upon pulling in, the signs at each space say, "Permit Required Over Two Hours." That's grammatically ambiguous. I took that to mean that you only need a permit if you stay over two hours. Then another sign says, "Prepayment Required." Hmm. Okay. Now I have no idea whether I can park here or not. I cannot see a kiosk anyway to pay to get a permit, and the wind chill happens to be -18 degrees, so I don't feel like unnecessarily walking around. I end up finding a metered space on an adjacent street. 50 cents per hour.

Upon entering the library, I am actually a bit surprised at how "cold" the interior decor is, magnified by the fact that I just stepped in from -18. Hard surfaces everywhere, very little soft. The stairs are exposed concrete. A small coffee bar (privately run) is located to the right as you enter the 6th Avenue entrance (the only entrance open, at this point). Seating is limited but the furniture doesn't have the look of comfort anyway.

This is a modern building: lots of sleek metal and glass and very high ceilings. Think Apple aluminum and glass, spotted with seating areas of brightly colored sleek chairs. Inviting enough. It reminds me very much of the Student Union building at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland - a contemporary European style. When it comes to libraries, I confess to liking the old European style much better.

The second floor particularly invites. The vast windows to the east serve to highlight the Big Sky in all its glory. Superb idea, as was the idea of putting a lovely seating area in the northeast corner. I was drawn to it. The windows to the north are also huge, but for some architectural reason they chose to put "scrim," a sort of see-through metallic shield in front of those windows. I cannot fathom why. It is not as though north-facing windows in Montana get an excess of sunlight. All it does is obscure a clear view of the rims and the airport.

Did I mention the new library is huge? Well, it is. 65,000 square feet, I believe. The shelves of actual books are probably only 40-50% full. It looks empty. Lots of room for expansion. I don't know what the budget is for new books and collections, but without it being significant they'll have trouble filling the shelves.

If I could get over the hassle of parking, I could certainly see myself working in this environment. So I decided to give it a shot. Settling down into a chair in the northeast corner, the one with the spectacular view, I fired up my computer to dispose of a number of quick emails. Except that the Wi-Fi doesn't work. It says it works, mind you, but it doesn't work. There is no "Terms and Conditions" page, no sign-in page, nothing. But not a single webpage is accessible and no email can be downloaded. Maybe it's just a problem with my laptop WiFi settings, right? So I try two more devices, my iPhone and my iPad. Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

Well, there goes my productivity, there goes my patience, and there goes my use for the library.

I remember thinking as I walked through the cavernous space that it reminded me of a sleek airport terminal. Now it doubly reminds me. Is there anything worse than airport Wi-Fi?

Sorry. I don't have the time to hassle with Internet problems. I'm not going to go to the desk so somebody can call somebody who can call somebody. A couple of years ago I stopped frequenting a wonderful coffee shop location because for some reason there was always Wi-Fi problems, and I'm afraid the Parmly Billings Library blew it with me on the very first impression.

I am not saying I will never go back, but it seems unlikely. I can't really imagine calling down there to ask if the Wi-Fi is working before bothering with the parking. And that's really what it would take. 

On the other hand, if you're looking for a traditional, check-out-some-books library, the new Parmly is a vast improvement over the old.

Brian Mattson