Together for the Community: An Interview with Missoula Public Library Director Slaven Lee

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on October 17, 2022, in Latvian. I interviewed Slaven Lee as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

On the lovely summer day of July 26, when a large part of Latvia kept its fingers crossed for the finalist Ogre Central Library, the award as the world’s best newly built public library was won by the Missoula Library in Montana, USA. And well deserved. It is the first laureate from North America in the history of the competition organized by the International Federation of Library Associations IFLA and the Danish IT company Systemic. Along with the new home, its new director Slavena Lee soon started working in the library.

Missoula is a city in western Montana. It is nestled in a valley of five mountain ranges, with the Clark Fork River flowing through it. Moose, grizzly bears, black bears, and bald eagles can be found in the wild. The rocky and forested natural landscape has been the main source of inspiration for the library’s architecture. Minneapolis-based MSR Design and Montana’s A&E Design designed the building using wood elements for the stairs, walls, and furniture, while the purple color of the interior on the second floor of the building is a tribute to Montana’s national flower, the bitterroot. The main central staircase between floors resembles climbing a mountain. The library building has four floors. On the top floor, visitors can enjoy a great view of the nearby mountains from the library’s roof terrace.

River, like mountains, is also present in the design of the library. Besides, the word “Missoula” is said to come from the language of the Salish tribe of the North American Indians and translates as “place of frozen water” – that’s what the Native Americans called the Clark Fork River. But long ago, 13,000 years ago, the valley surrounded by mountains was once completely underwater – the current city was the bed of the Missoula glacial lake in prehistoric times. Traces left by ancient waves can still be felt in the flat folds of the mountains.

The theme of water in the library is implemented in the Water Room, which was created for the youngest visitors and combines play with science. The water room features a model of the Clark Fork River. In an interactive way, children can get to know the map of the river, and the ecosystem, as well as connect knowledge with their experience, of living on the bank of this river every day. The library also has an artist-in-residence, a community media center where anyone can use professional equipment and record podcasts, shoot videos, and more, a University of Missoula research lab, and even a spacious kitchen.

“Together” is a keyword for the Missoula Public Library. Not only the structure of the building is made up of elements inspired by the surrounding nature, put together, but also the library itself implements a visionary idea: to gather various organizations under the “hat” of a public library. Everyone comes with their own financial and idea contribution, and programs are developed both individually and together. Thus, the public library turns into an educational and cultural center, a creative hive. The space is designed to be as open and flexible as possible, without drawing strict boundaries. For example, the Demonstration Kitchen can serve both directly as a kitchen where the community can learn culinary skills under the guidance of a chef, and as a conference hall.

The Missoula Library’s new building opened in the summer of 2021. The road to that was five years long and difficult, taking into account financial challenges, pandemic restrictions, and other obstacles. This year, the longtime director of the library, Honore Bay, retired after 17 years in the position. The new building was her ambitious endeavor before leaving. She was on the stage at the IFLA award presentation in Dublin receiving the award for the best public library in the world. Slaven Lee has taken over the reins of the new Missoula library since spring. “Honore is a visionary leader and it is my hope to be the best steward possible of her achievements,” the new director will say in our interview.

Missoula Public Library Director Slavena Lee. Photo from the library’s publicity materials

Slaven Lee previously worked at the Austin Public Library in Texas, the King County Library System in Washington, D.C., and the Queens Public Library in New York City. She is referred to as an outstanding leader who values an inclusive society and community values and history. is grateful that Slaven Lee found time in her busy work schedule to answer our questions and introduce the new Missoula library, as well as her thoughts on the future of libraries.

What is a 21st-century library?

A 21-century library is a collaborative learning space for the community to come together to enjoy enriching activities, inspiring spaces, and interesting collections.

What vision do you have for the Missoula Public Library? What are your main goals?

The All Under One Roof model that works so well in serving our community could be an amazing template for community engagement and outreach beyond the building. My main goals are developing strategic priorities to guide our work, reaching the community where they are, and expanding on the meaningful work we are already doing.

The previous director Honore Bray worked for 17 years. The new building was one of her big final achievements. How is it to continue in her steps?

Honore is a visionary leader and it is my hope to be the best steward possible of her achievements.

Missoula Public Library is an example of a library as a creative hub. There are Missoula’s Community Media Resource, Families First Learning Lab, science education spectrUM, and UM Living Lab under one roof. Tell me more, how does it work in practice? Do you plan the program together or work independently? Do you inspire each other?

We do inspire each other! The various partners meet to discuss collaborative programming a few times a month. Each partner does their own programming, also, but we try to regularly work together to create exciting experiences for our community. We recently launched our Second Saturday Passport Program. Participants can pick up a notebook designed to look like an actual passport and they receive a stamp or sticker for each partner activity they visit.

Tell me more about the amazing Water room!

Kids love this exhibit so much! The space is staffed by a Child Enrichment Ambassador who works for Families First Learning Lab (other partners contribute to the salary). The CEA leads activities, shares interesting information about the science of the exhibit, and maintains a safe environment. Here is more information about the concept.

Do you have your own favorite place in the Missoula Public Library?

Yes, many! I really love the Demonstration Kitchen, even just for sitting and reading or working. It’s a beautiful space surrounded by cookbooks and is well-designed. I also love the stairs which are meant to replicate a mountain climb similar to what one would experience hiking in the Bitterroot Valley. It’s an excellent way to move through the library and observe patrons enjoying the spaces.

Does a library director have time to read books? What is the last book that you really loved?

Of course! I am a big proponent of continuous improvement so I like to read leadership books. I’m currently enjoying Inclusion on Purpose by Ruchika Tulshyan. I have also been focusing on reading Montana authors and have particularly enjoyed Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling. It takes place on the Flathead Reservation and examines the cruelty of Native boarding schools and the main character’s quest to live independently. It is considered a classic and has recently been republished.

What would you want the libraries to be like after 100 years?

The new Missoula Public Library building was designed with long-term sustainability in mind. I think that it is a good template for what libraries will look like well into the future and I hope we will grow and bring in more partners with similar satellite locations throughout the community.

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Daina Jurķe. Find her work on Instagram @daina.jurke

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia

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