Friday, August 29, 2014


The front entrance overhang makes a bit of shelter.

“Valier Library” is a bit of a misnomer since Valier exists as a hub to the much larger service area of people stretching out for tens of miles in every direction, even across county and reservation lines, into the lives of more people than use the banks, the churches, the schools, or maybe even the irrigation system that is the lifeblood of this little ag town.  Last night I attended a meeting of the Valier Library Board to consider an addition to the pre-existing library, a graceful but now bulging architect-designed building on the highway.

The members of the board present were Mary Brooke, Liz Makarowski, Ray Bukoveckas (Chair), Nancy VandenBos and Steve Kincaid, representing a cross-section from ranching; grain industry; part-time Glacier Park employee; a recently retired manager; and the son of Cecille Kincaid, who was the librarian here from 1970 to 1987.  These are sober, attractive, conservative but progressive people -- good listeners and planners as well as readers.  They appreciate and support Cathy Brandvold, who came to the East Slope four decades ago after growing up in Moorhead.  She is far from being any kind of hick or ignoramus.

In summer the entry becomes a patio.

A good library these days is always in a state of trade-offs and flexibilities, so the plan for the library must be the same.  One push-pull is between adults and children, which in part means balancing books against computers, but then again there needs to be a counterweight to the reflexive and addictive computer games.  Kathy says she acts more like a mom than a traditional shushing librarian, so part of her work is enticing the kids off to activities that require reading in disguise (art projects, mostly).  That can lead back to the computers from a different angle: to find things out, to look for ideas, to explore examples.  She keeps the lid on excess noise and doesn’t tolerate bullying or vulgarity.  

Most of the adults used to old-style quiet might appreciate a little more of it.  During the school year the quiet times expand and even moms have more time to read.  But the truth is that in today’s world most adults have so many obligations that they don’t have time to attend classes or even book clubs.  Writers are so commercially driven that they demand impossible fees, but even local writers or experts don’t draw more than a few friends.  Still, there are comfortable places to sit and read.  A few people are either a bit isolated or in cramped housing situations and appreciate the friendly atmosphere.  The library is also a good place to park a family member while business elsewhere is conducted.  The Hutterites come to borrow Christian books a box at a time, connecting themselves to the larger community.

But adults can also be problematic.  We have our funky freaks the same as any library anywhere.  Drunks or junkies are not welcome and know it, but there are always a small number of people whose wheels are not quite turning.  And then there are those who think that if they do illicit explorations on a computer, no one will know, which is why the computers are situated so the librarian can see the screens.  Anyway, this librarian doesn’t stay behind her counter.  For one thing, she never begrudges getting up to help people who are baffled or new to technology.  This is no elitist salon for the privileged and entitled.

Bill Grant, the architect presented with the challenge of responding to all this, already knew that he was making an addition to another person’s work -- sort of like marrying someone with a pre-existing family.  I knew Bill’s work from his very successful addition to the Valier Catholic Church but also from his work for the Piegan Institute, truly inspired buildings for their Immersion Schools that combine usefulness with beauty.  They are the product of careful listening and even active participation in that community, so that he really understood the flow of activities, the rhythm of the day, the adaptation of spaces to events.

Piegan Institute's Cuts Wood Blackfeet Immersion School in Browning

Bill is married to Anne DesRosier, a member of a highly gifted early Browning family that has stayed pretty much on the reservation and has not held itself aloof but always been part of the life there.  Anne is completing a master’s degree in environment and history in Missoula. Mary DesRosier, MD, her sister, serves Heart Butte but sometimes lives in Valier.  The DesRosiers came about the same time as the Scrivers and the DeVoe Swanks, who started with a gas station in Browning and generations later have become a regional construction empire.  At first glance Bill seems like an immigrant from back east, but part of his reason for coming here was local, just over the Canadian border.

These are among his ancestors:  “Charles Alexander Magrath conducted foundation surveys of the Northwest Territories from 1878 until 1885. He joined Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt and Elliott Torrance Galt in their western industrial enterprises as a surveyor, later becoming Elliott's assistant and Land Commissioner of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company.  He was also the first mayor of Lethbridge, Alberta, which has a major street Mayor Magrath Drive named after him.”   “Magrath has been called "The Father of Irrigation in Southern Alberta. (Magrath and Galt compare to the Conrads or Paris Gibson on this side of the border.)  
Engineering is one thing: practical considerations of materials and design that consider cost, durability, maintenance and so on.  Architecture responds to that, but is also a work of inspiration, aesthetics, and the human elements.  The clearest element of this is Grant’s inclusion of scissor-beams to keep the addition from just being a box, but rather relating to the existing cathedral ceiling and central fireplace.  The more the architect is included, motivated, and insightful, the better the results.

Snowfalls can come in any month of the year.
One early thought was the need for more shelving.  Then there was a concern about an ADA computer station and an ADA restroom -- even an ADA entry!  Not a lot of people arrive in wheelchairs, but we are an aging population.  Again, people wished for a meeting room or a place to be separated from hub-bub.  A key consideration was relocating the service desk/office so that the librarian could constantly scan the whole space.  There are laptops that can be taken to quiet corners.  All the furniture is constantly moving.  Crafts and food projects need collapsible tables.  Daylight, heat, and cold are key considerations.  What seemed at first to be practical, like a concrete floor that was mess-tolerant, later was realized to be impractical on Valier soil, which constantly moves, expanding and contracting so that it cracks all slabs enough for ants to find their way in.  Bill’s many years of local experience with materials and work crews makes him a major resource, quite aside from design.

Eave mobiles made from beads and forks.

The key aspect is still the library’s function as a hub.  Cathy told me that the kids have become so attached to the place that twice now children have made their way to it as a place of safety.  One was a child accidentally locked out who came for help, and another was a child who misunderstood the family agenda and got left behind.  It was after hours but under the overhang of the front door he waited patiently on the bench until his folks spotted him from the highway.  Everyone understands that a bank is a regional service.  Not all of us grasp that a library is a kind of bank that stores a wealth of knowledge, ideas, inspiration, and relationships almost like family, including the famous characters in books.

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