Bozeman Public Library Director Alice Meister sometimes stands on the library's second-floor balcony and just watches people moving about in the maze of stacks below.

"I love being able to look down and just watch people bustle around and find what they're looking for," Meister said.

The balcony outside Meister's office is her favorite spot in the library.

When she was hired as library director 13 years ago, her job was to help get the massive building on at 626 E. Main St. erected. Over a decade, she oversaw a $14 million fundraising campaign, design and construction of the space. The library opened in November 2006.

And now Meister, 65, has announced she plans to retire in December.

Meister made the library a vital part of Bozeman that everyone in town is proud of, said Jane Basile, a reference librarian who has worked at the library for 28 years.

"It's going to be really hard to fill her shoes," Basile said. "When I think of Alice, I think of how much energy she has. She has infused that into the library and into the staff."

In her 37 years working in libraries, Meister has amassed a list of accolades.

In the mid 1990s, she built a school library in a poor, mostly black town in South Africa. And her work there has not been forgotten. Just this month, she got a thank-you note from a former student.

"It was really difficult to pursue my love of written word living in the Transkei, even with teachers for parents. The resources just weren't there," Aparna Jayachandran, who was in ninth grade when Meister set up the South African library, wrote in an e-mail to Meister. "There were no good bookshops and the public library was pitifully small. So the Vela school library, in its incarnation when you were running it, was nothing short of a miracle."

In 2004, Meister traveled to the White House to accept a national award given to the Bozeman library by former First Lady Laura Bush. Bozeman's library was one of three library systems in the U.S. that received the honor.

And this year, Meister was named 2010 Librarian of the Year by the Montana Library Association.

Meister manages the library's $1.6 million annual budget and oversees a staff of about 40 people.

Every day, more than 1,200 people come through the library's doors.

"I consider the library to be the most democratic institution we have," Meister said. "It's a great place to grow and learn and you really don't need anything to use it, except maybe a car to get here."

Bozeman City Commissioner Chris Mehl said Meister's "grace under pressure" was key to developing the city's new library. Mehl is former president of the Bozeman Public Library Foundation, a team Meister worked with to raise the money to build the new library.

"Rarely do you meet somebody that has the ability, integrity and charm as Alice," Mehl said. "I just never saw Alice lose her cool for a moment."

Before coming to Bozeman, Meister worked as a reference librarian at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, director of at the Summit County Public Library in Colorado and director of the Sheridan County Library System, where she was named Librarian of the Year in 1995.

Meister said she's retiring because "it's just time to have a life outside of work."

She said she plans to travel - hopefully taking a trip to New Zealand in March - serve on the Humanities Montana Board and, ironically, catch up on her reading.

A public reception for Meister will be held 3 p.m. Dec. 17 in the large community room at the library.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.