The Boise Public Library and how it became the “Library!”

Howard Olivier

When Megan and I moved to Boise, in January of 1984, one of my delights was to discover that the Boise Public Library
was such a terrific part of life here.  The staff was sharp and eager to help.  I delighted in sharing with folks that there were amazing deals like that you could put a book on hold, and they would mail it to you for a dollar!

Over the first ten years of living in Boise I grew to love the BPL, and especially their reference desk, which you could call with any question.  One of the most amazing things for me was how excited the librarians were to find some tidbit I was interested in, such as who said a particular quote (this was before the internet made such things simple!).

As part of my work at Flying Pie Pizzaria, I steadily donated pizzas and prizes to be given away.  When working with the Library, Anne Abrams was the person I interacted the most with, as collecting prizes and such was part of her duties.  Anne always found ways to make sure that it was a good deal for both sides of donations, and it was easy to say yes to her, often.  Over time, our donations and dedication grew.

One day in October of 1994, I was driving down 9th St. to the library, and while waiting for the light to change, I saw a brand new illuminated sign on the building, reading: LIBRARY. In the first second of taking it in, my thought was, “No – it’s a better library than that.”  By the time the light had turned green, I knew what I wanted to propose.

I went inside, found Anne, and told her that I thought it was a much better library than the sign might lead someone
to expect.  When I suggested that we could improve it with an exclamation point, Anne playfully agreed with me.  I told her that I was sure that Flying Pie would be happy to pay for the exclamation points. Anne agreed to look into the Library’s side of it.

Behind the scenes, Anne pitched the idea to the library director. The director listened and considered the idea, but with less enthusiasm than Anne expected. After all, did any other library in the nation have an exclamation point? (No, they did not.) So, Anne did what she does best: helped the administration see how the simple addition of a 5 foot tall, neon exclamation point would proclaim to the world what lively possibilities the Boise Public Library has to offer. Within a few
days Anne told me yes, the gift was welcome.

I called the sign company that had produced the signage, and told them that I’d like to buy two exclamation points
to add to the neon LIBRARY signs on the front and back of the building. “Explanation (sic) points… what would you want to do that for?” was the response.  The man went on to tell me that the order was too small for them to do, and that he wouldn’t help me with it.  I mentioned that I thought there would be some press coverage of the changeover, but his negative resolve was unswayed.  I asked if we could have a copy of the blueprints, so that we could at least match the font.  He happily agreed to that, obviously glad to be done dealing with me.

Next I called the sign company we used at Flying Pie Pizzaria, and asked if they would make the requested signs. Our salesperson laughed and said, “We’d be happy to”, and said they would be ready in a couple of weeks.

When the sign company went to install the five foot tall punctuation marks, we requested that they cover the entire
sign with “wrapping paper” and a bow, so that we could unveil it with some élan.  And so it came to be that on January 21st, 1995, all three local TV stations featured the unveiling.  The story got some national coverage too, even on CNN!  The esteemed American Public Libraries (a national journal for librarians) ran a photo of the exclamation point installation.

I joked that if the people who knew me growing up heard that I was adding punctuation to public signs, they might
well assume that it was graffiti.

Within a year, I applied for an spot on the Board of Trustees for the Boise Public Library, and I was accepted. For 5 years I deeply enjoyed helping protect the library I love.

During this time, the city started referring to the library! with an exclamation point, even in mid-sentence.  People would write their checks to the “Library!”. In short, the idea was been embraced by thousands.

In 1999/2000 the BPL Board of Trustees hired Dick Waters, a world renowned library designer to explore options for expanding the library presence in Boise.  Dick Waters is a delightful person to listen to, learn from and watch as he develops consensus among sometimes disparate groups of people.  On only one subject did I see him get a little bit stuck, and it had to do with the exclamation points!

Some of the people were SURE that a new downtown library would not have any such signage, and other folks saw it as a vital part of who we are. “There are strong feelings on both sides of that,” Dick said, and he didn’t have any guesses as to who would eventually prevail. The unique nature of this puzzle had no precedent in his many years of studying and shaping library culture.  It was with a wistful smile that he ended the discussion for the time being.

Around 2000, I was commenting that I had the easy part (suggesting and commissioning the signs), while someone from
the library had to get the city to okay it.  The other person told me that the Board of Trustees hadn’t even asked the city for permission, they had simply said, “Yes”.

Fast forward to 2006 when the Library fully embraced the exclamation point as part of its “brand” and added it to 5 fanciful versions of library checkout cards, bookmarks and even some tote bags.  Then it went to a whole other level in designing the branch libraries, where many of the architectural features restate the theme.

There have been many wonderful stories that have come to me, about how much the LIBRARY! sign means to folks.

Once, at a social gathering, a woman who learned that I was the one who “thought it up”, thanked me tearfully and
said, “I bring everyone who comes to visit me in Boise over to show them the sign, and I say, ‘That is Boise.’”

Several folks heard a visiting marketing speaker from Gateway Computers describe it as a piece of “marketing genius”
(aw shucks…).  After his speech, they went up to him and told him they knew who did it, and he wrote me a delightful note of appreciation.

A visiting Log Cabin writer told a sold out Egyptian Theatre audience a story about a library experience from her childhood in India and included, “I have never seen ‘library’ completed with an exclamation point before.”

On an NPR discussion about special places in different cities, one gentleman from Boise called in about our LIBRARY!

One of the coolest connections was with an employee of the library who had been championing signs that said “Library”
for many years, and had finally gotten his wish. He came up to me and said “Thank you” in such a powerful way it gave me chills.  It was clear that the enhancement mattered deeply to him.

The Boise Tour Train includes the story as part of their spiel, as do many taxi drivers on their way into town with folks from the airport.

Many of the library staff have been asked about it when they travel for national conferences.

An Oregon library contacted the BPL to ask if they could copy it, and Marilyn Poertner, Library Director told them that we don’t have a TM on any punctuation!!

Even now, the Library gets a steady stream of postcards and correspondence about this unique feature.

It truly is an amazing library, and if that hadn’t been the case, I never would have suggested adding the exclamation
marks. The real credit goes to the staff, and the previous Library Boards and Directors, who set and maintained a culture of energetic excellence long before I came along.